One thing we teachers get to have that most other adults don’t is a real summer vacation. Not the week or so most people take during the warm stretch of the year, but an actual couple of months off. (They don’t pay us much, but we do have perks.)
As the school year winds down, I am often reminded of those summers when I was a kid, a time when I got to be someone else.
I stood before a wrap-around mirror at Lane Bryant, a store that originally supplied clothing for pregnant women, and then moved on to the plus-size juggernaut we know today. I was 12.
“It’s not my fault,” my mother said to the saleswoman, wringing her hands. “I feed her fish and salad with no dressing.”
The woman nodded. “I’m sure you do, still the child needs a size 16 in that dress.”
I turned away from my fashionably attired mother in her spike heels and cat eye glasses, wondering if she realized that, while I was fat, I was not deaf. I could hear the pleading in her voice. “How did I end up with an obese daughter?”
Being an overweight kid in the 1960s was a rarity, as most any class picture from the time will clearly show. Add to my girth the fact that I was a tomboy and cared little about my appearance and rarely brushed my red hair, so my mother had it sheared short. Perhaps she thought I might find the style disturbing and be prompted to care more about my looks. But the only thing my bowl cut with a prominent cowlick in the front did was confuse people in regard to my gender. Sometimes, I was asked if I was a boy or a girl.
By fifth grade, I was a thickly-proportioned five-foot-five. In photographs with other students I was, on occasion, mistaken for the teacher. Other kids teased me, but they never got too close. I think I actually frightened some of them. I did have a few friends, but when I turned 12, the girl who lived two houses down announced one day that she would no longer spend time with me.
“You’re a fat girl,” she said, not looking me in the eye. “Boys don’t like fat girls. If I’m your friend, they won’t like me either.” She turned and walked away. She never spoke to me again.
I sometimes stared at other girls in my class. By comparison most seemed to be petit, delicate little things. One in particular, a blond, blue-eyed child with perfect pitch and straight A’s, always stood out. She wore white lace ankle socks and played the piano. When the parts were cast for the school play one year, she was named the head fairy. My role? Head witch.
Every summer my parents sent me to Girl Scout Camp. The first time I was eight and went off for two weeks. That led to annual month-long excursions I would continue until I was 17.
I quickly learned that at camp no one forced you to brush your hair. What truly mattered had nothing to do with appearance. The most important thing at camp was swimming, for this was the activity that opened the doors to almost everything else. Campers were labeled according to their aquatic skills and assigned a cap color. Red was reserved for those most likely to sink like stones. Yellow caps had some skills, but needed serious monitoring. Green caps could hold their own in the water and blue caps were masters, swimmers the counselors never worried about.
One year, a new cap category was created just for me and one other camper. Casey and I were anointed white caps, after we completed the Red Cross Senior Life Saving course, which meant we had unfettered access to sailing and water skiing, canoeing and even scuba diving. I sometimes walked the dock when the other girls were taking their lessons, striding past the roped-off areas that kept the inexperienced swimmers from straying. I’d head out to the far end of the wooden-planked pier, not the least bit self-conscious about how I looked in my bathing suit. I would stand and stare out over the lake, where no ropes or buoys marred the view. Then I’d dive in, going deep into the dark water, feeling freer than I ever did on land.
The other thing that made me special at Girl Scout Camp was music. I had acquired an old guitar from my aunt and had taught myself a few rudimentary cords. (It’s rather amazing just how many songs you can play with G, Em, C and D7.) I learned quickly that the girl with the guitar was highly prized around the campfire every night. And when we’d sung our last song to the snap and pop of logs dying in the fire, we would head to our brown canvas tents that nestled in the trees, perched on wooden platforms, the sides rolled up. Cocooned in thick cotton sheets and flannel blankets, the pine-scented breeze wafted over us, as lake water kissed the rocks just a few feet away, and I knew a tranquil peace I had never found anywhere else.
The end of camp brought tears all around. Friends soon to be separated and, for me, the return to the world where neither swimming nor my nascent attempts at guitar playing mattered.
Then, one summer, I returned home from camp and my aunt’s jaw dropped upon seeing me.
“Who the hell are you!” she said, looking me up and down. “Damn! She’s got cheekbones.”
It wasn’t that I lost weight. The pounds just somehow rearranged, perhaps because I had less access to the candy bars I used to sneak daily. Or maybe it was the rigors of that eight-day canoe trip. Or maybe it was magic wrought by the forest and the lake and the music and the fire. Whatever caused my transformation, no one ever called me fat again.
Anne Montgomery’s new YA novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at http://www.amphoraepublishing.com/product/the-scent-of-rain/ and wherever books are sold.