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The First Two Weeks of Jewish Summer Camp

October 31, 2013

At Jewish summer camp, it was always the same.  I would show up, ready to make best friends who would be like sisters to me, to have the “summer of my life,” and to maybe talk to a boy for at least five minutes without blushing.  My expectations were always inexplicably high when it came to Jewish summer camp.  But somehow, in spite of these high hopes, I always, always managed to get off to a rocky start.

One summer, the airport pickup van entered the wooden gates of the camp and stopped on the white gravel path which led to the cabins.  A quick moment of indecision entered my head: the oversized Looney Toons t-shirt I was wearing–should I tuck it into my khaki shorts or leave it out?  Out, I thought, after a moment.  I won’t have to worry about proper tucking methods if I do it that way.

And so, t-shirt out, giant trunk in tow, I was led by a busy counselor to the wooden building which would be my cabin for the next four weeks.  I met some of my cabinmates, all of whom were busy unpacking and getting things organized and not quite ready to solidify their friendships with me.  I found my bed on the bottom bunk and spread out my sheets and sleeping bag.  And so began the first two weeks of camp. 

Every year, without exception, the first two weeks of camp went the same.  I was nice.  I followed people and tried to join the conversation.  Then I was quiet.  Then I was nice again.  But I could not get anyone to talk to me for longer than a polite hello.  Sometimes I would cry myself to sleep.  Sometimes I would tell a counselor.  But always, it was the same.  For two weeks, I was completely alone.

Occasionally, as the two weeks wore on, the other campers would drop crumbs.  One day, I said something funny, and people laughed.  “I knew you’d be cool,” said Aliana, a blonde girl who bought her flower-covered denim shorts from 5-7-9 and would occasionally lend them out to a member of the pleading masses.  She hadn’t laughed at my joke.

“What?”  I said.  “What do you mean?  How did you know?” 

“Oh, I could just tell,” she said, cryptically, before walking back to her bed. 

And one day, in the third week, we had the cabin outdoor camping retreat, and suddenly, I was in like flint.  Hannah, the queen bee of our cabin, walked arm in arm with me around the soccer field.  We were collecting onion flowers and eating them.  Aliana and Janine flocked to us.  The four of us laughed.  We told dirty jokes about tampons. In short, we spent the entire evening in friends ’til the end mode.

The next morning, at the breakfast table, a girl named Rachel told me that she and her friends had not spoken to me for the first two weeks of camp because of what I had worn on the first day.  “You had on a long t-shirt, and I couldn’t tell if you were wearing anything underneath it.  I thought, this girl is weird.  She’s not even wearing shorts.”  And so, I realized, I had made the wrong wardrobe decision on that first day.  And how it had cost me!

The last week of camp, girls sat on my bed after lights out, and we told dark secrets.  We told each other what we knew about boys and kissing and sex.  Everything I know, to this day, I probably learned from those girls. 

When the girls of my cabin gathered together in a circle for cabin time, everything I said was met with shrieks of appreciative laughter.  When we went around and gave each other compliment beads, I got a bracelet full of yellow “funny” beads (with a sprinkling of pink “crazy” beads thrown into the mix).

I had everyone sign my pillow case.  “You’re crazy!!!” they wrote.  “Never forget scary pillows!  Haha!”  “I’ll miss you!!!”  “Keep in touch!!!”

And when it was over, I cried. 

But that first two weeks just kept popping up.  Every year.  Even long after Jewish summer camp.  It seems I’m someone who has to put in my time before I’m seen as a funny girl rather than as a pantsless wonder.  Maybe that’s true for all of us.

All I know is, for every job I’ve ever held, it was only when I showed up on that first day of the second year that people suddenly greeted me like they were actually happy to see me.  Year one is like the first two weeks of summer camp.

So now, as I whittle away at year one at my new job and try not to cry myself to sleep at night, I’ll just have to keep that in mind.  Before I know it, these dismissive glances and accusatory tones will turn into late night sleeping bag chats about tampons.  Or something like that. 

And man oh man.  I can’t wait.

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