(Warning: Explicit Language)
Camp Prison-Shit wasn’t really a prison and that wasn’t its real name anyway, but honest to God, it became my prison.
I wasn’t prepared for all that would ensue. Frankly, I never realized how sheltered my life had been in my little corner of the world. First, living in a Jewish neighborhood of Queens, then living for a year with relatives in Venezuela and finally moving out to the suburbs of Long Island. We weren’t well off by any means, but we were certainly okay.
If you were to ask me to pinpoint the moment I realized camp was hell, I couldn’t say. From the outset, I knew this camp would be different. It was for city kids who’d never really experienced the outdoors before. I’d seen an ad for the camp on TV and thought it looked like immense fun, but what did I know? The commercial depicted scenes of gleeful children splashing around in a lake, and taking part in potato sack races and sing-alongs around the campfire. What lucky kids, I had thought at the time.
I arrived at camp with the commercial looped in my brain and with the anticipation that camp life would be “as seen on TV,” only 10-weeks long instead of a minute. But despite the week of training I received, and despite requesting to be assigned to be with the youngest troop—the seven and eight year olds—because I thought they’d be innocent and sweet, when the first batch of children arrived, I wasn’t ready.
One week of orientation had not prepared me for this. I was just a counselor, after all, with no experience and only one year of college under my belt. I wasn’t a social worker. That’s for sure.
So before you hem and haw and draw any conclusions, know that I did my best. I really tried to win the girls over, and in some cases, I did. I wanted to be the best counselor I could be. I started out smiling and all polite, just like my mother taught me. But everyone has a breaking point, right?
About the only thing in common that the ad I had seen on TV had with real life was the location. The camp was on a lake, surrounded by hills and deep woods. Everything was green. Everywhere you looked there was an abundance of tall pines, golden wildflowers, rabbits, squirrels and luminous skies.
But somehow the commercial had skipped over the fact that a lot of the kids didn’t want to be there. Which is when it hit me that commercials are made with actors, not real kids with sassy attitudes and chips on their shoulders. Not with kids who are pissed at the life they’ve been handed and have never before ventured out of their comfort zone, no matter how much that comfort zone sucks. Turns out, some of these kids had been enrolled for their own good–unknowingly or against their will–by some adult in their lives, and didn’t make a secret of their hostility.
The first one off the bus that was assigned to my troop dropped her suitcase on my foot, and blurted, “Just so ya know, Bitch, ya can’t hold me here forever. I’ze got rights.”
The second one spit on the ground where we were standing and said, “Fuck this.”
These were eight years old. As other girls joined us, generally with the same attitude, though not all as blunt as the first two, it occurred to me that I had no idea how to communicate with children who didn’t want to connect, who couldn’t care less about being at camp and who, for all intents and purposes, were ready to go home the moment they stepped off the bus.
Some were very nice, but you know how it is. It’s the rude ones that get all the attention.
I had been teamed with two other counselors who were rookies like me. Denise, who was black and from the Bronx, and a Puerto Rican named Yolanda, who hailed from New Jersey. Well, Denise had her own urban street smarts and she decided she wasn’t about to take any crap from these girls.
“Shut the fuck up,” she told them in no uncertain terms. “Ya’ll nothing but a bunch of ol’ biddies. Ya here and you’s might as well get used to it, so shut the fuck up.”
She paused, surveyed the girls, most still holding on to their suitcases and staring back at Denise in stunned silence.
Pointing to Yolanda, and me, Denise went on and introduced us.
Then added, “My name’s Denise and don’t anyone forget that. Oh, yeah and welcome to Camp Prison-Shit.”
The girls looked at each other, not sure what to do.
“Yeah, you heard me. Now get in line and start marching. We’re gonna show you where ya’ll be sleeping for the next two weeks.”
She blew the whistle hanging around her neck, and the girls formed a line as fast as they could, though the one who called me a bitch took her time. Yolanda went over to her. Putting an arm around her back, she guided the girl to the back of the line with us, and off we went. Denise began to loudly sing one of the songs we’d learned during orientation week.
“…Your left, right, left
My back is aching,
My belt’s too tight
My booties shaking from left to right—“
As we made our way to our cabins, heading down a path that seemingly went on forever, the girl who had spit in my direction, shouted, “Where the fuck are you taking us?”
I was wondering that myself.
To Be Continued…