When a good friend asks you to write a letter to her 12-year-old daughter who's away at overnight camp for the first time, you do it. Although, if you're me, maybe you shouldn't have:
Summer camp! What's not to love?
Everything, if you'd have asked me when I was 11-going-on-12-going-on-malcontent-diva.
I'd never gone to camp, and I didn't want to go to camp. Especially not to a place called, with an enticement quotient of zero, Camp Louise.
I had just finished sixth grade when I was exiled to sleep-away camp. I’d never gone to camp, and I didn’t want to go to camp. Especially not to a place called, with an enticement quotient of zero, Camp Louise.
Does Camp Louise sound like the sort of paradise to which you can’t wait to escape? No. It sounds like a punch line.
The name wasn't the worst of it. Days before camp started, I’d moved. I had to leave behind everything and everyone and become the new kid in a new state where the accents were wrong and the houses were ugly and the neighbors ate Scrapple.
(You might not know about Scrapple. It's congealed mush — in a loaf! — of pig heads, hearts and livers. May you live long and prosper and never face a plate of it.)
From Scrapple, straight to Camp Louise. I have no idea why my parents signed me up. This may be hard to imagine now, what with how parents explain to their 2-year-olds their choice of mac-n-cheese brand, but back in the day, kids mostly didn't have a clue why their moms and dads did any of the things their moms and dads did. Who knows how my parents settled on Camp Louise? Throwing a poison dart at a map?
The echoes of my pre-teen hissy fit are probably still reverberating.
The first thing I realized at camp: All the girls knew each other. They’d been coming to this camp for years and were itching to reunite, to discuss the boyfriends that everybody pretends to have when they are away from hometown friends who know the truth. I was not up to inventing a boyfriend for myself; I was barely up to inventing myself in front of this fresh batch of strangers.
So, from the start, I was on the outside. You may think I just needed to get busy. But this was the dawning of the age of permissiveness. At Camp Louise, there was almost nothing I was required to do. Arts and crafts? Sure, if you felt like it. Tennis? Go ahead, if you felt like it. Rowing? Drama? Hiking? Well, do you feel like it?
I guess you could say I didn’t feel like it.
Here is what I did at camp: I sat on the porch of my cabin and read “Gone With The Wind.”
If it had been mandatory for me to do something, anything, it might have changed my life. I might have discovered that I had a passion and a talent for macramé, or bird-watching or team tetherball, and nothing would have ever been the same.
That didn't happen.
I read an appalling novel and swatted away flies.
One organized activity, though, did grab my attention. My first day at camp, the girls squealed about horseback riding. It occurred to me that when seventh grade began, and I was surrounded by people I'd never met who had the power to make my life hell, I might seem cool if I could toss off, nonchalantly, that I’d spent my summer on horseback. Horseback riding seemed like the recreational choice of people born to be popular. So I asked my counselor when we'd start our horseback riding sessions. She was puzzled. “You? You don’t.”
To my blank stare, she clarified, “Your parents didn’t sign you up. They had to do that in advance. It’s extra.”
She went on: “It’s a lot of money, actually. A lot. Of money.”
To my surprise, we bonded over cartwheel contests in the sunshine and ghost stories after dark, and it turned out that I liked these girls. And that taught me something I still believe: assume the best.
Right. A new reason to hate my parents for ruining my life. It’s awkward, though, fuming about the very people for whom you are homesick.
On the plus side, my bunkmates — when they weren't off on horses and such — were a hoot. I arrived an outsider, but they considered me a welcome change of pace. To my surprise, we bonded over cartwheel contests in the sunshine and ghost stories after dark, and it turned out that I liked these girls. And that taught me something I still believe: assume the best. Give folks half a chance, and they’ll usually make it worth your while.
And so, at the end of July, when my parents came to pick me up, and every other girl in my cabin was staying on for the next two weeks, do you know what, in utter sincerity, I begged my mom and dad? “Please, please, please can I stay? Can I stay for the next session at Camp Louise with my friends?”
My parents smiled, proud that they’d made such a great choice of camp for their impossible daughter, and said no. And I half-smiled and half-cried and waved goodbye to a bunch of kids I would never see again, but who helped me learn a lot about getting over my sorry self.
Clutching "Gone With The Wind," I felt tomorrow beckon as another day...and off we drove, into the rest of my life.
So, sweetie, how’s camp? Whatcha’ reading?