“Over here, Nan,” hooted Terri into the wind, arms waving semaphore-like above her head. She stood on the lawn by the flagpole where a gaggle of my unit sat, awaiting me.
I happily trudged down the path from the Lodge, clutching the hand-sewn, felt mailbag carefully. Mail for our unit, Samoset, the oldest scouts in camp, the counselors-in-training-or CITs, as we were called-was close to my heart.
I smiled into the breeze, and, as if time stood still, I fully and bodily sank into the lusciousness of this moment.
The cap of the blue sky shimmered with a brilliance that whispered of early fall.
The warm sun was diluted by a delicious, soft breeze, creating a balance of warmth and chill on my bare arms that completely riveted me, calling me present. It was the final weekend of my two-summers-long counselor-in-training program at my beloved Girl Scout Camp Archbald. Actually, this summer was the climax of the ten summers I had spent here at camp, loving this spot of earth, memorizing its trails, breathing in its smells, mastering its skills, and flourishing in its rigor, love, and encouragement. This weekend was our zenith: we would be receiving our reviews from our CIT training days, days- long testing of fire building, song leading, camp-craft, pup tent pitching, waterfront skills, and practice teaching with the younger units. After receiving our scores, we would be initiated into that rarefied world of counselor-hood, which held profound power and meaning to us all. Next summer we would return to camp to become, like our heroes before us, the cool, the loving, the competent, the all-knowing counselors, just like the ones that raised us up and loved us through the years, to this very moment. We would become their wonderfulness, and carry on their tradition of compassionate, loving regard for all.
It was a heady moment, as we stood on the threshold of this profound initiation.
I picked up my pace, scraping my dirty Keds on the dusty path, hurrying toward my friends who sat, sprawled out in a wobbly horde. I smiled at their collective sprawl, and began handing out mail, tossing the beloved envelopes toward each recipient with a flourish and a flick of hand:
“Margie Regean, for you,”with a flick and flip of my wrist.
“Terri Z., and you, too,” tossing a cream-colored envelope in her direction.
“Miss Gladys Roth, ah-haaa,” I cried, and started sprinting around the sprawling unit, holding my dear friend Gladys’s coveted letter above my head as she chased after me with pretend feverishness. Guffaws and chuckles followed us, only to be interrupted by our call to lunch by the camp bell. Our mock struggle released as Gladys lunged at the letter, tripping me in the process. As we tumbled to the ground, laughing, the rest of the mail was hastily and effectively distributed. We got off, dusted off our bottoms, and wandered as a loose group down the hill toward the dining hall.
Walking down the hill, I mused, considering my awe and my love for this place. More than a camp, I thought, kicking at the familiar dust. This place was my solace, its culture of girl-centered experiential outdoor education exactly what my broken child’s heart needed. I lived from summer to summer, counting months, weeks, and days until my return to this hallowed earth. Here remarkable things happened: I counted, I shined, I was fully loved and wholly accepted for who I was. Camp was the miracle of my life, the place I came alive.
We tramped up the rickety and so-familiar steps to the south side of the dining hall, the door squeaking behind us, and found our seats at the three perpetually sticky tables designated to Samoset. Our two counselors, Ginny and Scarlett, were noticeably and unusually absent from lunch. I whispered to Gladys, “I wonder where Ginny and Scarlett are?”
She shrugged and whispered back, “Maybe they’re still processing the testing results.”
The grace leader, a senior scout, stood at the front of the dining room and held up her hand as silence spread throughout the room. She led us in one of my favorites, “God Has Created a New Day:”
God has created a new day
Silver and green and gold.
Live that the sunset might find us
Worthy His gift to hold.
Voices floated together with that Girl Scout magic of harmony and perfection, the music filling the every niche of that open, knotty pine space around us. I loved the mealtime graces-although my Jewish sensibilities tried to restrain my heart, there was often a flooding of feeling and warmth that filled me when I participated in them. It would be years before I began to consider the power and gift of the underlying faith the Girl Scouts offered me during those early and racy years, my first touch of tender conviction that I was not alone.
We jabbered through the meal, mouths stuffed with white bread, full of ourselves, as our trails and tribulations of CIT testing almost lay behind us. I felt both mellow and excited. Nobody ever failed the program. Sometimes girls had to repeat certain phases of training during special mid-year camping sessions, but that was rare-almost unknown. And, frankly, I knew my own competencies. I knew myself to be a star in our tiny galaxy of scouts-I was a strong swimmer, a white cap, the highest designation. My canoeing skills were accurate and reliable. I could build a dynamite and effective tepee fire formation quickly, find my way around a campsite, and my practice teaching with the younger campers, despite my terror, went well. I was known and loved for my abilities- the complete dichotomy with my life in the city, where I was hesitant, withdrawn, and plagued with self doubt.
I saw my world stretch out before me. Despite the terrors of the next, my senior year – SAT testing, college applications, and leaving home-my launch into college would come after next summer, the first as a member of the Archibald staff, the perfect and inevitable launching pad into life. This was very cool – it was everything I always wanted.
We rowdily finished this, one of our final meals as campers, and walked down the steps to wander back to the unit for rest hour.
And then, the strangest of things began unfolding. We saw Ginny and Scarlett walking toward us. Something was amiss, I could feel immediately. There was almost a chill in the air as they approached. Ginny, dark and compact, wore her typical straw cowboy hat slouched down, bumping into her huge sunglasses. Although I couldn’t see her eyes or even her face through the mask of it all, I felt her walk hesitant, out of rhythm. She was one buoyant twenty-four year old, who was working on a Masters in Divinity. But she was not bouncing right now. And Scarlett, round and ruddy, looked straight ahead, through us and past us. This was really strange for someone as gregarious as Scarlett.
Our counselors were headed right for us, marching directly into our path. We stopped abruptly under the old oak, its branches like palms opened, outstretched to gather the glory of the sky. I could only think of the showdown in the movie, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There was a moment of long, unusual silence during which I could hear my heart’s song, its rhythm rapping. We stared at each other in a deep and unusual hush of silence.
Scarlett, the senior staff member, a physical education teacher at a junior college, coughed, and broke the silence. “Nan, we need to talk to you alone.”
My blood seemed to chill, my bones heavied, that lovely afternoon warmth banished.
“Oh,” was all I could muster. My voice croaked out, pathetic and tiny.
“Let’s go up to Schoonover Hall,” Scarlett said, all business, and turned, formally pivoting on her heel, to head up the small hill. Ginny, as if in a trance, followed her. I felt the blood drain from my face, my hands get cold and tight. Like in slow motion, my breath sounding louder and louder in my own ears, I turned on legs that were not my own. I was being pulled toward my destiny.
I walked behind them, this in itself a strange and unusual experience. They were my heroes, my mentors. Never did I feel anything but kinship and support from them, in an equal, open way. These were two women I knew really well, who knew me really well back. But not in this moment. In this moment, there was no access. So behind them I trudged, steps heavy, thoughts vacant, air diminishing, legs heavier and thicker with every step. When I made it up the rise, they appeared on benches in Schoonover, waiting for me.
I couldn’t breathe
Scarlett coughed. “This is hard, Nan, but we’re here to tell you about some decisions that have been made about your CIT testing.”
My lungs, already starved for oxygen, for energy, constricted even more, balloons depleted, squeezed of fuel. My tongue, its thickness almost choking me, forbade verbal response.
She continued. “Decisions have been made…decisions about attitude, about maturity levels…”
Ginny squirmed, silent and petulant.
“Decisions about…the Lodge, Miss Anna, the administration…” She faltered, choked a bit on the last syllable, rebalancing herself, eyes steadied on the floor beneath me.
“Decisions about…it has been decided that…your skills and attitude are not up to par to justify your CIT graduation tonight.” She sat back on the bench with a sigh.
In slow motion, I watched myself as I slid down a rabbit hole, a dark, soft, endless rabbit hole, losing my footing and grounding in this moment, skimming down the shoot, slithering and sliding away from reality. Scarlett’s words floated toward me from a distance, from a galaxy lifetimes away from me. I heard virtually nothing but my own pounding heart, and the sound of my body dropping, slithering away.
I awoke briefly from this nightmare to feel Ginny’s hand on my knee. Her glasses were off, her hat tossed aside, her face passionate and twisted:
“Miss Anna. This is Miss Anna’s decision. As the camp director, she questions your maturity level and your capacity to contain your actions. We challenged her to no avail.” Darkness seemed to wash over her face and she spit out, “This is not even about you.”
What? It certainly felt as if it were about me. This was about me more than any other moment in my seventeen years had been about me.
The meeting ended, the day passed into night, my pain slipped and slid and claimed every bone, every cell, every molecule of my being. This trauma, this severing was a physical thing, living, alive, inhabiting my body. There was no sleep, no celebration for the others who passed the training, no rejoicing around the campfire. Only my individual grief and our collective disbelief filled the unit. We were, as a group, my friends and I, silent and disorientated. My grief stunned me, rammed me into silence. The plug on my life energy was pulled. I had no future.
Darkness settled over Samoset that evening with a silent, deep vengeance.
I lay on my cot in the cathedral of my tent, my other tent mates finally resting, with sleep eluding me. No sleep for me tonight. I thought perhaps I never again would be given the gift of sleep. The grace we sang at lunch so long ago kept haunting me, racing, running, flowing throughout my brain-Live that the sunset might find us-worthy His gift to hold. The sunset had come and blotted out what was holy, what was rightfully mine. The gift was no longer mine, no longer to mine to hold.