For twelve years of my life, I spent several weeks of every summer at a Girl Scout day camp. After my twelfth year, I decided not to return. Something wasn't right--there was a constant feeling of always being watched under an unseen eye of judgment. Trips to the porta-potty would almost always turn into privately bashing a girl from the group. I wasn't innocent, either. Kicking up gravel with sneakers that would have made a great topic for gossip themselves, I would listen to my fellow camper's abrupt topic change. I would nod in agreement. Eventually I would chime in. We would laugh at some insignificant quality of another, a quality we would use as our own form of twisted entertainment for days. But it all grew old, and I moved on from Oak Spring Day Camp. In my high school, I still gossiped in cramped muggy bathrooms during homeroom, assuming the complicity of my listeners. It would take years before I considered what caused my desire to shame others, that it was really a reflection of my own insecurity, and more years still until I saw the pattern of girls bashing girls, how our society teaches us to hate each other, rather than build each other up.
For these epiphanic reasons, I decided to return to Oak Spring as a counselor, to positively influence the lives of these girls, and with a certain amount of idealistic hope, redirect the course of their social futures towards one of female peace and solidarity. I drove my Honda-CRV up the gravel, tree-shaded entrance with unfiltered optimism. I had plans for team work building activities and self-esteem exercises. But after a few days in breathing in the frustratingly hot and humid air, I realized something: my coworkers were no better than the girls-- that they'd gossip about each other even worse than the campers.
On an afternoon during my second week, I brought my campers to run through the sprinkler. While they frolicked through the water, a camp-aid (a slightly younger, volunteer counselor) joined me on a bench. The two of us had been working well together all week, bonding over shared stories and experiences. What seemed to be out of nowhere, she began talking about another counselor at the camp.
"She's so fucking lazy," the camp-aid said. "She just doesn't do anything."
Here I was, listening to my coworker perpetuate the very behavior I sought to cut out of the girls we were mentoring. The worst part is that I agreed with her. Her claim about the other counselor wasn't untrue. The counselor was in fact extremely lazy and put a burden on the rest of us. But there had to be another way of handling this, of turning it into a solution.
I listened to her attentively. I paused a moment before responding.
"What do you think we could do to make it better?" I said. She looked at me, puzzled.
"How can we make this into a solution?" I said, rephrasing my question. At first she seemed hesitant, but eventually opened up to the idea of creating some kind of solution. By this point, two other counselors had joined us on the bench.
"I came to this camp because when I went here years ago, I realized how girls are taught to hate each other. Why are boys taught to work together, while girls are taught to bring each other down? I want to lead these girls away from hate. I want to teach them how to build each other up and to work together. I'm sad to say that I've already heard gossip between counselors here. But how are we ever going to teach this to our girls when we don't do it ourselves?"
They all looked at me with sad, understanding eyes. I thought I smelled change in that hot, humid air.