The cabin was packed with bunk beds. Each dusty striped mattress was within reach of a wooden shelf on the wall for any personal items we might need for the week. I watched anxiously as Sandra Genatossio plunked down her bottle of “Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific” shampoo on a shelf right next to the one I had chosen.
I knew I was screwed.
We were sixth graders growing up in the 80’s, and for most us it was the first real trip away from home; a school retreat meant to bring a group of spoiled, moderately wealthy and slightly entitled youngsters to a place where they could climb ropes, sing kumbaya by a campfire, and commune with nature. As a kid from one of the country-club obsessed Boston suburbs, a week at Camp Sargent was like going to Mars. Though in reality it was a nature camp an hour north of home, located by a lake in New Hampshire.
I looked around me, taking in the dark and dusty surroundings – including the dreaded shampoo bottle on the shelf next to mine. By my count we were supposed to be ten to a room. I realized for the first time how important my bunk mates might be to my (currently brainy and slightly weird) elementary school status. But as I had feared, soon after Sandra and I claimed our shelves, two equally brainy and slightly weird classmates sought refuge on the bunk beds across from us.
I sighed. The little piece of camp real estate I had found myself occupying was not going to help elevate my social status in any way. I watched as only eight of the ten beds filled in my room; the bouncy girls who ate baloney sandwiches on white bread quickly choosing the bunks in the next room.
I was more of a wholegrain bread kid…the kind filled with crunchy seeds that get stuck between your incisors. The opportunity for moving to the lunch table with those that donned shiny, perfect ponytails and consumed the glorious spongy miracle that was wonder bread had passed me by in an instant.
I refocused and remembered that this was meant to be an adventure. I figured that I could almost certainly prove my coolness another way. I wandered out of the cabin for my first meeting with my assigned counselor. The camp organizers were putting us in groups, each led by an uber-enthusiastic twenty-something professional outdoorsman or woman wearing fleece and/or plaid.
I walked through the dirt trail to the location assigned to me, shivering a little and noticing that I could see my breath. Our elementary school excursion was taking place, of all times, in November. Regardless, I remember thinking that the activities were going to be amazing, and no doubt opportunity to prove my value to the wonderbread girls was around every corner.
I followed the others to our counselor meet-and-greet with the excitement of a puppy. I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to find one of my teachers. “Iris, there you are. Your mother told me she was worried that you were starting to get an ear infection, and she said that you had to wear this any time you were outside”.
She held out her hand. I saw she was carrying a hat. A blue knit hat. With a large pom-pom on the top. A hat that had a big heart in the front, under the words “I love you”.
I think that might have been the first time in my life that the words “oh shit” popped into my head.
There was no way in hell the wonderbread girls were going to want anything to do with anyone wearing that hat.
It was not often that my mother hovered; one would think my mom was more likely to uncork champagne as I boarded the bus than take time to send the teacher specific instructions for my wellbeing. But in elementary school she chose to be protective about a few key things – and only a few – but those things seemed to consistently impair my ability to hang with the cool kids.
The first example involved the aforementioned whole grain bread. Throughout my childhood my mother would have rather seen me starve than eat any processed “American crap” for lunch, so I was sent to school with money for milk (and milk only – my wise mother knew any liquid sugar would cost more), a piece of fruit, and a sandwich that was the picture image of any American 11 year-old’s mid-day nightmare; weird oniony pickled veggies on thick, brown-colored bread filled with good quality salty German meats. She insisted upon it. The first time the saintly Vanessa Gleason, wearing her perfect white Izod sweater, saw my lunch in the Lincoln Elementary School cafeteria her nose wrinkled up so far she looked like a very pale and preppy pig wearing pearl earrings.
The second example stems from my mother’s very real, and very German, fear of exposing necks and heads to the cold. Germans are convinced that if a scarf is not covering your throat, or a hat is not warming your cranium, you will come down with the plague. Therefore I should not have been surprised about the hat.
I wasn’t surprised. No, I was mortified. Pre-teens in the 80s trudged through snow in flats and stonewashed jeans with perfectly crimped hair. There was no hat wearing. Ever.
Alas, I was a good daughter who listened to her mother’s only occasional pleas for behavioral modification, as they came so darn infrequently and served as a reminder that she actually would rather see me alive and well than suffering from disease (even if it was an imaginary ear infection). So I put on the hat.
In the end, I was a chubby and awkward pre-teen girl fumbling with a pom-pom adorned “I Love You” hat, wandering to meet her assigned group for a week of team building activities at Camp Sargent.
It didn’t help that the first adventure also involved me wearing a swiss seat, dangling from a tree.
Truly a sight to behold.