*Names with an asterisk have been changed
Our bus rolled up to the campgrounds, and we all filed out of the bus in the most angsty teenager way possible. Too cool for school, too cool for nature. I looked around. For one week, I’d be stuck in the middle of the woods with a bunch of kids I tried to avoid every day. Great.
They had let us know ahead of time that there would be two cabins per gender, and we got to pick our bunkmate. I shared a bunk with my best friend Rachel, who gave me the top bunk. That’s a good friend, because everyone knows the top bunk is the shit. We crossed our fingers hoping we’d get to bunk with our friends Jenique and Kelly, but we wound up being placed in a cabin with some of the Queens of the In Crowd and girls from some school in Vermont.
When dinnertime came, the teachers and counselors called us up to the common area. We entered in, selecting our seats at long tables. The counselor-type people explained the rules of Nature’s Classroom. For example, we couldn’t add sugar to anything, because they wanted to torture us. They also made a big deal of ort. Per Merriam-Webster, ort is a morsel (or morsels) of leftover food. They told us that all of the ort we left on our plates would be weighed, then placed in a trough and given to the pigs. Even though it likely made the pigs happy, ort was a bad word; it was waste. It was evidence of our spoiled culture of over-consumption.
During the ort speech, I looked over to watch one of my teachers, Mr. Leed*, standing alongside the counselor-type people at Nature’s Classroom. I knew he was totally eating this up, leaving no ort behind. If he had his way, he’d live at Nature’s Classroom and never leave. Mr. Leed was an ex-hippie who often would break from his teaching to yell at us for being so spoiled and horrible. A lot of what he said was true, but the lectures would get tiring and somewhat insulting to some of us who weren’t wealthy. He’d go off on a rant that usually started off with, “you all go home to your four televisions and three VCRs…” Rachel would literally plug her ears. He would often ask to see a show of hands for those of us who had cable or more than one television, then berate us for being so over-privileged – as if everyone who raised their hand told the truth. There were a lot of well-off kids in our school, and your family’s perceived lack of wealth could be used against you. In Nature’s Classroom, however, we were all equals – until we decided we were better than the kids from Vermont.
After eating and braving through a gaggle of 13 year-old girls trying to shower with a limited hot water supply, Rachel and I arrived back in our cabin. The Vermont Girls were on one side of the cabin, and the Queens of the In Crowd were on the other. There was a lot of whispering and sneering. One of the Queens who usually looked me over as if I wore a dirty potato sack gave us a catty smile and waved us over to the group. “Hey guys, come over here!” We walked towards the circle, and they filled us in on the atrocities the Vermont Girls had committed in the short amount of time it took us to take a shower. “They looked at us and rolled their eyes!” One said. “I tried to talk to one of them and they were all like, ‘ugh’” Said another, mimicking extreme snootiness. Even though a little voice in my head was warning me that these girls were up to no good, the larger voice in my head thought, “the popular girls are talking to us; This is our chance to get ‘in’ and be perceived as normal! Maybe they’re not so bad!” So I widened my eyes, and replied with astonishment. “Oh, my God; Really?? How rude!” The battle lines were drawn.
We all side-eyed each other until the lights went out. Once it was dark, the nastiness began. It started with whispering, chatting and giggling even though we were supposed to go to sleep. The chaperone in the room was a teacher from the Vermont school, so clearly she was the enemy. When the Vermont Girls would giggle, one of our girls would giggle back loudly, mocking them. One Queen threw something over to their side of the cabin. This went on for a couple of hours, despite being yelled at by the chaperone several times.
The next morning, I felt bad. I’ve had my moments of nastiness before, believe me – but I did not want to be a Mean Girl. I just wanted to have a lot of friends, and I felt pretty horrible that I stepped on a couple of seemingly nice strangers to try to get there. Rachel engaged in this activity the least, because she was an awesome person. She listened to the Queens and smiled, but she never engaged in cattiness. I, on the other hand, laughed at the jabs, and woke up knowing I was a jerk. Why did we attack these girls?
As we began to assemble for a very important and educational class on bubble-making, two of the Vermont Girls walked up to me. “Why is everyone being so mean to us? We didn’t do anything.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. I think we thought that you were being mean to us? It’s really stupid, isn’t it?” Yes. I appointed myself Ambassador of the In Crowd.
A couple of Queens walked up to join us. Before you know it, everyone was laughing and chirping, and everyone suddenly acted as if we were all the bestest of friends. A détente had been reached.
Once Nutmegger v. Green Mountaineer was settled, we had other moments of drama to contend with. As usual, the sub-group I was placed in for a number of activities was punished for being horrible human beings. The worst punishment occurred during a nature walk while it was raining. The counselor had it with people acting up, and she made us get in a “human knot” to get us to work better as a team. We were drenched, annoyed, and weren’t allowed to head back for dinner until we could get out of the human knot. My aversion to any and all team-building activities can be traced directly back to this moment.
The majority of activities we had to do were your typical summer camp activities; we had nature walks, put on a talent show, and had an archaeology dig where we excavated a mud-caked can of Schlitz and a cigarette butt. The highlight of the activities was learning how to sign to the song “The Rose,” which we all showed off and performed for our classmates. This appealed to many of us, because every young girl wants to learn sign language and/or Braille after reading a book on Helen Keller or watching Mary go blind on Little House on the Prairie.
As Nature’s Classroom progressed, the mood deteriorated. Rachel and I got snippy with each other because quite frankly, I was a bitch. Jenique and Kelly were getting irritated as bunkmates because Kelly had to crack every last joint in her body before she went to sleep each night. It rained too much, and the shower situation was on the verge of creating an all-out pimp-slapdown. Then there was the ort. Oh, yes, that freaking ort.
After a meal on one of our last days, the counselors stood in the front of the commons area looking devastated. Mr. Leed was slowly morphing into the Incredible Hippie Hulk. A Sadface Counselor made the announcement – the ort weighed in at a whopping 10 pounds. Our waste was the size of a large baby; a large, granola-crusted, raisin-eyed, sugarless baby. According to them, this was unprecedented in the history of Nature’s Classroom. Sadface Counselor looked like we just sacrificed a baby polar bear before her eyes. Mr. Leed, ever the bastion of self-restraint, couldn’t hold back his wrath for another second. He tore into his most impassioned “6 televisions, 4 VCRs” speech yet, craftily working in global hunger and the destruction of mankind, attributing all impending evil in the world to my selfish, wasteful, ortful generation. We were evil. We were horrible, evil children with too many VCRs! It was one of those rage-induced speeches where the room is so awkwardly quiet at the end, your Asshole Brain wants you to say something incredibly inappropriate and sarcastic just to see if the screamer completely loses their shit and starts flipping tables or throwing chairs. Even in my preadolescent angst, a.k.a. the Golden Age of Asshole Brain, I valued my life enough to remain quiet and pretended to look shamed and mournful. It’s not that Mr. Leed was completely wrong in his message; it’s just that it’s inappropriate to blame an entire group for things a few people do. Or conversely, blame a few people for the ills of their entire generation. You’d think an ex-hippie would get that.
On the last night of Nature’s Classroom, as usual Vermont hung out on their side, and we hung out on our side. Despite the giggly détente earlier in the week, the damage was done. We sat on a Queen’s bed and talked about things. We sang “Kokomo,” and told secrets. We talked about the boys we had a crush on. They prodded Rachel and me for our crushes – Rachel never gave in, but of course, I did. I’ve always said that I was a naïve kid; if you told me you’d keep a secret, I’d believe you. I felt like I bonded with the Queens; I didn’t think we’d all exchange phone numbers and become besties, but I figured I talked enough with them to earn “fellow breathing human” status.
The morning after Ortgate, we were all overly conscious of what was on our plates. No one wanted to be yelled at for 20 minutes again. A couple of the Vermont girls sat across from Rachel and me and we chatted over breakfast. We talked about music, and one of the girls said her two favorite bands were The Cars and Van Halen – my two favorite bands, both decidedly “uncool” in my junior high (it was Van Hagar era, mind you). As we talked, I realized that I really blew an opportunity to get to know a very nice person who shared my interests. I was the worst kind of Mean Girl – I was a follower.
At the end of the meal, Mr. Leed had the look of supreme self-satisfaction. The counselors stood up to make a joyful announcement: We hardly left ANY ort, and it weighed in at an unprecedented low number. Do you ever feel this sort of thing is planned? Anyway, I guess the pigs starved. Yay, nature!
We said goodbye to the Vermont Girls, who were probably (and rightfully) thinking, “whatever, bitches,” and hopped on the bus to go home. As we pulled away from Nature’s Classroom and made our way back home, our lives slowly morphed into the people we were prior to the trip. We turned on 7 of our 8 televisions, kicked 3 of our 4 VCRs, took long, hot showers, and still had occasional food fights in the cafeteria. I apparently put my dirty potato sack back on as we all went our separate ways and fell back into the cliques we were meant to be in. I’d say I was disappointed, but it didn’t really bother me. Everything I really wanted in friendship I found in Rachel and my other friends, and I didn’t have to laugh at other people to stay in their good graces. So, I accepted my potato sack status, shrugged my shoulders, and learned that some people just won’t accept you as you are; and you know what? That’s their problem. I was lucky to have friends that did, and truthfully I didn’t want it any other way.