©Andrena Zawinski, 2009

©Andrena Zawinski, 2009

A few years ago when my husband and I got engaged, we were looking for the perfect place to get married.  We wanted someplace where everyone could stay there and not have to pay a ton of money: a beautiful outdoor location with activities for the guests to do on Saturday while we were getting ready.  I found myself on the website of Bryn Mawr Mountain Conference Center, which is what Lake Bryn Mawr Camp turns into every year from late August to mid June.  It was perfect – there was enough space for all of the guests to stay comfortably in the cabins.  We could bring in flowers, tablecloths, and fancy chairs and have meals in the dining hall.  During the day guests could play softball, tennis, use the boats, or swim in the lake.  I thought back to my years at LBMC and wondered if it was bad luck to start my marriage in a place where I had been treated so poorly at times.

Every morning for 2 months we woke up at 7:25am to a recording of Reveille broadcasted to the speakers inside of our cabins.  The voice coming from the speaker told us what to wear based on the weather report.  We dressed in our uniformed clothing – white shorts and a green or gold t-shirt with the logo of an angel on it.  We walked to the dining hall and lined up in perfectly straight lines for breakfast.  How straight and quiet your line was dictated when you would get called inside to eat.  When we got to our table we took the chairs down and waited to be called to the serving line.  After breakfast we hurried back to the cabin where we cleaned according to the job chart and had a thorough inspection by the unit head.  A score of lower than 6 put the bunk at risk of being “dumped”, which meant that while we went to the carefully scheduled daily activities (sports, tennis, arts and crafts, drama, dance, swimming, lake, gymnastics) everything would be taken out of the cabin and thrown onto the ground in front for all to see and heed the warning.  Clothes, mattresses, treasured stuffed animals, letters from loved ones all piled in the dirt like the trash it was being treated as in the messy cabin.  In the middle of the day was lunch and then rest hour, a 30 minute period where you could do any activity as long as you were on your bed and not talking.  After dinner was hobby hour – 60 minutes of outdoor free time.  After hobby hour came evening activity and then back to the cabin, lights out, sleep.

Despite this heavily regimented schedule that emphasized obedience, cleanliness, and participation, summer camp was where I felt most like my true self.  Freed from so many agonizing decisions such as what to wear, what to do, what to eat, I could just be.  I read a lot of books, played outside making up stories about the nearby woods, and organized and re-organized my sticker collection gleefully.

This was an ideal summer environment for a structure craving young girl like myself.  Except for one thing: the mean girls.  LBMC, being a mostly Jewish camp, tended to attract wealthy families from Long Island and Westchester.  God only knows why these girls wanted to come to an all-girls camp where nobody really cared if they blow dried their hair or accessorized their uniforms with charm bracelets and tinted lip gloss.  Although they were all naturally good at tennis, gymnastics, and swimming, they most excelled at tormenting late bloomers like me and my ragtag group of friends.  We didn’t care that we weren’t as pretty or athletic, but they certainly did and spent most of their energy trying to convince us how uncool we were.

Susie, who became my best friend instantly on the first day of my first summer because we had both brought Barbies to camp, was plagued with eczema all over her body.  She was short and chubby with stringy, knotty brown hair and a special blanky that was full of holes and the color of sewage water.  Our assigned bunk beds were next to each other and we bonded that first summer over hidden candy and sticker trading.  Since we only lived 15 minutes apart, between summers we would have sleepovers every few weeks.  Susie’s house is where I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time.

Lauren and Alison formed the other half of the “Orsome Foursome” (we started with “awesome foursome”, but then decided it needed to rhyme).  Lauren was skinny and gawky with straight blond hair halfway down her back, big plastic glasses, and braces.  Together we read Mad Magazine and built structures out of sticks and rocks.  She was much more of a tomboy and not interested in sticker books, but her goofy nature fit in with her goofy looks.  Lauren wasn’t what you would call good at sports, but she looked more natural playing them and didn’t complain like the rest of us.  When it rained she and I would run outside and shampoo our hair under the streams of water coming off the gutters.

Alison was an oddity to all of us.  She was petite and pretty with blond hair and blue eyes and she had a caboodle filled with accessories – bangle bracelets, scrunchies in every color, and tons of dangly earrings.  At 8 years old, I had never had a fashion conscious friend before.  I was somewhat in awe of how she bloused her uniform shirt in a way to make it look cool.  Alison’s fatal flaw were the debilitating migraines she got every day after breakfast.  During cleaning time she would sit on the floor, crying, trying to organize her cubby and make her bed.  Nobody else believed that the migraines were real since they conveniently happened only during cleaning time.  But the Orsome Foursome believed her.  We helped her clean her area and fulfill her task on the job chart.

We had a few other friends who faded in and out of our gang – Danielle, the one who went to modeling school, Michele, the spacey one, Erica, the brainy one, Amy, the one who learned about drugs at her all-girls boarding school, and Lauren, who wanted to be an actress – they weren’t always in our cabin, but the Orsome Foursome held fast.  One winter we had a big sleepover at Lauren’s house in New York where we made short videos on her parents’ camera (a commercial for a new toothpaste and Barbara Walters interviewing Sadaam Hussein) and decorated green tie-dyed t-shirts with gold puffy paints writing “The Orsome Forsome Forever!” and all of our inside jokes.

Those first few summers, bonded together by quirks, gangly limbs, and knotty hair, we were in heaven.  I don’t know why I had such a good time since I didn’t like swimming, sports or cleaning, but I knew that I would go back every summer until I was the oldest and the leader of color war, standing up at meals to lead cheers and comforting the younger girls who were homesick.  I could see the next 7 years of summers spreading out luxuriously in front of me; the Orsome Foursome would be together forever.

What I didn’t plan on was adolescence.  Although those first few summers I knew the mean girls were there, they didn’t bother me much.  I didn’t want to hang out with them anymore than they wanted to hang out with me.  But then when we were 12 the camp directors, Mel and Herb decided to try and “break down the cliques”.  I guess they realized that this was their last chance before our age group took on leadership roles during our last two years at camp.  The Orsome Foursome plus a few friends were clumped into a cabin with Queen Jill and her drones.  I’m sure Mel and Herb thought we would all become friends if we just got to know each other better.  What they didn’t realize was that these girls delighted in attacking any weakness they saw in someone else.

Queen Jill was not particularly pretty.  Her meanness was probably what kept her in charge of the other individuality-hating girls.  One night Susie was going through her evening ritual of spreading cream on her eczema and Queen Jill approached. “Does that hurt?”  She asked barely masking her disgust.

Susie, thinking that if she just did what Queen Jill wanted maybe she would be nice to her replied, “No, it’s more just itchy, but it doesn’t really hurt.”

“Uggggghhhhh” Jill replied, “That’s surprising because it looks SO gross.”

Queen Jill declared that we were not doing our share of the cleaning and elected herself the manager of cleaning time.  She convinced one of her drones to do her job every day so that she could be free to circulate the cabin and crack the whip.

“Did you use enough Ajax in the shower?  You have to scrub, really scrub.  Why aren’t you sweeping all the way to the corners?  Do you want to get dumped???”
Poor Alison, now old enough to come to camp with a bottle of Excedrin, would just take a pill, sweep her blond bangs out of her eyes and scrub harder, sweep faster, or pull the sheets tighter on her bed according to Queen Jill’s demands.

On Monday nights Mel and Herb would take us to the movies.  We had a choice of 2 movies and we got $3 to buy snacks.  Since we weren’t allowed to have candy in our cabins the sugary movie candy was as much a treat as the movies themselves.  Also, when we left camp we got to shed the uniform and wear regular clothes that expressed our repressed personalities.  One Monday after an early dinner we were back at the cabin changing into our regular clothes.  I put on my favorite shirt and a pair of jeans and walked into the bathroom to check my hair.  Queen Jill was applying eye make up at the sink with her servant Melissa, but she stopped mid eye just to scrutinize my pathetic attempt to dress well.

“Where is that shirt from?” She asked, resuming her painstaking eye shadow applications.

“I don’t know, my mom got it for me.  Maybe the Gap?”  I answered casually, smoothing my frizzy hair with shaking hands.

“Oh, it’s probably not from the Gap.  I had a shirt like that in 2nd grade.” She sneered.  Melissa snickered loudly as I hurried out of the bathroom.

Lauren, the bravest and most intimidating of us, didn’t take any of Queen Jill’s crap so she was pretty much left alone.  She’s probably the one who convinced the counselors that we needed an intervention.  One evening Natalie, who was sympathetic to our group and Brenda, who was British and somehow always sided with the mean girls sat us all in a circle so we could go around and talk about our feelings.

We, being innocent and honest, talked about our desire to be friends and our willingness to let bygones be bygones.  The Drones said vague things like, “I’m just trying to have a good summer” and “Why are we doing this?”  But when it got to Queen Jill all pretences were dropped.

“I already have enough friends and I don’t need any more”  She declared.

The counselors gasped, Alison dissolved into tears, Lauren growled and the rest of us just stared.  There it was.  The final decision from above.  The “intervention” ended after that, pretty much a bust.  Natalie and Brenda gave up.  The rest of the summer we tried to stay away from each other.  We, who honestly did want to be friends, were stung by the brutal rejection.  Queen Jill and the drones were obviously relieved they had gotten their true feelings out in the open.  Now that no one was going to force them to talk to us, why even acknowledge our presence anymore?  Mutual indifference seemed the best course of action.

Although that summer was rough, of course we all signed up again.  We only had 2 summers left and were so excited about the new roles we would have at camp: leading service teams, being peanut moms, and a host of other special duties.  On the bus ride up to camp Susie and I chattered excitedly the whole way.  We did notice that Alison was sitting with Melissa, one of the drones from the previous summer, but we didn’t think much of it.  When we got to camp and saw Lauren, she avoided our hugs by carrying bags.  Within a day we realized what was going on.  Lauren and Alison had somehow been recruited to the other side.  They barely spoke to us and they spent all their time serving Queen Jill.  The Orsome Foursome had dissolved.

Susie was angry, but I was more shocked and hurt than anything.  After the first wave of indignation we looked around and realized that those fringe friends we’d always had were actually the coolest people at camp.  We spent the next 2 years making up crazy dances to go along with our favorite songs, sitting together on movie night, and writing letters to boys we met at socials together.   They didn’t care how we did our hair or what we wore to the movies as long as we were all having fun and being ourselves.  Susie and I weren’t part of the Orsome Foursome anymore, but we were a part of something better. On the last night of the last summer we hugged and cried, knowing it would never be the same.  Eventually I lost touch with everyone, but not Susie.  We’ve now been friends for 20 years.  LBMC may not have taught us how to swim fast or play tennis like a pro, but it did teach us that friends can be fickle so you’d better be sure of yourself.  Sometimes you have to let other people go in order to really find out who you are.

When I stumbled onto the Bryn Mawr Mountain Conference Center website and debated whether to get married there or not I thought back to my years at LBMC and wondered if it was bad luck to start my marriage in a place where I had been treated so poorly at times.  I called Susie, who was going to be one of my bridesmaids to ask for her opinion.  At first she was incredulous that I was even considering it, but as we started talking we started to remember why we kept going back for 7 summers.  We remembered sitting on my top bunk trying to memorize the audience participation to Rocky Horror, playing with stickers, getting ready for Color War events, and running around at shower hour singing and laughing and decided those mean girls don’t count for crap.

©Lizzy Lynette Vlasses, 2009

Lizzy Lynette Vlasses had the time of her life as a BAWP participant during the summer of 2009.  For her 6th year of teaching she is excited to be joining the English Department at Oakland High School.  Most well known for the zine she published in 1995 entitled Dizzy, Lizzy has returned to writing after a brief hiatus and would like to thank the members of her BAWP writing group Heidi, Kate, and Kelley for all of their help and encouragement.  Lizzy currently lives in Oakland with her husband, her best friend, her best friend’s husband, her husband’s bandmate, his girlfriend, 2 dogs, and a karaoke machine.

3 Responses to “Lake Bryn Mawr Camp by Lizzy Lynette Vlasses”

  1. I wonder if there would be a problem using pocket screws to attach the top and the shelf.

  2. Lisa Says:

    Did you really have your wedding at that horrendous place? I went to LBMC a long time ago for one endless/horrible summer. It was such a bad experience. I can’t believe you went back at all. I begged my parents to take me out. But of course they ignored me. Today they did a “funny” segment on CBS Sunday Morning all about “hilarious” letters from camp. All these parents thinking it was so funny that their kids were miserable and wanted to leave. This idiot woman actually put together a book of “funny” letters from camp. The whole segment seemed to encourage parents to ignore their kid’s feelings. After all they are just kids and don’t know what they want. Take it from me, some kids have reason to want to get out of a camp. Next time LISTEN TO YOUR KID!

  3. Claudia Caine Says:

    I could not disagree more with the article above. Since the name of this former camper does not sound familiar, I don’t think our time at Lake Bryn Mawr Camp overlapped. That said, I was both a camper and a counselor at Bryn Mawr and returned there for 14 glorious summers. The structure, the rules, the uniform were all part of what made my time there so freeing. Children need structure to focus on who they really are, stripped of comparing clothing, style and ability. At Bryn Mawr, a sense of shared commitment to loyalty, fun, camp and each other taught me about friendship, teamwork, doing the right thing and laughing with the best of friends. I’m so sorry and sad this author had a bad experience at a place most would recall as their “heaven on earth”

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