I was sent to 4H Camp in Riverhead, Long Island for one week every summer for five or six summers in a row. I didn’t go crazy for camp like other kids, but I didn’t much mind it. We’d drink “bug juice” and schlep down a million wooden steps to the L.I. Sound, roast marshmallows… it was fine. My very last summer at 4H Camp was not fine. It was a real wonder. It was the summer right before high school, the summer that all of the friends I’d had since elementary school dumped my ass and dumped it hard. Of all the years that I’d been going to 4H camp, I never heard anyone from my “home crew” inquire about camp. So it was a real shocker when, towards the end of 8th grade, Hannah suggested we all go 4H camp together! In our little crew, Hannah was the ring leader of mean. She won that title in the 2nd grade as the CEO of an organization called Group. She decided who was in Group and who was out. If you were lucky enough to get picked for Group, you would be made to march through the mud, get locked in closets and have to stand in the corner facing the wall for the duration of lunch. The moms got together and had Group disassembled. Then in 4th grade, Hannah told everyone that my family was poor. I mean, we kinda were, but how rude. Hannah was a real peach.
The summer before high school started a palpable shift had taken place between the girls and I. There were no calls coming in and my calls weren’t getting returned. I was racking my brain to figure out what I had done wrong but I couldn’t come up with anything. My mother had quietly watched me spend the summer alone. She asked me if I was sure I still wanted to go camp with these girls. I said yes, partially because I didn’t want them to think they got the better of me, but mostly on the off chance this friend freeze was just all just a huge misunderstanding and we’d all dance into high school together in September and rule the school.
Unfortunately, my Grease 2 fantasy was just that. The moment I got to 4H camp, I realized it was going to be worse than I thought. The girls were totally ignoring me. They wouldn’t sign up for classes that I was in and barely made eye contact. There were seven of us in the cabin: Hannah, Karina, Linda, Pam, Connie, Janey and myself. The first day, I tried to engage a little here and there, but it was like running into a brick wall. It hurt. It hurt so much. These were girls I had clocked hundreds of hours with! I decided the best course of action was to stay as quiet and as invisible as possible.
Mornings at 4H started with a giant bugle song that blares throughout the camp. You have a half hour to get ready and meet at the flagpole for morning songs and reflections. I was half listening to the camp leaders’ explanation of the 4H’s (hands, heart, heads and health) when I squinted up to the top of the flagpole and saw my undies. My face blazed as I watched my underwear coming down the pole in all its fugly glory. Originally this underwear was purple and white zig-zags, but my mom washed it with something red and it was now a hideous red and purple number. I had questioned if I should bring them to camp and I specifically crammed those underwear in the bottom of bag knowing that I’d have to put them on in the shower stall so no one could see them. I heard the girls cackling around me. I felt like a dead man walking as I marched to retrieve the worlds ugliest-ever-undies. I heard one of the campers go ew as the pair was handed over to me. (Side note: it was kind of a rule that you HAD to retrieve your own underwear. I really hope that the 4H organization has revisited that.) Worse than even having to retrieve your own uglies (ugly undies) was the realization that the girls had rummaged through my bag and sussed out my one weakness. I caught eyes with Hannah. She had that smirk on her face and glint in her eye that we’ve seen on every mean girl in every mean-girl movie.
Hannah had wanted me out of this group since the 2nd grade and she wasn’t going to take this opportunity lightly. The next day, I was walking into my cabin from the community shower, holding my caddy filled with raspberry scented St. Ives Swiss Formula shampoo and conditioner, when Hannah tackled me. All the girls were sitting on their bunks clearly prepared to watch the show. I tried as hard as I could to fight her off but she was hell bent on getting me naked. And she did. It was so creepy and so humiliating and everyone seemed to enjoy it so much. Again… a wonder.
I wrote a letter home. It had some subtext:
Dear Mom & Dad,
Camp is fun. MAKE SURE YOU PICK ME UP ON TIME. I’m taking a craft class and a theatre class. DON’T BE A SECOND LATE! I miss you. THE EARLIER YOU CAN GET HERE THE BETTER!
Miss you terribly!
The one moment of joy I had that week was in the performance class. Since the girls wouldn’t take a class with me, I had anonymity. I took the lead in a lip-sync dance to Jermain Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.” If you’ve watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you know that when two drag queens are up for elimination, they have to lip-sync for their life. I wasn’t in drag and I didn’t have to compete, but I was lip-synching for my life. I released all of my emotion and pain into Mr. Stewart’s one hit wonder. I. Werked. That. Song. The counselor was shocked that the girl who didn’t say boo all week could bust it like that.
The high of that performance was quickly shattered by my worst and last night at camp. It was late, the girls were gossiping and I was pretending to be asleep so they wouldn’t bother me. Then the conversation turned to me and they were saying horrible things about me. I started moving around in my bed hoping they would think I was waking up and would stop. Instead Hannah shone a flashlight into my eyes and informed everyone that I was pretending to be asleep. They then went even harder with the insults.
I wasn’t the most popular girl or the prettiest, but before that week at camp, I had pretty good self-esteem. After six days of legit bullying, my self-esteem was in the stinker. When I got home I had to throw out my raspberry scented St. Ives Swiss Formula shampoo and conditioner because the smell of it had me experiencing Viet Nam-like flashbacks.
I never did find out the reason that the girls turned on me like they did. I imagine that they didn’t think I was going to be cool enough or bad enough for high school and wanted to cut the dead weight. As for my first day, I called an old friend of mine and asked her how she was getting to high school. She said a few people were going over to Carrie’s and would I like to join. I said, “Uh. yeah.” For the most part, the girls who ended up at Carrie’s house had all been excommunicated from their own “home crews.”
Some of the friendships I made from that group are my closest friendships today. But even with a new group to “rule the school” it took me quite a while to shake off the damage that that week had caused. Towards the end of freshman year one of the gals from my old group apologized for how she treated me that week at camp. I learned a lot that year. I learned that you have to be around people who love you from the inside out. I learned you need to get in where you fit in and I learned that no matter how much time passes an apology is a very powerful and healing gift. Oh, I also learned that one of the 4H’s stood for hella-cray.