I could easily picture myself paddling a canoe amid sparkles of sunshine, the adored leader of impressionable campers. And so the summer after I graduated from college, unsure of what lay next, I signed up to live two glorious months in the Colorado Rockies. Sure enough, the air was fresh, the water blue, and the girls in my cabin keen on making good impressions. But as it turned out, those good impressions were directed mostly toward the boys' camp.
Every night before the dinner bell rang, the girls would pile into the bathroom and dig through their makeup kits, searching for anything to erase the signs of rugged camp life. Hair spray hung in the air as the girls crowded before the mirror, smoothing on lipstick and combing sun-streaked hair. Although this was amusing to watch, there was some discussion among the women counselors about how we could coax the girls' thoughts away from primping to something more constructive. One night, while we sat on our bunks watching the bathroom ritual, someone had an idea.
On the night we were to test our plan, the girls swept out of the cabin and
stomped off to the coed dining hall with every hair in place. (Mealtime in the lodge was always when boy-crazy antics were at an all-time high.) But on this particular night, despite the girls' usual well-groomed entrance into the dining hall, the boys didn't notice. Busy planning
a game of Capture the Flag, the boys hardly looked up from drawing maps on paper napkins with the tines of forks. The girls looked listless.
After the meal, we gathered the girls together outside beneath the bell tower. Opening cheers of Capture the Flag suddenly pierced the air, and every braid, barrette, and bow turned. Silently, we linked arms with the girls and headed down the gravel road. The whoops from the boys' game soon faded. Tramping through the woods, the girls began to shout out the words to a song. Branches snagged one camper's perfect hair, and mud splashed up onto the clean white socks of another.
In a clearing ahead lay the expanse of the camp dump. Full of odd shapes and numerous discarded objects, the dump appeared both ominous and intriguing. The campers curiously surveyed the bathtubs, boats, and fence posts. Tonight, we were going to create art out of debris.
We divided the campers into teams. My group ranged from city slicker Tanya (who never went anywhere without her hoop earrings), to the quiet and serious Rachel, who liked to read. Arming the teams with paint, brushes, hammers, and buckets of nails, we asked the girls to include qualities of womanhood as they built sculptures in the dump. Without urging, the group under my charge scattered.
On the other side of a rowboat, six ponytailed heads bent together around a bunk bed. In a matter of moments, the bunk bed began to jerk and wobble, before it finally lurched, swayed, and steadied against six shoulders. At the helm was our tallest 13-year-old, who shouted commands and warned of obstacles.
Deposited in a clearing, the bunk bed was soon flanked by two large wooden spools that came careening around a bathtub, driven by three third-graders. The air was filled with the thud, thud of hammers and clanking pails as the girls dug for nails in their buckets. A steering wheel was added, and then a spare tire. Sarah, a shy camper who liked to ride horses, hammered a front grille into place. Out of the commotion emerged a sculpture in the form of a giant car.
The girls' carefully prepared appearances were being rubbed out by their activity in the dump, but they still had an eye for detail. Wildflowers were picked and tied with ribbons fashioned out of plastic strips used to mark wire fences. Laura, who loved arts and crafts, added the words "Big Mama" to the car in red paint. The girls beamed with pride.
"We built a car because women should be able to drive wherever they want," explained a camper.
Nearby, another group had designed a beautiful tree-trunk lady. She lounged in an armchair, her graceful iron-pipe arms curving over her knobby table legs. A huge Christmas bow sat in her long beach-towel hair; her painted purple lips wore a smile. She looked as ready as any female camper for dinner in the lodge.
"Our sculpture is a woman built from strong things, but she is also beautiful," said a small camper.
THE bell rang out as we rounded up the campers late that summer evening. With some regret, we left the sculptures standing in the lengthening shadows, their silent forms rising above the debris. Chattering happily, the girls ambled back toward their cabins in the dark, thoughts of the boys seemingly forgotten. The girls' faces were smudged with dirt, their hands grimy, and their perfect hair mussed. But their eyes were shining with the excitement of what they had found, in the dump, in themselves. To me, they looked beautiful, radiant.
I wish I could say that the girls lingered less in front of the mirror after that, and that the boys at mealtimes went unnoticed. But more important, I realized that I didn't need to be responsible for teaching the campers about womanhood. They all knew it for themselves. They just had to be asked to show it.