by Cara Strickland
It was my first time sleeping away from home. I was nervous, but excited. I had heard stories about camp and expected it to be a wonderful bonding experience.
I knew one other girl and I put her down as my cabin-mate preference. That’s how I ended up in a cabin with a bunch of girls who went to school together during the year.
I’ve tried to remember where it was that I picked up a mask and started fitting in. I have all sorts of theories, but this summer camp between my 5th and 6th grade years is high on my list.
I’ve always seen things a little differently. Sometimes, I’ve chosen to behave as though I did not. But as I walked through that week, I had not yet started to see myself as a “late bloomer” or someone who was “weird,” “too intense,” or “overly idealistic.” These were the days of patterned shorts overalls and slippers in the shape of pigs, long before I realized that girls my age were shopping at Victoria’s Secret. I did not hide the differences between myself and these girls who spent extra time on their hair in the bathroom each morning and made sure to take their make-up off every night, while I brushed my hair and applied sunscreen.
Our counselor was a high school student. I thought she was so cool. In the evenings, she read us a chapter from The Horse and His Boy (most of the other counselors were reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so I felt that she was special). I remember watching her interact with the other counselors, seeing her flirt with the attractive guys and talk excitedly with the other girls. They were probably looking forward to going to camp themselves. She seemed endlessly mature, able to handle any situation.
Our cabin was small and afforded little privacy. These were the days before I worried about what my body looked like. Years as a dancer had made me comfortable changing in front of people, and quick as a wink at it.
It was in this cabin that I heard some of the first words of shame.
Why don’t you change in the bathroom? Aren’t you uncomfortable getting dressed in front of us? Nice underwear.
We were still kids. I was still so young. I think now about the clothes I was stepping into, more closely resembling the Carter’s separates I pick out for baby gifts than what I wear now.
We were too young for all that shame.
It was hot that summer and we were busy. We played games, many of which involved Jell-o. We climbed rocks and went inner-tubing and water-skiing behind a boat. We sat around campfires, sang songs, hiked.
Every day, we chose activities. They were set up so that each person would rotate through, so that everyone would get a turn.
I found myself clinging to rock faces, swimming relays in freezing lake water in the early morning, and running around in circles for no reason that I could deduce. Craft time offered me a blessed respite from the sun and dirt, as well as the skill of friendship bracelet weaving.
Heat and activity cause dehydration, so the camp staff had developed a routine at meals. Each camper would have to drink eight plastic glasses of water before being allowed to have juice. For some reason, surrounded by camp food and buckets of water, we were all dying for something sweet and cold. I am fairly sure that I have never ingested that much water in my life.
There was a time every day called FOB (flat on bunk). We were too old for naps, but everyone needed a break (including the counselors, I suspect). Some of the girls developed a habit of asking to go to the bathroom during FOB, only to talk through “quiet time” together. As a result, my counselor stopped allowing bathroom breaks during FOB.
The week was almost over, and the entire camp was participating in a swim to a rock about a mile into the lake. The swim was directly after FOB, which was right after lunch. We all got into our swimsuits and headed down to the beach. I asked, rather insistently, but my counselor wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom before heading down.
I’ve often wondered if there were a way that I could have communicated better. If I could have brought myself to break the rules about always telling an adult where you were, even if that adult was sixteen years old, perhaps my story would have gone differently.
I stood on an incline, waiting in line to get into the water. We were supposed to have buddies to swim with, but I hadn’t made any friends during the week. The girl I’d known when I came was buddied up in front of me with a schoolmate. I was alone.
My bladder was going to explode. Even now, thinking of the consecutive glasses of water I’d consumed makes me a little ill. I kept waiting for the line to start moving so that I could get into the lake. But it was not to be.
A steady stream ran down my legs and continued down the sandy incline, forming a puddle at the bottom. Those in line in front of me hopped quickly out of the way, looking at me with disgust.
I have no memory of how I felt at that moment.
The line moved shortly after. The lifeguard asked me where my buddy was, and I said that I didn’t have one. I must have looked determined, because he let me pass. I jumped into the water and swam hard. I remember trying not to cry.
The story got around quickly, and I was thankful that the next day was Saturday: it would soon be over and I could go home. I’d been quiet that week, but I became even more so, sneaking off, when I could, to read my Bible and sing worship songs by myself. I didn’t have the energy to look my cabin mates in the eye as they distanced themselves from me, not wanting to get too close to the girl who couldn’t make it to the bathroom.
Shame is tricky. I know that there were a lot of reasons for what happened that day on the beach. But those faces and questions and stares stay with me still. For a long time, I couldn’t think about that experience without cringing. For years, I didn’t tell anyone. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve told dear friends. There were decades of shame and silence.
But now I’m telling you.
I’m telling you because I want you to know that I am not ashamed of that young, dear girl on that beach. I’m telling you because I know that some of you might have your own memories that hurt when you brush too close. I’ve shared this story with people now, and I’ve spoken words of grace aloud. It’s even sort of funny, sometimes.
Mostly, though, I just want to go back and give that girl a hug and tell her to drop that mask she’s about to put on. I want to tell her that standing out isn’t always excruciating, and being who she is doesn’t mean being humiliated. I want to tell her that she’ll have friends, and that her loneliness will serve a purpose. I want to tell her to hold on tight.
But I can’t go back. So instead, I whisper these words to myself. I still need to hear them.
Cara Strickland lives and writes in Spokane, WA. Recently, she found her journal from the week of camp discussed in this story. While she lists the rules of the cabin, the name of her counselor and the brands of every candy bar she purchased during her stay there, she does not recount this event.