12 Life Lessons
In seven years of sleepaway camp, I learned everything from how to shuck corn and milk a cow to how to dance the opening number from "A Chorus Line" (what can I say, I was a kid with eclectic tastes). But some of my most valuable life lessons weren't exactly the kinds of things camp owners brag about in their glossy brochures.
1. How to shave your legs
Put a dozen 11- or 12-year-old girls in a bunk together for a month and—guaranteed—not one of them will come home with any hair left on her legs. Even kids with peachiest of blond fuzz took their turn with the plastic Daisy razor.
2. The coolest kids are from New York City
Most of the girls in my East Coast camps came from the generic, mall-centric lands of Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey. The rare birds from Manhattan and Brooklyn (we're talking old-school, pre-hipster Brooklyn) effortlessly stood out from the pack with their cool clothes from vintage stores and stories about taking the subway to school. I have spent the rest of my life trying to be one of them.
3. Critters like candy, too
The most important lesson about nature I ever learned: If you leave an unopened bag of M&Ms on your bunk bed, you will come back from swimming lessons to find a mouse-shaped hole in it.
4. What “second base” really means
As a very sheltered 10-year-old at 4-H camp, I sat in slack-jawed disbelief as a bunkmate described an encounter with a boy that involved the voluntary removal of a swimsuit top. End. Of. Innocence.
5. Nice Girls sometimes go through a "mean girl" phase
You know that sweet, quiet girl from your eighth grade social studies class who you thought you'd hang out with when you both went to the same camp? Well, summer lets you reinvent yourself, and it turns out sometimes there's a mean girl underneath just waiting to be let loose.
6. But that also means you can reinvent yourself
As one of the smallest kids in my school, who had a batting average of .000 in Little League, I will never forget the moment one of my camp friends introduced me to another kid as "the jock" of Bunk 12, because I could do a decent cartwheel. For the rest of the summer, I was the jock, playing soccer and Newcomb with a passion I never knew before (or, frankly, since).
7. All you need to achieve huge hair is a handful of rubber bands
Back then, it was all about big hair, and if you didn't already have a perm, the most effective way to fake one was by making a million little braids in your wet hair and sleeping on it. Entire bunks of girls woke up looking like they had been electrocuted.
8. But don’t ever borrow your friend’s hairbrush
Or her baseball cap, or headband, or bandanna. Seriously. Unless you want to spend the next few nights sleeping in the nurse's cabin with a toxic lice treatment in your hair.
9. Nerdy boys can be cute, too
In school, there was an unspoken agreement among the girls that you could only ever develop a crush on one of the popular, athletic boys. But during the summer, when social rules melted away, you could suddenly appreciate that quiet boy with the shaggy hair who played Beatles songs on the guitar. Sigh.
10. When you run out of clean clothes, panty-liners come in very handy
Just saying, there's a reason your mom stuffed an extra box in your duffel bag.
11. Your parents have a life, too
Of course they miss you, and tears were shed when they dropped you off at the bus … but then why do all their letters describe weekend getaways, nights out with their friends and a blissful month of not making anyone's lunch or getting them up early for school?
12. You should never, ever take Chinese food for granted
After a summer of canned fruit cocktail, rubbery hot dogs and slabs of mystery meat on white bread, you start to dream about sesame chicken and chive dumplings. That's why the very first stop on the way home from the camp bus was always our local Szechuan joint. Mmm, dumplings.
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