Showing up on the first day of camp already knowing Chelsea was like having a built-in insurance plan. While I sat in the dining hall with my new tent-mates, she came over and said hello. Even though she was a tiny girl – no more than five feet and a hundred pounds – she carried herself with an outsize confidence that commanded respect everywhere she went. She was the epitome of the smart, capable, popular girl for whom life seemed easy.
“Take good care of my sis,” she said to my counselor, while fussing with the hair on my head. I ate my sloppy Joe contentedly.
“Was that actually your sister?” the girls at my table asked.
“Basically,” I replied.
I decided to attend sleepaway camp for the first time when I was 11, because Chelsea had convinced me. Her family and mine were as close as two families could be, and we called each other sisters since we didn’t have biological ones of our own. Chelsea had been going to camp in the Berkshires for a few summers. And because I looked up to Chelsea with the utmost admiration – she stated her opinions as if they were facts, while mine were easily mutable; she had kissed several boys already, while I had kissed none; her hair was curly and wild, while mine was limp and flat – it didn’t take much for me to follow her to camp.
Knowing her had set me up on a clear path to camp popularity. I’m not sure whether Chelsea actually had clout in the camp stratosphere or if she just instilled in me a false sense of confidence. But, whatever it was, it worked. I became instant friends with several girls from that first tent: Tasha, a bright, talkative Upper West Sider; a pair of identical twins from Larchmont, New York, and Marley, a spunky and burgeoning rebel who turned out to live just three towns away from me. That first summer was pure joy: sitting around campfires singing Joni Mitchell songs; wandering slowly down trails to the lake, swatting away mosquitoes as we tried to be late for canoeing; getting ready for coed activities together by straightening each other’s hair and putting on each other’s metallic Urban Decay eyeshadow, even though we never actually talked to the boys once we got there.
Marley became one of my closest friends, so much so that our bond continued even after camp ended. Her parents let her do whatever she wanted, so we watched R-rated movies at her house and drank Bud Lights from the fridge. Lying to my parents about what I had done at Marley’s house during our sleepovers was one of my first thrills of adolescence. I also stayed in touch with the others that school year: I would have sleepovers with the twins in Larchmont or visit Tasha in the city. Tasha and I would wander for hours down Central Park and end up at a Cosi in Midtown, sharing an order of s’mores. We would toast the marshmallows over the manufactured mini-fire pit that they set up on our table. It was 35 degrees outside and there was gray slush on the sidewalks down Eighth Avenue. But it sure tasted like summer camp.
But, when I returned home to my small town in the Hudson Valley after a weekend with camp friends, things were very different.
It would be inaccurate to say I didn’t have friends in middle school. I had them, but they weren’t very nice to me. The person I was at camp – bubbly, popular and, at times, a leader – seemed to disappear when I was at school. I was still social and active, playing field hockey, performing in the school musicals and getting invited to (some) parties. But more often than not, I felt I was on the outside looking in. There, my mutability really didn’t serve me. Because school was “real” life, the girls there took things more seriously. The stakes seemed higher. There was less room to be carefree. Bullying took its hold on them and, consequently, me.
The cruelty really began the year before I went away to camp. In sixth grade, I was talking to one of my “friends,” Meg, on the phone. Meg asked me if our mutual friend, Lily, ever bothered me.
“Not really,” I said.
“Never?” Meg asked. “She’s never gotten on your nerves?”
“Well,” I said, thinking about it. This was a moment to really confide, to grow closer with Meg, a friend who always kept me at an arm’s length. Truthfully, I had noticed in gym class that a smell — like raw onion — was coming off of Lily when she raised her arms to shoot a basketball.
“Sometimes she smells,” I admitted. “I think she needs to wear deodorant.”
“Anything else?” Meg asked.
“And I guess it’s annoying that she snorts when she laughs,” I added.
“You can tell her yourself,” Meg snickered.
Then, of course, came Lily’s voice on the other end: “I can’t believe you would say those things about me, Mandy.”
It only got worse in seventh grade after that first summer at camp — and the first taste of easy, carefree friendships. That October, I planned to dress up as a gypsy for Halloween, and I was so excited about the costume. (A politically incorrect costume and term now, to be sure.) My mom had sewed together bright fabrics to make an array of colorful scarves and shawls that I would drape around myself. She was even going to let me wear lipstick.
Then, one morning before first period, two girls I thought were my friends handed me a note and marched away. I sat down on the curb outside of school and read it. To my surprise, it contained a list of my misgivings as a friend and a person. Apparently it all stemmed from an incident where I had disparaged a mutual friend of ours, even though I had just been following the tenor of the conversation. They’d all been gossiping about this friend, but I didn’t stand up for her, because I thought I’d be accepted more if I agreed with everything anyone ever said. What I didn’t realize was that they were using this complicity against me: not having a mind of my own, or at least the courage to disagree with my friends, was a liability. It meant that I was as moldable as a piece of putty, asking to be toyed with and pulled apart.
“P.S.,” the note ended, “Gypsies are stupid.”
I went back to camp for the second summer. Marley and I stayed in the same tent, sleeping head to head on the top bunks so we could whisper to each other after everyone else fell asleep. I turned 13 that July, and made out with several boys, including a new, mysterious camper with piercing blue eyes. What was it, after all, that enabled me to be so happy and well-liked at camp, and so miserably treated at home? Was it Chelsea’s confidence that had rubbed off on me? Was it the change of scenery? Was it because I, a summer baby, had always loved the carefree nature of the season, swimming, getting dirty and wearing next to nothing?
Now, I suspect it may have been something bigger. Camp was the place I was able to try things out without consequences. It was always an experiment. From the start, I had only been planning to go for one summer just to see how I liked it. And so I had tried, perhaps without realizing it, actually being who I was: somewhat of a loud-mouthed know-it-all, sure, but also funny and loyal and adventurous. I told people what I thought. I laughed freely. Marley and I snuck out at night for absolutely no good reason. And a miraculous thing happened: I ended up being liked — even respected — just for being me.
I wish I could say that I had some sort of revelatory moment where I decided I didn’t need my bad school friends anymore, spat in their faces and walked out into the sunset with my new boyfriend, Noel Crane from Felicity. But truthfully, the bullying went on for another year.
On Halloween in eighth grade, I planned to have four friends over to watch scary movies. My mom had made all sorts of themed foods, including cookies cut into the shape of pumpkins and chocolate pudding cups with gummy worms buried inside of them. The girls were supposed to come over at 7 p.m. The minutes clicked on as none of my friends arrived. By 8 p.m., I received one phone call from my friend, who had to stay home to watch her little sister. By 8:30, a second friend texted to say her mom had grounded her. I went downstairs, puffy-eyed from crying, and settled in on the couch to watch Carrie with my parents and two friends of theirs who had been over for dinner. I didn’t even hear excuses from the other two girls until school on Monday.
But eventually, they grew out of whatever it was they were going through – their own insecurities and their need to exercise power over me – and so did I. By freshman year of high school, I started to speak up for myself, and people listened. I made friends with a group of super weird, riotously funny and unconditionally accepting people who are still my closest friends today.
I actually didn’t realize that it was camp that taught me the importance of being myself until much later, when I went back as a counselor at age 19. I had just finished my freshman year of college by then – which, to my delight, felt like 24/7, year-round summer camp (featuring my other favorite thing in the world: books). None of my old camp friends came back that summer, but it didn’t matter: stepping onto the camp grounds, four years after I’d stopped going as a camper, gave me the distinct feeling of returning home.
That last summer, I made friends from all over the world, ran around all day and got the tannest I’ve ever been. I had a tryst with a Scottish man. I lived with 13-year-old girls and I tried to set an example of kindness and acceptance, though I still failed sometimes; there was still bullying (and probably more behind my back).
During adolescence, your body betrays you every single day. You can’t escape the newfound male gaze. As a result, you end up comparing yourself to the girls that surround you – and sometimes, because you’re feeling jealous or powerless or uncertain, you take it out on them. All of this happens while you’re also trying to learn — mostly though trial and error — the kind of person you are and the kind of person you want to be. I figured that all out at summer camp.
For all I know, there were girls I disparaged along the way. Those power dynamics didn’t simply fade away in my utopian version of camp; I was just glad to have my own form of escape. I hope I didn’t bully girls at camp the way that I was bullied, but that’s probably naïve; I bet my middle school bullies were tormented in their own ways, too, and I doubt they remember using me as a prop during those confusing years.
It also seems naïve to hope that adolescent girls will eventually stop taking their own pain out on each other. I wish 13-year-old girls would use their communal hurt as a touchstone for communication and mutual connection with each other, but that idea in practice is too kumbaya for even a campfire-lover like me. For now, the best I can wish for is that a bullied adolescent girl eventually finds a place where people want her, like I did at camp – a place where she is given the freedom, the space and the time to be her actual self.
Mandy Berman is the author of Perennials.
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