I Learned One Thing at Summer Camp

There are decisions you make when you’re in a good mood. This was one of them.

At the end of a triumphant first year of teaching 5th grade, I accepted a friend’s offer to work at a summer camp in the Berkshires. My boyfriend, Jeff, (who would in a couple of years become my husband) took a job there, too.

We dreamed of wholesome fun in the rolling countryside of Connecticut. We thought of it as a summer “off.” Rustic log cabins, fresh mountain air. Trust falls, color wars, and camaraderie up the whazoo.

Hindsight arrived about two hours into the first day of the campers’ arrival. Kids were being unloaded from their parent’s station wagons and everything got ahead of me and my trusty clipboard. Returning campers were hugging each other and — I thought — wary of the new staff. It was noisy. It was crowded. There was running and jumping everywhere. And who knew the Berkshires sun could be so blazing at 9 in the morning?

I sensed immediately that I had a big problem. It was called camp.

Here’s the thing. I had never been to camp. I had never even been at a camp. I had never been in charge of 13-year-old girls. I didn’t know that 13-year-olds bear no resemblance to the 11-year-olds in my class back in upstate New York who spent a whole year thinking I was mildly cool. I didn’t know that everything in a camp is about half a mile away from the next thing in a camp. Trails were dusty. Instead of a cabin, I slept in a platform tent. There were mice.

Whoever built this camp had the foresight to put the girls and boys sections as geographically inconvenient to each other as humanly possible. This kept adolescent campers from the dangers of proximity after dark.

But it also meant that the only time I got to see Jeff was at meals. We’d look at each other from our respective tables, across a cavernous room made noisy by camp songs, the lyrics of which I didn’t know. I never caught on to the ten minutes or so of rhythmic table slamming and chants that sailed back and forth after dinner every night about who had spirit. Clearly, spirit was not in my repertoire.

camp-dining-hall-action

Our day off was consumed by hours at the Laundromat trying to get the campfire smell out of my clothes and cataloging the new names I was being called behind my back by the girls in my section. Jeff, on the other hand, was having the time of his life. He’d found that afternoons at the waterfront trying to upend canoes were much more fun than being a graduate student back at Syracuse University. He loved all of it. A week in, he announced he wanted to come back the next year.

So the problem wasn’t camp after all, I decided. It was me.

I bailed out of the job after the first 4-week session, and I’m not sure I ever apologized to my friend about that, so I will now because I know she’s reading this: I put you in a bad spot leaving the way I did. I’m sorry. I’m all for being out of my comfort zone once in a while, but after four weeks as a camp counselor, I was out of my mind.

My supervisor insisted on putting my evaluation in writing even as I was packing my things and sobbing out of embarrassment and shame for not seeing the summer through. Her comment at the bottom of the page remains one of the truest sentences ever written about me: “Linda’s personality is not in sync with the intensity of the camp experience.”

I went home to my parents’ house on Long Island for a week. I went right to bed and stayed there for a day or two. Then I ate grilled cheese and watched television until I felt better about myself.

I kept rethinking the opaque wording of the evaluation. I was 23 and thought I knew myself. Not fitting in at camp was a failure. At least until I got tired of grilled cheese and watching I Love Lucy reruns and felt like my old self again.

Then I regrouped and went back to teaching in September. To anyone who asked how my summer had been, I would force a little laugh and say, “Well, now I know I’m not cut out for the camp life.”

In all the years since, I’ve realized that camp was only the first indication that I am not cut out for large groups of anything. I am fine at cocktail parties, but they are work for me. Volunteering for field trips when my kids were in school was an act of pure love. I will never know the joy of Black Friday that some people get all breathless about.

I’m a person who needs down time, and the older I get the more I seem to thrive on it. I’m a person who opens my front door at the end of the day, takes a deep breath, and loves the idea that I don’t have to talk to another person until the morning. Being alone for part of Wednesday is what fuels me for Thursday.

Thanks to camp, I was able to make two life decisions. I knew at my core that I would never become a member of a cult. They usually have to eat in dining halls, too. And I believe there may be chanting involved. Maybe about spirit and who has more of it.

I also figured out that my personality wouldn’t be in sync with the prison experience. So I’ve always tried to make sure that’s not an option.

So no surprise that you’ll never find me searching the Internet for a group of tortured souls in Colorado who have found bliss by eating radishes for breakfast and worshiping Zeus. I’ll continue to stay on the sunny side of the law, too.

If anyone wonders why, it’s because of what I learned. At 23. At camp.

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.