This is the second installment in a series.
All the campers went to the opening ceremony, where we sang the camp song, were reminded of the rules, and met the bizarrely chipper grownups in charge. I sneaked a glance at The Orphans and was chagrined to see that a few were not pledging allegiance to the flag. I didn’t know what happened if you didn’t pledge allegiance where allegiance was due, but surely it was bad. The ghost of Francis Marion the Swamp Fox would come get you.
We walked into the girl cabin with Jennifer to unpack and get settled while the boys did the same. Our belongings awaited us. My bright green trunk sat in a pool of light, a horrible shiny beacon of Southern preppiness. “Melissa!” it shouted, in cheerful block letters. Surrounding my suitcase were a bunch of threadbare backpacks and trash bags. The orphans’ belongings.
(Trash bags. It’s enough to make me cry.)
One of the girls said, “That sure is a fancy suitcase. You have trouble remembering your own name?” Of course, every single garment in the suitcase had my name sewn into it. I silently prayed they would never discover this fact.
What was at first uncomfortable turned downright painful after the kids from the orphanage noticed I knew all the verses to the songs we sang around the campfire. That was a definite misstep, for what kind of regular kid knows all the verses to HYMNS? I also was pretty good at Junior Trivial Pursuit, which we played one night when a thunderstorm precluded other activities. Remember how nobody liked the kid with all the answers in school? I should have kept my fat mouth shut.
I was so severely socially punished for knowing the answers in Trivial Pursuit that I started a letter-writing campaign to my parents. I wrote a letter per day, which I gave to one of the blond counselors to mail. Jason and Jennifer looked at me not with the emotional grounding of adults, but with the deer-in-headlights pity of fellow captives. They were unable to intervene.
The first letter was fairly benign: “Dear Mama, Please come get me. Things are bad.” As we entered the second week, however, the letters grew increasingly desperate as I detailed my hazing: “Dear Mama, Today they flushed all the toilets at the same time when I was taking a shower and I got burned by the hot water. My skin is real red. I love you so much.”
Halfway through the second week, the camp always held a Field Day. Though physically fit, I was (and am) a moron at team sports. Also, I lack competitive drive in things I don’t care about, which is why you should never invite me to play in your adult kickball league. Needless to say, I was not an asset to our cabin’s team on Field Day.
Then we got to the swimming contest. For all my non-athleticism, I was a strong and capable swimmer, having grown up close to a lake and only a few hours from the beach. All the kids at our pool club took swimming lessons every summer, even though we all knew how to swim. This was a ploy so the stay-at-home mothers could steal a few minutes for themselves. They sat on a covered porch above the pool, drank coffee, and chatted while we froze our asses off.
“Why do I have to do this? I already know how to swim! I’m not trying to go to the Olympics!” I would yell up at Mama, my scrawny body shivering and teeth chattering.
I swam my little heart out that day and somehow beat all the girls in my cabin. I clambered onto the floating dock in the middle of the lake, triumphant. One of the orphan girls was not too far behind me. After she pulled herself onto the dock, she slapped me. And, much to my surprise, I slapped her back. Time stood still. The social awkwardness didn’t last long. Orphan Girl immediately pushed me off the dock into the water with all the force she could muster, “since you’re such a good swimmer,” she said. Murky lake water filled my sinuses. My face hurt.
“Dear Mama, I will probably not be alive on Saturday when you come get me.”
Camp did eventually end. I wept dramatically the entire ride home, staring out the car window like an ingénue in an old-timey movie. I walked into the house and immediately gave my little brother a huge hug. “Ewww,” he protested. “What’s wrong with you?”
The next few days were a bizarre pastiche of emotion as I saw everything with the fresh eyes of a repatriated prisoner: my room, my books, my family. “Everyone’s being so nice to me,” I whimpered tearfully as my mother put a sandwich and a glass of milk in front of me. If this happened today, parents would drive their child straight to a therapist, but it was the 90s, so they bought me a new Babysitter’s Club book and called it a day.
Musings and lessons abound. My family was middle class, but I did not live in a complete bubble. My brother and I went to a racially and socioeconomically diverse public elementary school. We both had friends who had much more than our family, kids who lived in fancy houses on the lake with three-car garages. We also had friends who lived in much smaller houses or trailers. There were so many commonalities across all income levels and races, though: our own rooms, parents, snacks for the taking…
The main lesson from The Slap isn’t the slap itself, though I did learn that I don’t like engaging in physical violence. Meaning arrived many years later when I began to see the world through adult eyes and acquired the words to process what happened that summer. I learned that confronting your privilege is painful and uncomfortable.