A lesson learned at camp
It was 1981 and I would be starting fifth grade in the fall. For the summer, I was returning to River Hills Day Camp, about an hour west of my Central Jersey hometown, near a pair of lakes. No one from my school went to that camp, and I was pleased about that. I had made lots of friends in camp the previous year. But in my elementary school in Central Jersey, I was shy and lousy at sports. I had a small group of close friends there, but not a lot. Camp was different. When I had started camp the previous year, I instantly made friends with another new girl, Lisa, and we acquired a gaggle of other pals. In camp, I was pretty good at sports, because I wasn’t afraid of getting yelled at for trying and failing, as I was in elementary school gym. At school, I had missed a ball in volleyball once and gotten a full dressing down, ala the movie “Carrie.” I even got yelled at by doing the right thing sometimes. During a softball game, I had picked up a line drive and tossed it to the second basewoman behind me. Technically, it was the right thing to do, as there was a runner headed there from first, but she was a popular girl who was talking to her friend and wasn’t paying attention. “Don’t throw it to me,” she hissed upon dropping the ball. The most popular kid in my grade, Mike, came over and yelled at me that I should have thrown it to him instead. Every ball, apparently, should have gone to him.So heading to my second year at River Hills camp, I was happy.
Camp met in a pavilion every day, the sun shining through the rafters and striping our knees. Then the various age groups fanned out. We had morning swim, kickball or softball, arts and crafts -- the usual fare. Morning swim was often early and too chilly, so Lisa and I and our friends would push chairs together, place towels on top of them, and create a little clubhouse. We’d play 1-2-3 spit with one deck of cards, chugging cold cans of Sprite or Mountain Dew from the humming machine near the pool entrance, even at 10 a.m.Each year, there were clear-cut popular kids in my group. This year, the most popular boy was Jason D’Agostino. He always wore a baseball cap, spoke with a scratchy voice, was stocky and sure, and good in sports. His second in command were Kevin and Solomon. The most popular girl was Karen, who was loud-mouthed but pretty, and her sidekick was her quieter friend, Beth. The five most popular kids stuck together.
(Come to think of it, by numbers, what actually made them “popular”? Perhaps it was that they were picked first for sports, tended to get what they wanted, were the loudest [not a whit of self-consciousness holding them back], and it made you feel really good if one of them talked to you.)One time, Karen sat at a picnic table in the pavilion with a pouty expression and said, in a baby voice, “My finger hurts. Kiss it better.” She held up her hand, with Band-Aid around one finger, and Jason, Kevin, and Solomon each took a turn kissing it.
My friend Lisa looked at me. “That’s why she’s popular,” Lisa said. “Because she does things like that. ‘Oh, my pinkie hurts, kiss it better. Mwa mwa.’ ”It was enlightening to me – just what made some girls earn male attention more than others. Sure, Karen was pretty too, but there were other pretty girls who didn’t have these boys literally wrapped around her finger. So what was her secret? Was acting like a baby the way to get their attention? I didn’t know. I still don’t know.
In any case, just as the popular people were obvious, so were the unpopular ones. The kid who got picked on most was Ellis, a skinny guy with a long face and big ears who rarely talked. It was unfortunate for him that he had a weird name, too.I guess I was as guilty as anyone of falling under the spell of the loud-mouthed, popular kids. I tingled with appreciation when they simply said hello. I think it was a relief. Kevin might say “Good catch” if I caught a kickball or Karen might say hi to me in the pavilion. It was different from school. One of the boys, Solomon, was a truly nice kid – and handsome. He had brown eyes, blonde hair, a crooked nose, and sometimes played Spit with Lisa and me and the girls. He was the one who made what I considered a revelation: Mountain Dew had orange juice in it. The fact that a popular boy talked to us without any sarcastic asides to his friends, or meanness, made me happy.
Anyway, at some point early in the summer, Jason decided that he, Kevin, Solomon, Karen, and Beth were a “family.” Karen and Jason were the mom and dad. Kevin and Solomon were brothers in the family. Beth was a sister.“Come on, sister!” Kevin would bark to Beth. “Let’s dive into the pool!”
“Okay, brother!”Other kids in our group would go up to them and ask Jason what they were in the family. “You’re a cousin,” Jason would say.
“We should ask what we are,” Lisa said to me. “I bet we’re cousins.”We didn’t ask, but I assumed we were cousins too. Almost everyone was a cousin. The only other thing to be was not a member of the family.
Now, Ellis, we were sure, was not a member of the family. Ellis didn’t belong. Eillis never asked what he was. Jason, Karen, and Kevin largely just picked on him, calling him a "spazz" and other choice insults of the time.Other than that, it was a good summer – warm, fun, friendly.
Then came color wars. I loved color wars. No longer were competitions confined to the standard ballfields. We had peanut hunts, swim races. I always found the peanuts that were hidden in the unusual places that no one else would think of, like up a tree or nestled behind a metal outdoor electrical outlet. Those were painted blue, worth three points. And in the water, I was a fast swimmer. Jason and Kevin were both on my team and said nice things to me when I won first place in the swim race. That night, I had a dream about Jason – that he and I were in the pool, splashing, and I was making my way over to him. I can assure you that it was a relatively innocent dream, but it just showed how easy it was for me to have a crush on someone just because he was nice to me.Then came the counselor kickball game.
It was a hot day. I could almost see the air rippling. All of us kids sat on concrete cylinders beyond the outfield. The counselors had their chance to act as campers for one game only during color war, and they took it, competing with all their heart.I sat on one of the cylinders that was furthest back. When a ball sailed over our heads, a home run, one of us campers would run to get it and bring it back.
The sun climbed hotter in the sky and dust floated up from the field and we hoped our counselors would earn us some points.I decided that I would go get the next ball that went into the outfield.
My counselor, Scott, was up. He was a good athlete. He booted the ball clear over my head. I ran back to go get it.At the exact same time, Ellis ran to get it, too.
We were neck and neck. I knew I would not let Ellis beat me. Everyone thought he was a spazz, after all. I was going to get that ball – not spazzy ol’ Ellis.Finally, I made it to the red rubber kickball – just a second before Ellis did. I picked it up happily.
Ellis looked at me. “You think you’re such a hotshot,” he said.I froze.
What he said to me was just the kind of thing I thought about the popular kids back in my elementary school. My mouth went dry. Was I becoming just like them? How easily it had happened. I looked down at the ball. I usually wasn’t the one to make waves, to do something that popular kids would do.“No I don’t,” I said in a low voice, and I gave him the ball. I didn’t want to touch it.
Ellis proudly ran back to the field, and I shuffled behind him, ashamed. I didn't want to hurt anyone. I knew how bad that felt. I didn’t want to be like Them.