Sometimes in life, events happen that bring old wounds to the surface. Whitney Houston, a legend in her own right, died yesterday at the age of 48. When I heard the news, I felt extremely sad. And then, a flood of difficult memories came into my mind. That box where we store away the difficult moments in our life was opened with her death.
Why? Because, the summer I got kicked out of Camp Hillel sleep away camp, was the summer I spent consoling myself to Whitney Houston’s music.
It’s funny, but this past Shabbat I was talking to my friend about my summer camp experiences, and I mentioned this incident. But sometimes, we can mention moments and still keep them locked away. Today, they all came to the surface.
I was 11 years old and it was the summer after 6th grade. It was my second summer at Camp Hillel sleep away camp in Swan Lake, Pennsylvania. I was in bunk 5A with a couple of friends from elementary school and girls who had been there the summer before. I ended up getting the bottom bunk bed at the entrance to our bunk, directly beneath one of my counselors. My older sister was also at camp that summer, and it was comforting to have her around.
I was a messy kid. I remember unpacking my trunk and not finding any hangers, so I folded my summer dresses and put them in the back of one of my cubbies. I wasn’t dirty though, and always showered when it was my turn, and wore clean clothing.
But, I didn’t make friends easily, and my bunk mates were challenging. A lot of the girls had cliqued off early and it was hard for me to break into the cliques. I was friendly and outgoing, so I was willing to work at it. I was also fairly athletic (didn’t have the weight problem yet) and excelled at swimming. I could also kick that ball really far during kickball.
I made a couple of mistakes about 2 weeks into the summer. One night, after lights out, I sat on my friend’s bed with about four other girls, and we were talking. It was then that I mentioned that I was seeing a psychologist back home. One of the girls asked me what that was, and I explained that he was a doctor I talked to about some of the issues I had at home and at school. That girl later told my counselor, who told our division head, who told the head of girls campus.
So, this is the 1980’s, and going to see a shrink was no where near as popular and accepting as it is today. In fact, if people were in therapy in the 80’s, it was this huge secret. Unfortunately, no one ever told me to be ashamed of it. No one ever told me not to talk about it. And so, I made the big mistake of telling my bunk mates. (Side note: I am extremely thankful that my parents sent me to a therapist, even though there was a tremendous stigma if anyone found out. They cared enough about me to know that I needed some help, and tried their hardest to help me).
Second, the head of girls campus hated my guts. Why? Because her twin daughters were my age and we didn’t get along. In fact, I didn’t get along with them the previous summer, and I’m pretty sure we fought a lot (never physical, just verbal) and Mommy Head Honcho didn’t like it that her daughter’s were having issues with a particular camper. This is an important piece of information to remember as you continue to read my story.
Once the head of girls campus heard about my shrink, she sounded the alarm and put me on probation. However, she never told me she put me on probation. Then, the second Shabbat of camp, there was a major heat wave. And, of course, I couldn’t find my summer dresses. Why? Because I had folded them into a ball in the back of my cubbie and forgot they were there. I had nothing to wear to shul and no one would lend me anything. So, I took out a white sweater dress, and wore it. I had nothing else.
Well, the head of girls campus FREAKED that I was wearing a sweater dress in 90 degree weather. She yelled at me and sent me back to my bunk to find appropriate clothing. Fortunately, my sister saw the screaming and she got permission from her counselor to help me. She knew I had summer dresses, since she was there when my Mom packed me up, and so she started looking for them. We went through the entire closet and then emptied all of my cubbies, until we found the dresses in the back. Truth be told, I was relieved we found them because I was really hot in that sweater. I thanked her, got dressed in a summer outfit, and rejoined my group.
That night, I went to sleep at lights out and was woken up by my counselor when she came in after her curfew. Now, at age 11, I did not do well with being woken up when I was tired. Our counselors thought it would be fun to wake us at 11:00 p.m. and have a little chat, but I wasn’t up for it. And so, I started crying. I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. I remember the look my counselor and junior counselor gave each other as I bawled and begged to be allowed to go back to sleep. It was the look of “oh, this camper isn’t a team player. She’s the only one upset while everyone else is ready to go and have fun.” Well, too damn bad. I was behaving like a normal, exhausted, 11 year old and they shouldn’t have woken me up to begin with.
The next day, Sunday, was laundry day. I put all my laundry in, remembered to pin my socks, and used a mesh bag when necessary. I remember being in the shower that night and one of the girls was bullying me from the sinks. I told her to leave me alone and she punched me through the curtain. When I went to complain to my counselor, she ignored me. That was hurtful. That night, before dinner, I was called to the girls campus HQ for a phone call. It was my shrink.
Now, I wasn’t smart enough then to be surprised. I didn’t know how he had the number, why he was calling me, or what was going on. I thought maybe it was part of therapy and I was supposed to have phone consultations with him. The head of girls campus stood listening in the entire time, as I spoke to him on the phone. He basically asked me how I was doing and whether or not I was getting along with my bunk mates. I admitted that some of the girls were more difficult than others but I was having a good time. We hung up and I went to the dining hall, oblivious of what was to come.
When the laundry came back later that week, I was lazy. I decided I didn’t want to fold it and put it into my cubbie. Instead, I opened my duvet cover and stuffed it in there. I figured, when I was ready, I would just put it away some other time. But, I didn’t think that I would get busted during bunk inspection. Sure enough, once the division head found my laundry in my duvet cover, she freaked out! I got punished and had to stay back from an activity to put the laundry away.
That night, I was called to the camp owner’s bungalow for my second phone call with my shrink. Now, never once during this time at camp did I hear or speak with my parents. But, they knew what was going on, as they were working tireless to make sure the camp didn’t kick me out. I also never said more than 2 words to the camp owners, the people who agreed to kick me out of camp. In fact, while in their bungalow on the phone with my shrink, neither of them were present. My shrink didn’t let on that anything about my behavior was going to get me kicked out. He just asked me how things were going and if I was happy. I answered honestly, that all was fine, as I itched to get back to my friends.
A few days later, it was all over. I remember sitting at shiur with my bunk mates and seeing a truck rumble past toward girls campus, with a trunk in it. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Then, my name was called over the loud speaker, to go to the girls HQ, and I left shiur early. I arrived at HQ to find my parents. I was happy to see them but really surprised. I remember what my Mom was wearing, a pair of purple capris and a white, button down shirt with a ladies face on it. She put her arm around me and told me that they were there to take me home. I was shocked. I told her that I didn’t want to go home. She said that the camp wanted me to leave.
The next two hours were a complete blur. My Mom and sister packed my trunk with all my stuff while my bunk mates – suddenly my best friends – hugged me and told me they would miss me. The head of girls campus observed everything, she couldn’t wait to get me off of camp property. Our division head escorted us to our car, to make sure we really left camp grounds (or maybe to deal with her own guilt, she her parents attended my parents shul in Queens and she knew I was a good kid). Once again, the camp owners didn’t say a word to me.
I cried the entire drive back to Queens. I kept asking my parents what I did wrong. I kept going over and over in my mind the moments I could have changed. I should have asked for hangers for my dresses, so I didn’t wear a warm sweater dress on a hot day. I could have just put away my laundry, and not stuffed it into my duvet cover. I shouldn’t have told the girls I was seeing a shrink. I shouldn’t have cried when my counselors woke me up late a night.
But you see, what really upset me the most, is that I never broke any of the rules that got someone immediately kicked out of camp. I never physically assaulted anyone. I never went on a raid to the boys camp (although, that’s the story I told everyone back at school, when they asked why I got kicked out of camp. I had to save face and make it seem like I was really bad, got caught on a raid, and deserved to be booted), I never brought non-kosher food to the camp, I never lit a fire or tried to destroy camp property. I never tried to run away or leave camp grounds.
Should I have been kicked out of camp? Absolutely not. The owners of the camp dropped the ball, big time. They had a responsibility to me, and they failed me. Why didn’t they try changing my bunk? Why didn’t anyone ever discuss with me that I was on probation, or that my actions would get me kicked out of camp? I was never, ever warned.
A week and a half later was visiting day, and of course I had to come back to see my sister. Where else would my parents leave me when the entire family came for the day? I was excited to talk to my bunk mates and ran ahead after my Dad parked the car. I asked the girls whose parents hadn’t arrived yet, what I missed being gone. They told me that one of our bunk mates had hepatitis and they all had to get shots in their asses. I didn’t think much of it but I did mention it to my Mom minutes later. She, of course, got pissed off and went to the division head to find out the story. And wouldn’t you know it, but about 20 minutes later I was in the infirmary getting a shot in my ass! And let me tell you, hepatitis shots in the ass are not fun. They hurt. Now envision a 6 hour car ride home. As if getting kicked out wasn’t bad enough, this was the visiting day experience from hell.
But that moment, getting kicked out of camp, haunted me for more than a decade. I suddenly feared I would get kicked out of elementary school, and later high school, for the slightest indiscretion. My seventh grade year was the worst I’d ever had. I was ridiculed and bullied by just about everyone. They had all heard I was kicked out of camp, and no one bothered to ask if I deserved it. They had branded me a “problem child,” and with that brand I endured a year from hell. My issues with my parents exacerbated as the issues with the kids in school got even worse. I was getting it at both ends – in school and at home – and I felt like there was no one there for me. I acted out even more, and felt like there was no one in my corner.
I tried to commit suicide midway through the year. Crouched behind the garbage can in my parents kitchen, I took my Father’s Challah knife and tried to slit my wrists. It was the wrong knife to take, and after a few tries, I lost my nerve. It also hurt a lot, and so I made some cuts on my hand and arm, rinsed off the knife, and went back upstairs to my room. I wasn’t going to get off easy, and I would spend years dealing with my adolescent pain.
I worried and had constant anxiety throughout my seminary year in Israel. I would ask my Rabbi if he was upset with me and if that meant he would send me home. It wasn’t until college, YEARS later, that I finally realized that I wasn’t going to get expelled.
But those scars remained with me. I have spent years going over and over that summer in my mind. As an adult, I could really understand things better. My counselors were shitty little 16 year old’s who had no idea what they were doing. They heard therapist and immediately branded me a sociopath. What did they know? At 16, they had absolutely zero experience working with youth. They weren’t trained to take care of us, and all they cared about was getting a good tip from our parents and meeting boys.
I also realized that it’s never a good idea to have a child in the same bunk/class as a child of one of the administrators/head counselors, etc. Those parents cannot be neutral, they cannot separate being a Mother with being an educator. They cannot choose what’s best for another child at the expense of their own child.
I will make part of my decisions about my girls schooling and other camp/schools based on whether or not they might share a class/bunk with an administrator’s child. If possible, I will make sure that never happens. The head of girls campus never should have made the call to kick me out of camp, or wielded such influence on the decision with the camp owners. But since both of her daughters were in the only other bunks in my division, she would not have switched me into a different bunk. She wasn’t willing to risk HER child having a bad experience, or possibly not getting along with me. She chose her children’s happiness first, I do not think another person would have done the same. But I blame the camp owners for not seeing through her personal stake in the situation, she definitely didn’t want me around. The responsible action would have been to move my bunk, and see how I did with different counselors and different girls. THAT would have been the right thing to do.
As a Mother today, I understand why she did what she did. Truth be told, if I had been in the same shoes at the head of girls campus, I do not know if I would have made a different choice. I would protect my child at all cost. But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t put myself in that position to begin with.
It was just my bad luck that I was in the same division as the head of girls campuses’ twin daughters. If I were a year young, or a year older, there could have been other options for me. I’ve stopped asking “what if’s” a long time ago, sometimes – no matter how painful things are – it’s just meant to be.
And so, that brings me back to Whitney Houston. I spent the remaining weeks at home. It was too late to enroll me in any day camp, so I was stuck spending my days at my parents house. My Grandmother took care of me, and schlepped me on all her errands. She taught me how to test the ripeness of a melon or pick sweet grapes (the trick is to eat one until you find the sweet ones). My Aunt Irene Z”L took me to her house and taught me how to bake chocolate chip cookies.
And my Mom stayed home a few days from work, and put the sprinkler on in the back yard. I popped my Stacey Q and Whitney Houston cassette tapes into our portable tape recorder, and drowned my sorrows while dancing to the music, underneath the gentle pelting of the water sprinkler.