Growing up is hard. Today, we got a paycheck for the first time in five months. That brief stint of joy was quickly squashed by the arrival of a handful of bills in the mail. This morning, a woman called me offering me a job as a kindergarten teacher… I have childcare experience, but absolutely no credentials to teach kindergarten. Meanwhile, I still haven’t heard back from that interview I attended, and I was feeling a little hopeful about it.
I think everyone has several important moments from childhood that stick around, moments of growing up bit by bit. For example, I vividly remember catching my mom taking my letter to Santa out of the mailbox and putting it in her pocket. It caused a huge fit of tears as I tried to grasp what it meant. I remember the first time my dad let me drive. We were on a dirt road in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I nearly killed us both as I ran his jeep into (and almost off of) a cliff.
I found this picture the other day and it got me thinking about another “shove-out-of-innocence.”
This is a picture of my cabin at the summer camp I attended in elementary school. That’s me on the far left… Yep, the one in the velcro sandals and wide-brimmed denim hat. Hey, it was the nineties.
This was one of my last years at summer camp. After my family moved the following year, I wasn’t able to attend anymore. I remember this year at camp for a lot of reasons: there was an annoying boy who would pull my hair every time he saw me and run away giggling, there was an epic food fight, I tried to mountain bike (not very successfully), and our cabin didn’t get along very well. That year, I arrived early to camp and stayed with my uncle, the camp director, for a few days. The counselors and staff were having a meeting one day at lunch before all the other campers showed up, and I happened to sit in on it while I was eating.
Everything was ruined. I heard all the secrets campers aren’t supposed to know! I learned the food fights were planned ahead of time, the midnight dances had a curfew, and, most shocking of all, the sneak-outs were scheduled and pre-approved by the camp director.
“Sneak-outs” were the highlight of camp. Once or twice, the counselors would wake us all up in the middle of the night with flashlights. We had to be completely silent and dress in all black. Then, under the cover of darkness, we would secretly sneak out of our cabins and cause some sort of mischief. Usually this involved playing pranks on the boys’ cabins, like stealing their shoes or decorating their porch with silly string. Once, we snuck into the kitchens for ice cream sundaes. It was such an adrenaline rush because we knew if we were caught it would result in terrible consequences. Miraculously, we never got caught, except once.
That year at camp, our cabin was full of girls clashing with each other. A girl would borrow a hairbrush without asking, and the entire cabin would erupt in an all-out Girl War. The counselors were sick of it, and that’s why it was so surprising that they would risk taking us out on a sneak-out. I was the only one who knew that the sneak-outs were all set up, but I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else. They woke us up one night with a secret plan: we would sneak over to the older kids’ camp and switch places with a girls’ cabin there. They would come sleep in our beds and we would sleep in theirs. It was so exciting to think of sleeping in the older girls’ beds. The counselors led us through the woods to a truck that was waiting to take us to the other camp. We all climbed into the truck bed and curled up as they put a tarp over us.
(Yes, I realize at this point this could easily become a horrific story, but come on… It was camp.)
They drove us down the road and we made it to the other cabin. The older girls taught us one of their “cabin cheers” and gave us candy. We all picked a bunk and slept like babies. The next morning, we were awoken by yells; a member of the camp staff had “caught” us before we could sneak back to our own camp, and we were in big trouble. I was flabbergasted. We weren’t supposed to be punished; that wasn’t part of the plan. Still, we were assigned clean-up duty at the worst place in camp: the landfill at the top of the hill. It’s where all the camp garbage went, and a flock of buzzards lived there picking at all the trash.
That’s where we served our sentence. Together as a cabin, they drove us all to the top of the hill with a box of trash bags. The counselors sat there for an hour being mean, barking orders and telling us to stop talking as we gathered spare pieces of garbage the wind had scattered. I was so angry at the time. I knew they had planned for us to get caught. Now I understand that they were just trying to build camaraderie. The cabin that suffers together, stays together.
I wish I hadn’t known. I might’ve never found out, and I could look back and remember my counselors risking everything to show us a good time. But, growing up hasn’t let me. Growing up has taught me that of course the counselors wouldn’t be allowed to take a group of 11-year-olds out into the woods at 2 a.m. and load them into a truck without asking permission. That’s part of growing up: losing the illusions that mask the crueler aspects of the world and make them easier to accept.
For example, I never understood why my dad always followed me around the house turning off lights when I left the room. Now, I get it. The electric bill came today.