I didn’t want to go to sleepaway camp. It didn’t sound good despite my father telling me I would love it. When I asked him what I would love he told me he wished he’d been able to go to camp. Even at 7 I knew that wasn’t an answer, but when he didn’t want to answer a question there was no point in asking again. I didn’t want to leave my baby sister. I didn’t want to be sent away from home again, but I had no choice. My mother had spent nights sewing labels with my name on my clothes. One morning she packed my suitcase, made a picnic lunch, and told me to get into the car. When I hesitated, she said that if I didn’t get in the car, “right now!” she’d give me something to get me going. I knew that meant trouble. I got in the car.
My mother was angry that she had to drive such a long drive by herself, angry when I wouldn’t eat, angry when she had to stop so I could use a bathroom. By the time we got to camp, she was furious and I felt sick. She told me I should appreciate how lucky I was, that I should be grateful, not a spoiled brat, that she’d never had such a wonderful opportunity to spend a summer in the country and be out of the hot city. She deposited me with a counselor and left.
I was only seven, but I’d been put in a bunk with nine-year-olds. The counselor told me to take off my dress and put on shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t want to wear shorts. I didn’t want to take off my dress. She said I had to; it was the rules. “Who made the rules?” I asked, but she just ignored me. When the counselor wasn’t looking the kids in the bunk made fun of me. They called me Titsucker, and Babysnot, refusing to call me by my name. I knew I was too young to be with them, but I didn’t ask to be in their bunk. When they kept telling me I didn’t belong, I silently agreed with them, but where was I supposed to go?
When it was time for supper the smell of the food made me sick. I ran out of the dining room, gasping for air, hoping I wouldn’t throw up before I got out. The counselor followed me, told me to come back in, to sit at the table like the others. She could make me sit but she couldn’t make me eat. After supper we gathered around a fire to roast marshmallows. There were too many kids huddled around the fire and no one made space for me so I sat on a log and watched, slapping mosquitos, wishing I could leave.
The next morning my dress was gone. I put on the shorts and tee shirt and went to the infirmary. I told the nurse I didn’t feel good. She checked me out and said there was nothing wrong, that I was just homesick. I didn’t tell her I was campsick. No matter what I said, she insisted I was fine, that I should go to the arts and craft shack to join my group. Since she was no help, I decided to run away.
The only place I could think to go was the forest. When no one was looking, I ran as fast as I could, into the forest at the edge of the camp. The cool air, smelling of earth and wildflowers and grasses comforted me. I felt better. Then I saw a boy, a little older than me, a little taller than me, but friendly. He smiled. “I’m Peter. What are you doing here?”
I told Peter I hated camp and my counselor and the girls in my bunk. He told me he loved the forest, did I want him to tell me the names of trees and flowers and birds that he knew? I nodded. He took my hand and we walked into the woods, stopping when he showed me a wildflower hidden near a fallen log, a baby oak tree, a bird’s nest. I forgot about hate and sick. I forgot about the counselor and the girls in my bunk. I wanted to stay in the forest with Peter until it was time to go home at the end of the summer.
Peter looked at his watch. “We need to go back now; otherwise they’ll start looking for us. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll meet you here tomorrow, same time. Okay?” I nodded. “Just make sure no one sees you leaving the forest.” I promised to be careful.
The next day and the next day and the next day Peter and I met in the forest. I learned the names of trees and flowers and birds. But one morning, as we were leaving the forest, his counselor and my counselor caught us. They were furious. “We’ve been looking all over for you. We were worried something happened to you. Don’t you care about anyone besides yourselves?” Peter said he was sorry as he walked off with his counselor. I wasn’t sorry about being in the forest. I was sorry about being caught. My counselor tried to take my hand but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t believe for one minute she cared about me and I didn’t care about her. She was mean.
The next morning, after breakfast, when no one was looking, I ran into the forest. The forest was my friend. I wished Peter was in the forest with me but still, I felt free and happy. I found a path and walked on it. Maybe it would lead to a little house in the forest where I could live until the end of the summer.
After walking for a long time, I felt tired and sat down on a soft green mossy mound. I leaned against a huge oak tree and closed my eyes. I imagined the kind people who lived in the house and how they would make food I liked to eat. Suddenly there was a lot of noise. Someone yelled, “There she is! We found her!” A lot of people rushed toward me. I tried to run but a woman knelt beside me and put her arm around me. I tried to pull away but she held me tight.
“I’m Marty, the nature counselor.” I didn’t know what that was. She told me she liked to study trees and wildflowers and birds. That sounded nice. “Would you like to be my assistant?” she asked. “You could come to the nature shack and help me out.”
“For how long?” I asked. Maybe it would only be for one morning and then everything would be terrible again.
“You can stay with me for as long as you like, but you have to promise you won’t run away any more.”
I nodded but she said she had to hear the words. I didn’t want to say them. Even though she seemed kind, maybe my counselor wouldn’t let me stay with her. The best I could do was say, “I’ll try.”
She looked like she was studying me. “Okay,” she said after I wouldn’t promise. “I guess that’s good enough for now. Let’s go, it’s almost time for lunch.” We started walking back to camp. She took my hand and wrapped hers around mine. I let her.
Did you ever run away?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.