I arrived at summer camp with my sister and an attitude.
“Look at the cabins, trees and flowers,” Michele said, full of preteen optimism.
A few years older, I knew there was nothing to get excited about.
“You think sharing a room with me is bad,” I said. “You’ll be ready to scream after a week with six other girls and no air conditioning. When we go outside for a breath of fresh air, millions of mosquitoes will be there to greet us.”
I preferred a performing arts camp in the city where we’d sing, dance, and act for adoring audiences. My mother hoped I would discover something about myself during this weeklong learning experience. I knew better.
During our first camp meeting, the counselors outlined policies and procedures. They discussed hikes and other adventures where we’d see and learn about plants, trees, rocks and wildlife. Just as I was praying for an asthma attack, it got worse.
“If everyone behaves,” a counselor said, “on our last night we’ll go down to the lake and camp out under the stars.”
Everyone squealed. Everyone but me.
“What about campers who want to stay in the cabins?” I asked.
The head counselor stared in shock.
“No one wants to stay back,” she said. “Everyone goes. No exception.”
The next morning I marched into the camp director’s office. She had a sign on her wall: Kids Are Great!
“I want to talk about camping down by the lake,” I said. “It’s not for me.”
The director took a deep breath and smiled.
“I know it’s scary, but you will love it and beg your parents to come back here again next summer. I promise.”
“You don’t seem to understand,” I said. “I’m not scared, I just won’t sleep outside. It’s not civilized.”
“How old are you?” she asked, patience wearing thin. “Fourteen?”
“You’re a bit young to be so unyielding. Now go back to camp and make lifelong friends.”
Always up for a challenge, I went back to camp armed with clipboard and pen. Making friends was easy; nature-lovers are a friendly bunch. I walked around, introducing myself and getting campers to sign a petition demanding civil rights be restored so I could sleep under four walls and a roof as God intended. A few days later, backed by 250 signatures, I returned to the director’s office.
“Look,” I said, “everyone agrees that my sister and I have a right to sleep inside.”
Michele was going to kill me for dragging her into this. She enjoyed the great outdoors. But as I reminded her later, family comes first.
“My mother paid good money for me to be here and nowhere in your brochure did it mention sleeping outside among wild animals, snakes and bugs. I’d hate to have to call my attorney.”
The only attorney I knew was Larry the Lizard, a cousin currently doing time for extortion. I stood my ground and defied the director to call my bluff.
She looked at the petition and said my four favorite words.
“Fine, Catherine. You win.”
I went back to my cabin feeling victorious. This place wasn’t so bad after all. For the next few days, I swam in the lake, traded secrets with new friends and enjoyed my first kiss with the cutest boy in camp. Then we were all summoned to another meeting.
“Friends, it’s a sad day,” the head counselor said. “A fifteen-year tradition has come to an end. One of our campers doesn’t want to sleep under the stars and toast marshmallows with the rest of us. She insists on staying back in the cabin with her sister.”
Michele covered her face with her hands.
“For safety reasons, we can’t go down to the lake and leave them here by themselves. This year, we’ll just have to camp outside the cabins instead.”
As the room filled with groans, I got nervous.
“Outside the cabins?” someone asked. “That means we’re camping in the parking lot under streetlights?”
The head counselor nodded and more than 200 angry faces turned to glare at me.
When my mother arrived on pickup day to take us home, she said, “Well, Catherine, I hope this wasn’t a complete waste. Did you learn anything at all?”
“I learned a lot.”
My sister and mother turned to look at me.
“I’m just as surprised as you are,” I said.