The school I attended for most of my education was not very good at field trips. I suppose the field trips were fine and educational. When I say that they weren’t really good at field trips, I suppose I mean that the majority of the field trips were science-centric as opposed to throwing the arts a bone every once in awhile, and very few of those field trips gave us any outdoors time.
Well. There was one major exception.
At my middle school, each grade took a significant trip somewhere. In eighth grade, the class traveled to Washington, D.C., a trip I opted out of because I was a serious ballet dancer and couldn’t afford the time off. Seventh graders spent about twelve hours roaming around Lansing, our state capital, which was actually quite a bit of fun. The seventh-grade trip is probably the best trip because it doesn’t have an overnight time commitment. I only went on one of the trips with overnight time—the sixth-grade trip.
Sixth graders were sent to something called science camp. I don’t remember a lot of science actually going on at science camp, but that was what it was called. It was four nights and five days at this tiny camp about an hour and a half away from metro Detroit. I didn’t want to go.
See, I’ve never been good at leaving home, which is why it will be interesting to see what happens when I move to an entirely new state this summer. I get anxious in hotels, and for a long time in elementary school, I couldn’t commit to a sleepover. It wasn’t even the kind of thing where I’d call home at 10:00 because I couldn’t do it. It was the kind of thing where I knew for a fact I couldn’t handle it, so my parents would tell the hosting parents that they were coming to get me at 10:00. In the fourth grade, my mother fiercely encouraged me to attend and stay the whole night for two sleepovers, and although my body was present the entire time, I never slept. All the other girls managed. Not me.
I lay awake on the basement floor the entire time, worried that if I fell asleep in a home that wasn’t mine, I’d spontaneously combust. There was no rhyme or reason to that fear. It simply was. By this point, the girls who would be staying in my cabin at science camp understood just how awful I was at sleepovers. I didn’t want to put them through that living hell for an entire school week.
But I did. Somehow, I was actually worse at science camp than I was at a regular sleepover.
Actually, let’s rephrase that. Of course I had a harder time sleeping at science camp. At a regular sleepover, you have luxuries that science camp just cannot provide. You can watch TV at a regular sleepover. There’s a fridge upstairs to raid for Coca-Cola and cold pizza from earlier that night. You can read by the light of the world’s smallest flashlight if you can’t sleep without your friend’s mother yelling at you to turn it off. A few years later, I actually got that mother’s seal of approval, which was both my crowning glory and the scariest moment of my life, tied with the time my second-grade friend’s very British grandmother yelled in my face. Instead of sleeping at science camp, I spent the entire time sobbing into my pillow, and weirdly, I think I had “Greensleeves” stuck in my head every single night.
No one was playing “Greensleeves.” I think I just wrote my first horror-film tagline.
My parents had written me letters for each day I was to be apart from them, safely secured in this enormous Adidas bag that they insisted I take on every overnight trip I ever made, ever, until the end of twelfth grade. With my parents, however, a letter is never a quick, “Love you! Hope you’re having fun!” Instead, my parents are gifted writers. Every letter they have ever written to me is long, filled with references to classic literature, film, or music, features at least one piece of Scripture, and manages to somehow end in exactly the way that it began. The letters that my parents write to me are works of art. So, of course, every time I opened one, I cried. I wanted to be home so badly.
It wasn’t like anyone was being mean to me, really. I’ve probably mentioned before that the girls in my cabin were some of the sweetest girls in the entire sixth grade, and one of them is still a good friend of mine. I just really wanted to go home. I don’t mix well with the whole camp concept. I like my TV. I like being able to read after hours. I like it when I know how to turn on the shower and get something other than freezing cold water. I also think it would make a lot more sense to have a bunch of twelve-year-old kids running around outside in a month that isn’t March in Michigan, but I digress.
Camp food is another big thing with me. I hate it. I don’t remember much of the way that this food tasted, but I do remember that the moms at my table talked a lot about Velveeta and how they never use it in their cooking, so how dare the camp? The camp also put a really weird ban on chocolate, so a then-friend of mine and her mother (certified chocoholics) smuggled some in. It was classic, and they were my heroes that whole week. The weird thing about this camp’s food is that they really, really, really didn’t want you to eat it.
Allow me to explain. Since this was technically “science” camp, the counselors did this thing where at the end of every meal, they weighed the garbage to see how much food had been wasted. Their goal was to get the entire camp to waste no food. When it was time to weigh the garbage, they’d always come out and turn it into a big dorky production. At one point, they parodied “Star Wars,” and the counselor dressed as C-3PO (the one all the girls in my class thought was so cute because when you’re twelve, you always look for a boy to turn into the cute one) suggested very false British-ly that we should all take smaller portions to make sure we achieved that coveted “zero waste.”
What they were saying, I quickly discovered, was that we should either eat all of the food that we human pigs thought we could handle, or we should eat so little that we had nothing left on our plates by the end of the meal. It seemed a little unreasonable.
While I was no good at sleeping at the camp, I might have actually been worse at the outdoor activities we were expected to perform. When I say that I like to be outside, I mean that I like to take walks, contemplate plots and characters for new stories, and I like to sit on a patio table, reading a book that might not be very good. Science camp didn’t give me the opportunity to do any of that. Science camp needed me to run up and down hills and pretend to be a spider as I made my way through their impossible obstacle courses. I accidentally broke the rules of that obstacle course, which meant that my entire team would have to start over, but I successfully convinced my counselor that she was the one who made the mistake. For that, I must thank my latent Slytherin House tendencies.
The one outdoors activity that I was even remotely “good” at was horseback riding—the simplest horseback riding in the history of horseback riding. I think we just went in a big circle around this barn that smelled like what the bathroom smells like after Grandpa Fred is done using it in “Sixteen Candles,” probably. But of course, horseback riding was ruined for me, too, when my horse decided it would take an enormous crap in the middle of the trail.
As soon as that happened, the boy behind me shouted, “Ewwwwwwww!” and spent the remainder of our time at science camp (and the rest of the school year) discussing the incident as if I had been the one who took the enormous crap in the middle of the trail. If you asked that boy what happened during horseback riding at science camp today, he probably wouldn’t remember, but if he did, I’m 100% sure he’d tell the story as if I had been the one to poop outside that day.
The day we went horseback riding turned into the night that we all gathered together in the mess hall for a dance. I believe every girl in my cabin was asked to the dance except for me. They all helped each other get ready and put on makeup and giggled about holding hands with the boys they liked. I, however, stood in the coat closet, read the letter my mother had written to me that day, and cried. I wanted to be home so badly, and no one had asked me to the dance, which would later become a recurring theme in my life. It wasn’t that I even liked any of the boys in my class. I didn’t. It was just that it would have been nice to be asked by someone. Come to think of it, the boy behind me during horseback riding and his story about what happened on the trail might have ruined my chances for dance dates that night… and for the next six years of middle and high school after that.
This week of camp-like hell took place more than ten years ago, and I still find myself thinking about it all the time. I’ve been traumatized. I’ve been traumatized by my screwed-up sleeping patterns, by the fact that these people weighed their garbage cans in front of children, and the memory of my horse taking a dump when I was just trying to have a good time. We were also forced to participate in this incredibly racist reenactment of life on the Underground Railroad. I didn’t even get into that. I still have war flashbacks to sixth-grade science camp. Now you can see why.
Admit it. You wouldn’t want someone weighing the garbage in front of you.