When I turned 12 in the early 1980s, I aged out of my old day camp an hour from home, which was run by a relative. So my parents sent me straight into the woods.
Or more accurately, they sent me to the no-frills camp up the road from home, in one of New Jersey's remaining swaths of still-undeveloped forest. I was terrified–but not because of nature. It was that too many people I knew went to this camp, including the two most popular girls in my school, Jen Golden and Debbie Franz. They constantly mocked my tiny best friend Lisa and me for our shyness, clothes, and any answers we gave in class. In camp, I would be alone, and thus an easy target.
The first morning, we all trooped through thin pines to a pavilion for "morning pow-wow." Jen and Deb sat atop the sixth grade girls' picnic table as if they owned it. When Jen saw me, she whispered to a lanky girl I didn't know. That was the worst part of being an outcast–sometimes, your tormenters ruined your reputation before you even had a chance.
I noticed a small girl cowering on a bench, a cross dangling from her neck. There was always one girl who was more shy than I was.
"Heads up!" shouted our counselor. "We're going to the cabins to change for swim!"
What? At school, we didn't change for gym, just brought our sneakers. I didn't want everyone to see my scrawny body—or worse, the little flowers on my panties.
The girl with the cross and I trudged silently to the cabin. Inside, I faced a dark corner and changed quickly. Behind me, Debbie hissed, "Are you ashamed of your body?" I stayed silent, since any awkward reply would be more fodder for teasing. Besides, yes: I was ashamed, and it wasn't anyone's damn business.
Our counselor said that after swim, we'd have the rest of the day to do what we wanted since sixth-graders deserved freedom. What would I do for six hours in the woods? How to avoid Deb and Jen?
I began lugging books to camp each day, armloads of young-adult novels I plucked from the musty shelves of the old brick Freehold Library. I still remember sitting under the rafters in the pavilion, the sun striping my legs, and feeling the stiff spines of plastic dust jackets creak when I plunged into Lois Duncan, Lois Lowry, and M.E. Kerr.
"I've never heard of anyone having to bring books to camp," my father sniffed. That's what you get for exiling me from the air conditioning so mom can watch "All My Children" by herself, I thought.
But, eventually, I found a bright spot.
On a Thursday afternoon, I got on the bus and saw only a few seats left. I plopped beside a girl with short, dark hair. I vaguely knew her name was Corey and she was in fifth grade.
The bus crawled out of camp. The kids did what they always did—screamed out the windows at the elderly woman who lived next door, who liked to come wave to us each afternoon.
Corey turned to me and said in a scratchy voice, "I don't really like that people make fun of her. But sometimes I do it just because the other kids do."
I was speechless. No kid had ever said anything this honest or heartfelt to me. Instead, we tried to be tough and emotionless, lest we get teased. Yet here was this girl who'd bared her soul.
"I think it's mean too," I said. "I vowed I'd never do it."
We talked about our schools and the popular girls. I told her I wanted to stay home and ride bikes and watch TV. TV and music meant everything to me in the early '80s. Each week, I cut lists from the newspaper of the Billboard-ranked songs and Nielsen-rated top shows, pasting them into an underground newspaper my father photocopied for me to give out at school.
Corey and I discussed our favorite shows. We enjoyed the silly "Dukes of Hazzard" and the sardonic "Greatest American Hero," but I had an important question.
"Do you like 'The A-Team'?"
The show had premiered in January and was a new favorite. I desperately wanted to be like Hannibal (played by the handsome George Peppard), who remained calm and cool in any situation. A Vietnam vet and soldier of fortune, he often wound up surrounded by the enemy, but he'd smile, let a cigar dangle from even lips and slay his adversaries with one brilliant response.
Corey's eyes opened wide.
"I love it!" she gushed. "Did you see the one where Hannibal looked at the bad guy and said, 'Hickory dickory dock. The mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one, the mouse ran down, and you smell like a pair of old socks!'"
We threw our heads back and cackled. What a friend!
The next afternoon, after a day of dodging Deb and Jen, I got on the bus. Corey called, "I saved you a seat!" She didn't look for anyone's approval. Every afternoon, we chatted about our parents (mine weren't getting along so well), my brother in summer school and how Corey had told the kids in her group to leave the old lady alone.
During the third week of camp, my father hit his limit. He overheard me tell my mother I needed to bring my own hot dogs and marshmallows to the camp barbecue.
He met with the camp director and asked for his money back. "I've never heard of a kid bringing books to camp," he said.
The director said, "The sixth-grade girls prefer their day unstructured."
I took my marshmallows and books home.
In the car, I watched trees fly by, then houses. I never got the chance to tell Corey I was leaving. I didn't even know her last name.
There are times when we become friends with someone because they work with us or live nearby, but occasionally we're lucky enough to find a friend who understands us, even if it's just that they admit to the same corny guilty pleasures or agree it's terrible to pick on the old lady next door. So, as another summer draws to a close, I'm reminded of something—a friend who truly "gets" you is a treasure at any age.