Ask one of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who spent a portion of their lives in summer camp what their they remember the most and you’ll get a show of fond stories about people who learned about their self worth - all while fashioning keychains out of twigs or learning to canoe.
I’m not saying that these people are liars, but I am saying that there was probably a lot more to remember about camp than crafts and pond sports. Most of the people I have talked to about summer camp remember it as the first time they smoked pot, exposed themselves to The Clash, or touched a boob for the first time. They started to turn into young adults at summer camp. I suppose it was the same for me, in a sense.
"But how do I know where to put it?"
"You just have to feel around," she called back.
I stood in one of the bathroom stalls while the counselor stayed put in the sleeping area. My body decided to take that first, spritely step into womanhood on the second day of my stay at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Camp. I ran to my counselor, a young bohemian of about twenty-one with thick glasses and an arsenal of rings on her fingers, upon the discovery and explained what was happening to me.
She looked me over for a second, clearly in thought, before saying,
“Well, you have a couple of options. Do you want to swim at all this week?”
“Well, now you only have one option. Come on.”
After a long like back to the cabin, she pointed to the bathroom and said, “Go wait there,”
as she went to her trunk and rummaged around. She eventually produced a small box and dumped the contents onto her bed, picking out a tubular package with pink, friendly looking daisies on it and a booklet of directions.
“This,” she said as she approached me, “is something you need to learn to use.”
One painfully awkward crash course in feminine hygiene later, I found myself alone in a bathroom stall with a strange, foreign device in my hands that was supposed to end up inside my body - somehow.
“And people use these?” I called out.
“Women use them, yes.”
“Can I have the directions?”
“Sure,” she said, tossing them over the stall from the main room of the cabin. I thought it was weird how she refused to come inside the bathroom. It made me feel like I was holding a stick of dynamite and it would explode any second. I studied the directions one more time, trying to make sense of the vague diagram and the directions that came in every language imaginable except the one I needed.
“You alright?” she called.
"What if it goes in the pee hole?" I called back.
"You can't do it. It’s impossible."
“The pee hole is too small. Most people have never even found it."
There was a pause. Finally, I asked,
"Have you ever found your pee hole?"
There was an even longer pause. An awkward pause.
"No, Jas. I have not."
I eventually got everything squared away and was allowed to swim again, and though my counselor and I never spoke of the exchange again, I sealed my fate as the “that girl” of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Camp.
Camps are supposed to be the place where the socially inept, such as 12 year old me, could go to escape the empty, confusing lives they led at middle school or high school. For me, camp just took those awkward years and mashed them into one week.
Prior to St. Andrew’s, my only experience summer camp was limited to a week I had spent at Camp Pristine Pines, a Girl Scout camp nestled in the foot hills of the Appalachian trail. I slept in a leaky cabin with eleven other girls who were really into horses the The Babysitter’s Club, two concepts that I did not understand whatsoever. They always picked me last in team sports, leaving me with no option but to partner up with Ms. Tammy, the camp leader. Being my own partner was not an option; her staunch belief in the buddy system left her incapable of letting us do even the most basic tasks on our own. A girl in a neighboring cabin had to spend an entire afternoon sitting in Ms. Tammy’s office because she walked to the volleyball court by herself. With her leathery skin, an accent that rivaled the Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, and a temper to match, Ms. Tammy developed into worthy nemesis.
My overall experience culminated in a moment of fury when no one would go with me on a much needed, midnight bathroom run. I moved from bunk to bunk, whispering small pleas to my sleeping cabin mates to wake up and walk with me to the latrines in the middle of camp. Most of them pretended to be asleep, but a few of them muttered, “No,” or “Go find someone else,” before I could even finish my question. Finally, I crept over to Ms. Tammy’s section, separated from the rest of the cabin by a wire screen.
“Ms. Tammy,” I whispered, scratching on the screen. Nothing.
“Ms. Tammy, I have to go to the bathroom!”
With a snort and a groan, she turned on her back and put her hand on her forehead.
“Go back to bed,” she muttered, “It can wait ‘till the morning.”
At that exact moment, I decided that I hated summer camp.
The frustration that had been building up all week came to a head as I planted my feet in the middle of my cabin, pulled down my pajamas, and pissed all over the plywood floor. When I was satisfied, I climbed back into the bottom bunk and went to bed, eager to see the faces of my cabin mates the next morning.
When asked why I soiled the cabin, I replied,
“Because no one would be my buddy and I couldn’t help it.”
Then, when they still threw accusing looks in my general directions, I innocently said,
“It was an accident - I promise.”
To this day, whenever I tell that story in real life I always tack on the phrase, “Those bitches had it coming.”
The remainder of the week dragged on for what seemed like months. The weather was rainy; the girls were more interested in talking about horses than anything I considered even remotely relevant; and although I learned that someone under 90 pounds could use their thumbs to gouge out an attacker’s eyeballs in the Girl’s Defense Course, it wasn’t enough to make me want to go back to Camp Pristine Pines the next summer.
My parents, after hearing wonderful feedback about St. Andrew’s from my sister and some of the other kids from church, convinced me to give summer camp another go by sending me to the performing arts session. By “performance arts,” they meant breaking us off into small groups every day and creating skits from the more colorful tales in the bible. At the end of the week, each group picked their best skit and used it in a showcase for Parent Pick-up Day. For the grand finale, every group from camp ran on stage and danced the Macarena to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
I went back for three more sessions because of one of my cabin mates. Her name was Helen and she was a mildly athletic, cool tempered girl who exclusively wore faded band t-shirts and showed me the Beastie Boys for the first time. Aside from my counselor, she was the only one who knew about my leap of womanhood and, to her, this made me a mature and worthy accomplice. Helen had this energy that sucked in everyone around her, making them grateful to be in her presence. I had never been so warmly received by someone so cool. When she told me she was switching from performing arts camp to general camp, I followed her. When she went on morning jogs with the counselors, I went with her even though I hated jogging and I was always wheezing by the time we were done. When the boys began to give her a hard time, I got in their face and told them to leave her alone. It seemed like a worthy trade until one year when she snuck off to make out with one of them in the bushes. I never told her how it made me feel because I knew there was no point. Helen was the most popular girl in camp; she was bound to fool around with one of the guys sooner or later.
I kept to myself for the rest of the week. She’d poke me with her fork at lunch or dinner and say things like,
“Dude, what’s wrong?” or, “Hey, something bothering you?”
“I’m good,” I replied, “Just not feeling it.”
A day or two later, someone would tell her that she had “broken my heart” and she and the other girls would stop waving me to their table at meals and cease asking me to play on their teams for camp games. I wouldn’t return to St. Andrew’s after that summer.
Out of all of the embarrassing things that I have done or experienced at camp, Helen was a special kind of embarrassing. Otherwise, camp was simply a cocktail of awkwardness that I have learned to appreciate in the years since. My favorite memories are ones that make me look back and silently scream, “Really? No, really?” - like the time I pretended that I had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail so I could run around and say “Kni!” with Helen and the rest of her friends on camp skit night. When asked if I could quote anything from the rest of the film, I replied,
“Oh, sure!” and promptly changed the subject.
Once, I even tried to reinvent myself as “Mizzy,” a hip kid with an out of this world sensibility, but that fell flat on its face when I introduced myself to a kid who also read the comic book that I found the name “Mizzy” from. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of camp - second only to the time I asked my counselor if she had ever found her pee hole.