It’s the spring of primary 7 and I’m standing in a line. Feet shuffling, my stomach all in knots, whilst I fidget with my hair constantly – a nervous trait I’ll carry with me for the next millennia it seems. Our class is about to be loaded onto a bus and shipped away to camp for a week. We are to spend the next several days learning about team work by engaging in fun activities, as well as bonding with kids from other local primary schools, before we are all thrust together in high school after summer. This ‘rite of passage’ was offered up to all pre-teens our age that lived in the surrounding villages and towns. Since the moment the letter was sent to my parents I carried around a sickly feeling about the whole thing. I reluctantly brought my permission slip home for my mum and dad to read, which they did, gleefully. Them granting me leave didn’t feel so much like a favour as it did having my death warrant signed. I handed it over and secretly prayed they’d either hit out with ‘we can’t afford it’ or ‘it’s entirely up to you, son.’ Literally leaping at the chance to be rid of their bratty offspring for a week they signed the dotted line with rushed strokes of ecstasy. There wasn’t even a second’s hesitation. I didn’t really have friends at this point; whether this was due to the fact I never took part in any of the weird activities that my male classmates did, or because I was a spectacle wearing little weirdo, who knows. I was unable to answer that question both for my parents, my teachers, and myself. The best thing my parents could have done for me as a child was home school me, and thus remove any pretence of socialisation, allowing me to hide in my room, playing computer games, where I belonged. I got anxious even speaking to the boys in my class, so when two of the most popular ‘dudes’ asked if I wanted to bunk with them I was shocked. Ecstatic, but shocked. Sharing a room with two popular guys could only make this farce exhibition easier.
My stomach tightened as I was motivationally edged onto the bus, like a mutinous pirate being pushed further off the plank. I leered at my parents, eye dripping with longing, as the bus doors slammed shut. The sad look painted across my face was useless though. I remember thinking ‘I’ll remember this when I’m choosing your nursing homes.’ Truthfully, I hated school since I got there. Now I was being forced to spend a week away from home, not just with my classmates, whom I’d developed a tolerance for over the last seven years, but with a cluster of other children I had never met. Even though there was literally 4 miles at most between any of the nearby primary schools, the land from which these other kids hailed seemed strange and foreign. Homes to an alien race I was going to be required to socialise with.
As the bus drove away my heart sank deep into the very depths of my stomach. The sensation equates to what I get now when I look at my bank balance four benders and two weeks after payday. I pictured the end of the week arriving and getting home to my parents, who during this current moment in time I wanted to disown: “How did it go?” they’d ask. “Terrible. I hate you both, you have ruined me.” It would be too late to be concerned for my well-being now. They shipped me away to a Hades-themed childhood-death camp for several days without even batting an eyelid. We are through.
Our bus pulled up, the last to arrive. It screeched to a jittering holt; the engine had shuddered its last breath; I was here now, come rain or shine, for five days. A gaggle of confused kids looked up at us, the newest arrivals, with anticipation, awe and contempt. Suddenly this boy runs up to the window and begun to batter it with his fists. As lanky as he was loud, he behaved the way a feral orangutan does at those drive through zoos when it notices you have you food. Suddenly he plopped down his trousers, without shame or regard, and mooned us. As an adult if a guy greeted me by showing me his ass I’d likely not be overtly fussed; however, as a ten-year-old, I was appalled. I was here, I had made it to the camp without vomiting. We headed up and off this twenty-passenger bus whilst one of the more sheepish members of the class admitted to having peed himself. The first thing I did when I reached my bunk was drop my bag, leap onto the bed and bury my face in the pillow – whether this was or wasn’t a feeble attempt at smothering myself who can say. Over the next couple of days we were dragged from activity to activity. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner together; a teacher spilt tea all over me, which caused me to squeal hysterically. The dinner hall audience laughed, then laughed even harder when they realised that siren-shriek came from a boy NOT a girl. We took our leftovers, weighed them up and put them into a compost heap. During weeks leading up to camp there had been whispers of something called ‘The Flying Fox’ floating around the classroom. Former primary seven’s and older siblings passed down this tale. So, when we were informed that this mythical activity was actually real, everyone was elated. Everyone that is, except me.
THIS IS THE PART NOBODY BELIEVES. I swear it has haunted me my entire life. “You aren’t remembering it right” they’d say. “That was against health and safety, it wouldn’t be allowed.” I am, in fact, remembering it perfectly. The Flying Fox was essentially a zip line from the top of one dubiously secured tree to the bottom of another. We were shackled into a harness and catapulted from the top of this tree, shot into the air without the warm comfort of even a safety net below. We must have only been thirty/forty feet off the ground but it felt like more. Hearing the cries of my class mates, their screams a mixture of terror and glee, I kept dodging back further and further so at any given moment I was at the back of the line. I prayed for divine intervention; a flash flood, a thunder storm; for some other poor kid to plummet to their untimely demise (I wagered it was better them than me) but my pleas rang unheard. I was too young, self-involved and dissociated to wonder the impact this activity would have on the kids that were shorter than I was. My turn threatened closer and closer and before I knew it I was in the throes of a panic attack. “Shut up!” another boy hissed at me. My turn approached and I started to cry. The instructor told me there was nothing to worry about and that this would help me ‘conquer my fears’. How was hurling a terrified and very feminine ten-year-old boy to potential oblivion without a safety net below going to help me become a braver person? Would I suddenly empathise with birds, or be able too fully imagine the experience of Superman? Would I start scaling buildings with the ease of Spiderman? This was stupid. This was so, so stupid. Three months later a group of us were climbing up scaffolding and I got stuck at the top; I was so afraid to move that I sat there for a good three hours before an adult came and rescued me. The Flying Fox experiment was a failure.
For the rest of the week I was made to switch into a group that didn’t have to partake in the activities. Some of the kids had medical reasons, the others had weirdly strict parents; some were just outright wimps like me. Either way, I was banished to darkest depths of the loser corner and remained there for the next four days. With this group came new privileges, as well as raised concerns about there being something wrong with me, that my parents had just neglected to mention. Elective classes and activities, including getting to make our own pizza, as well as a period of freedom to wonder around during the afternoon: This was more my speed. I tried not to talk to the fellow members of this misfit haven I’d been relocated too. One of them had really bad BO, but only from arm pit. Seriously it was like I was inhaling the fishy contents of garbage can on a sweltering summers day. Another girl didn’t speak as much as she made a few basic vowel movements and mumbled incoherently. Another had a limp and another boy drooled. A lot.
The teacher that chaperoned us was the definition of gangly; he had blocky glasses and wiry hair that was thinning. Yet he was youthful in a way that he always had heaps of enthusiasm and energy – and if he harboured any resentment at having obviously drawn the shortest straw, seeing as he had to mentor this flock of freaks he didn’t let it show. One day he took us on a small hike through the woods and we were to match up the descriptions with the types of birds/insects we found (I know, I know, but it beat canoeing and anything else that was physically taxing.) We stumbled upon a nest of baby birds that had fallen from the tree. I looked at them with awe. Our chaperon picked one up and explained it had broken its wing. He cradled it gently between his palms before passing it over to me. Even though I was insanely terrified of everything that casted a shadow, the one thing I wasn’t was squeamish. Nursing the baby bird in my hands it pecked away at me; I felt its struggling wings flap against my sweaty palms. I remember thinking this is the closest a non-surgeon will come to feeling a beating heart. It felt like I was holding an extremely squishable tomato, so I handed it with the upmost gentility and grace.
The next day we were put into groups that would coincide with the classes we’d be in during the first couple years of high school. It was here I met three girls, one of which I felt like I already knew and has, incidentally, been a massive part of my life ever since. The girls invited me to sit with them during lunch and I accepted. I didn’t have to stand in the corner of the courtyard with everyone I’d been saddled with after the Flying Fox fiasco and for this I was very glad. We wound up talking about the usual pre-teen things – basically a lot of shit. They told me which boys they thought were hot and I just fed off the fact I was hanging out with three very attractive girls. My energy shifted dramatically. I went from nervous and coy, to calm and funny. I’d never had other kids talk to me like they did, like I was an actual person. Conversation was easy, particularly with the girl who now, as a woman, is the closest friend I have. This was the first time I felt like people saw me for who I was. My comments and remarks mattered; I executed some well-timed jokes and they were met with laughter, not awkward sideward glances and rude remarks muttered under breath. For the first time, I was beginning to look forward to high school.
On the last night, everyone banded together for the ‘Camp disco’ – ironically named because I remember them playing several songs by the Spice Girls. We all got decked out in our trendiest clothes. The fashion rage at the time were ‘poppers.’ Poppers essentially were sportswear that was designed by/for the use of pole dancers and strippers. They were normal tracksuit bottoms, but both sides were fastened together by a string of buttons; from the bottom hem, all the way to the stop of the waist. Allowing their wearers to tear them off at a moment’s notice – if they so desired. Some boys in the camp had authority issues, so throughout the disco several girls (and guys) wound up standing in just their underwear, having fallen victim to a humiliating de-trousering ritual. Watching this happen I realised why I was so opposed to socialising with fellow students. Mortified kids congregated together in front of teachers and finally the borderline sexual harassment subsided. Feeling more confident now I had my group of girl-friends, I decided to let loose and start dancing. My dance moves were, to be fair, not unlike a gorilla having a small seizure into the middle of a dance floor. Preening and jigging like a desperate animal, I frolicked around the hall thinking I was the shit. Kicking my legs above my head and dancing like a hooker. I have gone through a few brief periods in my life of being confident; this night was one of them.
I got back late afternoon the following day. In a subconscious nod to my experiences I decided to sit at the back of the bus, with the popular guys in my class, having now grown slightly in confidence. I half listened to them talk about who kissed who and how they are all going to meet up soon during summer. I figured I needed to start attending more social events if I was going to get anywhere in high school, so I chimed in with an ill-timed ‘YEAH DUDE!” If I could go back, somehow arm my ten-year-old self with all the knowledge and maturity I have now, would I change how I acted? Would I alter any of the choices I made? The answer is likely yes, because everyone has moments they wish they could scrub off the shit-stained toilet bowl of bad choices they’ve made. If I’d known what was in store for me during the next several years I may have acted very differently during camp and the months that followed. Perhaps I wouldn’t have trumpeted my sexuality so boldly, or be overly cocky that I now had some friends. I’d have been a lot more cautious with whom I shared my secrets. However, if that had been the case I wouldn’t have solidified such a strong friendship with the girl I mentioned earlier. I wouldn’t have developed such resilience or be able to judge who is a bad character and who worth bearing my soul too. If I knew then how much I’d miss all those fresh sensations perhaps I would have experienced them in a totally different way. I’d have recognised their awkward glamour, embraced the ticking clock that defined my entire teenager life. Perhaps I would not have carried so much resentment around with me, but kept my defences up during the right moments. More abstractly, I may have felt as though I had truly been somewhere, that I had truly learned something.
That week I’m writing about enriched me in some way. It made me more open and porous and hungry to be liked. I didn’t know it then, but it was the gateway to my entire high school experience; it was the queue to the rollercoaster ride that was the next six years. But, as with everything in life, hindsight is always 20/20.