This weekend marks the official beginning of summer, and it has been a beauty. Being outside reminds me of all sorts of June moments. Winning the school’s field day softball toss year after year while I was still enamored with baseball. Rolling down all my car windows, turning up the radio, and driving from one graduation party to the next with a sense of freedom and accomplishment I hadn’t known before. Pulling onto the camp road with a bus full of girls who all broke into song as we passed the stone wall and fir trees leading up to the entrance of our summer home.
Overnight camp turned out to be a truly special place, even though it didn’t start that way. This was the same Maine oasis my mother had attended for 5 teenage summers. It was the only site we had considered, and she happily shared with me camp songs and pictures from bizarre traditions that would need another whole post to explain. I flew up to Portland that summer as an anxious 10 year old, going away for the first time but thrilled by the opportunities awaiting me. I knew a number of girls from the Philadelphia area who were also campers, and they spent time on the flight and bus reassuring me. They shared their own takes on the more current traditions and let me know I could always go to them if needed. Little did I know how much I would.
I was assigned a bunk with a number of girls who were very close from the summer before and one other new camper. We spent the first day unpacking our duffel bags, and I became a quick study at actually keeping my bed made and personal space tidy. While I was terrible at these tasks at home, daily checks by staff and eight roommates forced my hand. It turned out I could be pretty neat when I worked at it. One less thing, I suppose, for this pack to target.
As the summer moved ahead, we found our way through sports and art and perfecting hiding places for forbidden snacks. We rehearsed the play we’d be putting on for the whole camp and learned to rig small sailboats (my favorite!). We were assigned to teams for our all-camp color war which would run for the whole summer. We even got to enjoy daily cookie line (cookies, milk and orange slices were quite a treat) and occasional candy canteens. I was truly happy with everything placed before me, as long as I didn’t have to be anywhere near my bunkmates.
If you’ve paid any attention to how girls and women interact, you’ll know that cruelty is an integral part of establishing who will be the queen bee and who gets to flutter around her hive. There are those who demand obedience, those who give up every iota of themselves to prove it, and those who instead choose the more lonely route of lower social strata or solitude. Early in the summer, these girls who slept only about ten feet from me decided that they would force me to choose following the group or being forced from it. They called me an oompa loompa (because I’m short and prone to sunburn?), mocked that I was among the first to get my period, and tried to smother me with a pillow when I fell asleep early one night. Seriously. I occasionally snored and was startled awake one evening to find them huddled around my bed about to put a pillow over my face. Aren’t girls great?!
Some of you are probably a little stunned at this point in the tale. This sounds like a miserable experience, and in truth, the parts of my first summer at camp that involved the girls of 7B were miserable. I wrote home every chance I could about it. I tried to talk to my bunk counselor and our age group supervisor to no avail. And yet, I went back the next summer, and for three more after that.
As I mentioned above, I loved camp. My interests in general include a little bit of everything, so learning lacrosse and hitting home runs fueled my competitive side. Making enamel and silver jewelry and performing in a play sated my need to create. And getting to feel the wind in my hair and sun on my face, whether in a boat on the lake or sitting in the giant Adirondak chairs under incredibly old trees made me feel one with nature. Not to mention, those Philly girls, who I was actually growing apart from at home, made me feel welcome. They opened the doors to their own bunks when I was upset and they introduced me to their friends when I felt like I had none. I even met a couple of my own best friends just by having the best time for myself. One in particular will be getting married later this summer and I hope to be able to make it up to New England to celebrate her. 95% of my summer as a ten year old was pretty amazing.
When I told my parents I wanted to go back and give the camp another try, they seemed to be both shocked and proud. They were upset at how I’d been treated and they were furious that the camp had done nothing to stop the behaviors. They knew how hard it was to say goodbye to each other on Visiting Day, knowing that I was so uncomfortable every night that I had to return to these girls. And yet, they did what good parents do and let me enjoy the rest of the experience. They didn’t pull me out because I was unhappy or find me a new camp for the future. They let me figure it out on my own, all the while encouraging me to keep my head up as best I could. I learned how to make my own way, how to pursue what I love, and how to ignore the distractions. And wouldn’t you know, almost none of the girls who had tortured me returned for the next summer.
Yesterday when I took the dogs for a walk, a song we often sang at camp popped into my head. The sun was shining, I was enjoying a little bit of exercise with my favorite girls, and the words felt comforting. Summer is here and there’s so much more to enjoy.