Searching for the Right Tee Shirt
MARNIE KLEIN

On not finding a summer camp fit, but growing nonetheless.

Jewish camp was not what I hoped it would be. You know those car insurance commercials with the split screen: the expectation on the left (man gets girl), reality on the right (man’s Honda gets hit by tree)? On the left of that summer at Camp Louise were campfires and s’mores with my best friends for life (set to the Chariots of Fire theme song). On the right: sleeping outside, alone (I’ll get there). On the left: bending it like Beckham. On the right: accidentally scoring a goal for the wrong team during our mandatory sports hour. On the left: best friends laughing with me by the pool. On the right: three best friends laughing at me at the pool.

A quick note about the pool: my bunkmates and I were swimming at Camp Airy, the boy’s camp. We were in the water, and the two of them suggested a brilliant idea: we’d to count to three, pop our heads out of the pool at the same moment, and say, “Hey boys!” to the guys on the deck chairs. I agreed. I know, it definitely sounded like a set-up, but I had no actual friends and this seemed like a potential budding friendship. So I took the bait.

Camp Airy Pool (Source: Marnie Klein)

The swimming pools at Camp Airy. From the bleachers, there was ample viewing for any tween-age embarrassments

Shockingly to no one, my trust was betrayed. At the very last minute, in that precious split second between saying “Three” and “Hey boys!”… my bunkmates dunked their heads underwater, leaving me the lone head that popped of the pool to flirt with the guys. Hey boys, I said, confident as ever.

And the boys really enjoyed it. I turned so red. I don’t even remember what happened next, but I’m sure I got as far away from the pool as possible.

But I’m more confident now. So, like any good argument, I’ll now retort with a fantastic and appropriate response, only ten years late:

Whatever, boys.

Zing! That’ll show ‘em!

So it wasn’t a great summer. Actually, it was pretty much the worst. There were several ingredients that made that summer at Camp Louise a pretty toxic mess: first, the bunkmates, secondly, the counselors, and third, me, in all my glorious awkwardness at thirteen. Join me as I travel down memory lane!

Crucial roots were planted that summer that foretold what I was going to discover about myself in the years to follow.

Let’s start with the bunkmates. Camp Louise allowed us to pick roommates going into camp. I wasn’t close enough to anyone from the previous summer to request a roommate, so I went into selection alone. But when I arrived, I discovered that the other twelve girls in my bunk were friends from the same middle school.

Horrific. Honestly, this set up would have been a great Disney Channel Original Movie, with merchandise and everything (working title: Help! I’m the Only One Who Didn’t Go to Reisterstown Middle!). And they were all really one-dimensional (that dimension being “mean brat”) and intent on having the perfect summer just as the group of twelve. So I was Yoko, if The Beatles were thirteen-year-old Jewish girls from the Baltimore suburbs.

Excerpt of Email (Source: Marnie Klein)

I can’t find any pictures from that summer. But I found this email from 2007 (yes, marnie.hamstergirl is still an active email account of mine) not mincing words about that summer at Louise

The second ingredient was our lovely counselors who were clearly experiencing a similarly stark Expectation vs. Reality dichotomy. They were Australian, and most likely were expecting their first time in America to be something other than shuttling spoiled Jewish teens to and from mandatory activities. So when they could get away, get away they did. Their lack of involvement meant that, when they got off shift at 9 P.M. every night, the bunkmates could practice their one-dimensional characters on me even more openly than before.

And the third element of that horribly awkward and terrible summer was me. I was an awkward, weird kid (and proud to still be one). I was obsessed with a good night’s sleep. But at bedtime, when all the girls from the bunk would gather at one end of the bunk and share stories and paint their nails, I would ask them to keep it down so I could have some rest. But my requests were unheeded. Louder and louder they got, doing the opposite of what I asked.

So one day I changed tactics. I decided to join them. I came over, with Hey Boys! levels of confidence, and asked to join in on the braiding and nail painting. But they did not accept my Trojan horse. Instead, they dispersed. Admittedly, they fulfilled the goal of my original plan: to get a full eight hours of sleep. But they were clearly more interested in rejecting me in whatever way they could than chit-chat with each other.

I wasn’t fitting in, with any of them. But I was even worse around Gabby.

[Camp] may be a different environment from a kid’s normal school and home scene, but we’re still the same kids in a new place.

Gabby was one of the girls in the bunk who was on the nicer end (though when the others were around, she was less likely to reach out). She was really pretty — I remember that particularly, but I also remember not knowing what exactly what I found pretty about her. And I was thirteen, and really unsure of what I was doing with all these… feelings I had around her. Like why I extra noticed her long thick hair or nice smile. Or when she changed in the bunk bathroom, and I didn’t know why I thought she was really pretty then, but I did….

It would be many years before I came to grips with how I felt (which, spoiler alert, was pretty gay). But back to that moment. We’re in the bunk bathroom, and I wanted to compliment her. I was determined to say something that was cool, and definitely not weird.

I gave it my best shot. I sputtered, in a very un-brilliant moment: “Nice Teeth!”

“What?” Gabby replied. “Oh… uh… I like your teeth.” I kept digging.

And Gabby laughed. She laughed… directly to the other girls. My social standing, already at historic lows, climbed down even further. Nice teeth! The girls taunted me for days afterward.

If I ever become a dentist, I’ve got a great idea for my license plate.

The final story I’ll tell is about why I slept outside. It was our mandatory sleepaway camping trip, and we were collectively dreading it with great intensity. This was a camp where campers brought hairdryers, not Swiss Army Knives. And when we got to the campground, we saw much humbler accommodations than our air-conditioned bunk: three four-person tents. The counselors, dreading this weekend most of all, grabbed one and retreated inside, barely to be seen for the rest of the evening. The thirteen of us were left to split the other three.

What I should have done was ask one of the counselors to split a tent. But that’s not what happened.

We were sitting in the tents at night, and I was the fifth wheel in the four-person tent with Gabby. We were talking, and I’m feeling super included — the bar was low, after all — and Gabby’s feet got tired so I offered to give her a foot massage. I know. That was half a base, at least. Anyway, I was secretly hoping they’ll let me, an expert masseuse, stay in the tent for the night, even though with my addition we’d be over capacity.

Au contraire. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I was asked to leave the tent. So, I camped outside, putting my bag next to the tent flap and sleeping against the nylon side. I was so close to being in, but still painfully on the outs. It was a living metaphor for that summer.

And so, Jewish camp was not what I hoped it would be.

This all goes to prove what’s overlooked in the pictures, those happy montages of camp: that camp may be a different environment from a kid’s normal school and home scene, but we’re still the same kids in a new place. My tee shirts don’t fit any differently at camp than they do at home. The bullying, awkwardness, and pressure to be and act a certain way don’t really change either. It’s about finding a good fit: going to a camp where I don’t feel pressure to mold a certain way, but one that would allow me to be who I really was.

Improv Camp (Source: Marnie Klein)

Rocking out at the Washington Improv Theatre summer camp showcase (the author at left)

And in the variety of nerdy camps I went to afterward, I seemed to find that: stage combat camps, improv camps, and even a taekwondo camp (I think I’m still technically a white belt?). Ultimately, I found my camp “happy-place” in camps that allowed me to explore weird, nerdy pursuits of different theatre games. In one Shakespeare camp, I played a wall in Juliet’s garden for a whole thirty minutes (which was awesome). In stage combat, I decorated my own sword. I found kids just as gloriously uncool as me.

But I’m glad I went to Camp Louise. Crucial roots were planted that summer that foretold what I was going to discover about myself in the years to follow. I was going to learn to be Jewish without a traditional Jewish camp experience. I was going to learn to celebrate my Jewish culture through family traditions, singing at services, and kvetching over bagels. I was going to learn to be queer, and wrestle with feeling uncomfortable with myself, and finally more sure of myself, in the years that followed.

I’m also glad I left Camp Louise. That was simply not enough fun for the amount I paid to go. But even though I left, I’m happy that I get to take these memories with me. They help me see who I used to be and who I’m still becoming. And to me, that’s worth a night of sleeping outside.

All photos courtesy of the author.
 


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