Please be aware that the following content contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling, you can find mental health resources available to both University of Michigan students and the general public here.
My box fan had unplugged in the middle of the night, so I woke up to beads of sweat rolling into my eyes. I grabbed my portable fan from under my bed and desperately held it to my face, sending the beads of sweat down my face into teardrops. The heat in Rocky Falls, Missouri continued to baffle me. I was particularly amazed at how hot it stayed at night. Even when the sun went to rest, the heat continued to suffocate sleepers throughout the night. I had thought that Michigan summers were brutally warm, but coming to Missouri for the summer humbled my notion of unbearable humidity and blistering temperatures. No number of fans helped relieve un-air conditioned cabins, but at least they helped assist in drying the sweat rolling into my eyes.
I sat up in the dark cabin and looked around, scanning the room to see if any of the girls were up yet. Little toes peeked out of bunkbeds, sand coated towels covered the floors, and sunscreen stained the walls of the wooden cabin from squeezing full bottles for the hell of it, but the girls were still completely silent. The ceiling was littered with signatures from campers of the past, leaving their mark on the ceiling above their bunks for future campers to join the club of girls who had spent a summer under that roof, encompassed with doodles of hearts and the names of likely couples for that summer The mornings were the only time of day when I could have any time to myself, and I was about to end it; breakfast was in 30 minutes, none of my co-counselors were awake yet, and I had 12 eight year-old girls to get ready for the day.
I stood up from the counselor area of the cabin, which was sectioned off by the dressers that were deliberately placed so the campers couldn’t see us changing. One of the other counselors noticed that some of the girls had been peeking from around the corners of our beds while we all switched into our bikinis, sneaking glimpses of their future bodies. The line between a camper’s innocent curiosity and invading a counselor’s personal privacy is awfully thin at summer camp, especially when your job as a counselor is contingent on your campers’ happiness. To prevent a conversation about puberty and privacy with eight-year-old girls, we decided to move the furniture instead.
I staggered over to the general area of the cabin, collecting heaps of gray dirt on the bottom of my heels along the way. The cabin was supposed to be cleaned everyday, but living with 8 year olds adjusted my expectations about cleanliness. The job wheel was hanging on the door, which was falling apart by now in the middle of the summer, and I was aiming for the girls to finally start doing what they were told. These girls had been here for 3 weeks already, so they weren’t concerned with cabin cleanliness as were the older campers; these girls expected us to take care of them.
Sweeper, trash, mail, clothes line, table setter, table wiper. All the roles on the job wheel were rotated by the rainbow clothes pins placed around it, labeled with the girls’ names (and last names, since we had three Sydney’s). Right when my phone struck 7:30 am, I flicked on the lights and turned on the girls’ favorite wakeup song, “Firework,” by Katy Perry. I was immediately greeted with a stream of bitter groans and howling, an expected contrast to my cheery wakeup, as I started yelling out the new roles on the job wheel for the day.
Shoes were stuck under beds, heads of hair were tangled in knots, and toothbrushes were dropped on the dusty cabin floor, but we gathered enough girls outside to begin walking to the flagpole at 8:00 am. My co-counselors joined me outside with our respective bags of sunscreen, bandaids, bugspray, tissues, goggles, snacks, water, and extra sunscreen. We counted the troops carefully, begging them to stop moving around while we tried to make sure that everyone was ready. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…11. We had 12 girls, but only 11 pairs of pigtails wiggling about, anxiously discussing what type of cereal they’d be having first at breakfast. My co-counselors decided that they wanted to take the girls to flagpole and I should look for Sydney, since I still wasn’t ready yet. I looked down at myself and was reminded I was still only in a sports bra and shorts, and had not brushed my teeth in God knows how long.
I barged into the cabin and swung our knobless door into the cabin wall, furious that this was happening again yet trying to remind myself not to get frustrated with an eight year old. I reassure myself to relax, wanting to prevent any conflict or breakdown before lunch, which is always the goal. Breathe, she’s 8. She’s a little girl. It’s just summer camp. It’s fine if you get in trouble for being late to breakfast. It’s all okay.
I carefully leaped over numerous impressively-full laundry bags, succeeding to dodge the mounds all the way until the last bunk bed where I found Sydney still asleep. If we came late again, I’d have to hurry her through the village like I always did, biting my lip as she lost a flip-flop running along the gravel along the way to make the trek even longer, immediately find our table among the 300 campers in the dining hall, and make sure that no supervisor saw us come in. I was not in the mood for more trouble and embarrassment that morning. The girls’ village was the furthest spot in camp from the dining hall, and we had a long stretch to go for so many tiny legs to go: from the cabin, to flagpole, to breakfast, and back every single morning before the morning activities began.
I put my face down to Sydney’s since she was sleeping upside down in her bed, as her head jammed into the railing of the bunk while her feet rested gently on her pillow. Putting my hand on her back and rubbing it slightly, I whispered to her that it was time for breakfast. I waited a moment, checked my watch to confirm that we were officially late, and tapped her on the shoulder more firmly while saying “Sydney, sweetie. It really is time to get up now. Come on, baby, it’s time for breakfast. We do this almost everyday, please.”
When I saw the tiny flutter of her eyelids amidst her otherwise expressionless face, I knew that she was playing me. If I hadn’t pretended to be asleep when I was small and wanted to listen to what my parents talked about on long car rides, I would have believed she was still asleep. I had been duped by someone my little brother’s age, yet again. I walked to the head of the bed, now unashamed at my annoyance for being fooled by a child and unashamed of my annoyance at having to deal with my boss’s ire. I tickled the feet slumping on her pillow. Sydney bolted up in a frenzy of irritation and laughter as I tickled her tiny toes, and she sat up just as quickly as I knew she would. Irritated but still impossibly cute, she threw me a groan that signaled she was finally getting out of bed. She mumbled a few words I couldn’t make out as she yawned and sleepily rubbed her eyes, so I picked her up and placed her on the ground.
I told Sydney to run to breakfast quickly since it was already so late, and that I would stay in the cabin to clean. It was 8:30 am, and breakfast was almost over. I didn’t need anything to eat, but Sydney definitely had to get some food before another seemingly 25-hour long day at camp. She took off running through the girls’ village, which was the furthest part of camp from the dining hall, and I stood outside watching her jog her way up the gravel. I didn’t move until I saw her unbrushed hair disappear over the hill that separates the village from the rest of camp, hoping that she made it to the dining hall in one piece.
After picking up swimsuits that had fallen off the clothesline, I stepped back inside the cabin, which was already 5 degrees warmer than it had been when I woke up the girls. Missouri heat didn’t wait for anyone, and it’s wrath only escalated as the day went on. I grabbed my water bottle and took a few sips, grimacing afterwards at the aftertaste of the camp’s well water. I understood why the girls often refused to drink their water when I begged them to stay hydrated, but I couldn’t show them my own distaste for it, or I would lose my job.
Honestly, I agreed with most of the girls’ complaints about putting on sunscreen, changing into dry swimsuits so they didn’t get rashes from their wet ones, turning off the lights right at 9:00 pm, or sitting through evening services. Though I wanted to confess my own disdain for the tedious aspects of camp, I had to work with the arduous behavior that these features of camp were just as important as swimming, arts and crafts, or tubing.
I hadn’t brushed my teeth or showered the night before because I was too busy dealing with the aftermath of a smores feast around the campfire. I was up until 3:30 am comforting upset tummies and wiping chocolate mouths that were asking for the nurse, all while waiting for sunrise when my co-counselors would be more likely to get up and help, as I was the lightest sleeper of the counselors. I scrambled around in my toiletry bag for my toothbrush, but saw that instead it had been knocked onto the ground by the trash can and lysol wipes. I tried to remind myself that germs don’t exist at camp, or else I’d go crazy, and bent down to snatch the toothbrush.
As I bent over, the wind rustling through the trees invited fresh air into the cabin. I heard the panels of the windows slamming open and shut, creating an orchestra of movement and light throughout the walls of the bunk. Shadows danced on the walls and beds of the girls, just as they did themselves while they got ready for flashlight time or a surprise snack, which always cued dancing. The light through the window panes travelled over every bed, enveloping the entire cabin in a blanket of sunlight and boiling steam. I needed to open all the windows before the girls came back from breakfast, or they’d be unlikely to gather inside to get ready for the rest of their day..
I made my way to the farthest corner of the cabin and started struggling to open the windows, per usual. The locks were busted in from a boys’ raid 40 years ago, but I always found one or two still jammed in, broken so long ago that I had given up trying to ever open them without struggle. Squeezing both sides of the lock and desperately pulling upwards, the lock was undone but the window was stuck, and as I pulled I felt drops of sweat start to fall down my lower back, already.
Saving the stuck windows for my co-counselors, I made my way around the bunk and opened the windows that I could without completely soaking through my shirt. Double checking the window at every bed to challenge the damn locks, I had to kneel on the lower beds to reach the window frame. Careful not to get my grimy feet on the lavish comforters that mothers from Dallas and St. Louis stuffed in oversized duffles, I crawled on one of the beds for a particularly frustrating window I went back to work on. Amanda’s bed was cluttered with various sizes of plush unicorn toys, which the girls often used for puppet shows. Shifting the mythical creatures from their resting spot, I maneuvered on my knees with my heels upwards as I headed towards the window.
While attempting to loosen the right latch on the window, I realized I was kneeling on a bed that was much harder than any of the others in the cabin. I checked under Amanda’s mattress, confirming my suspicion that she did not have a mattress pad on her bed, despite the fact that it was on the recommended packing list to combat the wrath of the rigid mattress, and most parents sent their child to camp with one.
I set her mattress down in place, disappointed in myself for letting my camper sleep without the necessities while I dozed away on my own mattress cover. Her pillow had also fallen, so I quickly grabbed it off the musty floor and brushed it off with a quick sweep of my hand before the rest of the bunk came back from breakfast.
I didn’t intend to read the note that fell out of her pillow, but it had fallen out on its own. Before I could stop myself, I recognized a few of the words written in red ink through the back of the page, which was all crumpled up. One word in particular gave me license to open the letter as a rush of feeling warmed me even more than the damned Missouri sun ever could. I immediately recognized the sorrow in her words, I felt her anguish in the red ink, and my heart shattered as I realized I shared these desolate feelings with an 8 year old. I had been in Amanda’s place, hiding amongst the happiest places of all. Worst of all, she was my camper, I was supposed to be taking care of her, and I hadn’t seen it.
I reached for my phone, shaking, to dial the director of the camp to inform him we had a suicidal camper in our cabin. The supervisors were taking the matters out of my hands, as a suicide note was a director’s responsibility, they told me. I needed to take care of my girls, but at that moment all I could focus on was failing Amanda: leaving her alone during the day, ignoring her impossibly hard bed, and overlooking her silent cries for help. Tears joined the beads of sweat falling down my face as the shame washed over me, failing to protect a little girl in whom I saw my earlier, troubled self. I walked to my bed, got under my covers, and ignored my body’s signals pleading me to escape the warmth. I laid there, sweaty and salty, waiting for my girls to come back.