Kum Ba Yah
Kum Ba Yah
An Essay by Debra Harman
I speed up, walking fast to get back to the cabin area. I feel like prey. The pack of teenage girls follows me down the dirt trail through the trees. They surround me in a clearing, encircling me so I can’t escape.
“What kind of shoes are those?” one tall girl asks, flicking long dark hair back from her face.
“Uh, I don’t know. They’re just shoes.” I’m wearing old blue tennis shoes with dingy laces. We live on a farm, so there may be a green streak of cow poop somewhere. The five girls wear tiny pink tennis shoes with bright white shoelaces tied in fancy bows.
“They’re really cute,” one of them says. They all laugh. I hardly know what to do. In my hometown, kids don’t bully me. This is different. This is church camp, and these girls come from money. Maybe they’re from Lake Oswego, where everyone’s rich.
“Where do you even find clothes like that?” another girl asks. I wear blue stretchy shorts, with a blue and white striped t-shirt. As a big girl on the precipice of puberty, I’m awkwardly tall with big feet. There isn’t anything cute or petite about me. These thin girls with pretty clothes eye me closely, assessing my “room to grow” summer outfit.
“My mom buys my clothes. I don’t know,” I’m getting more nervous. This isn’t friendly conversation.
“You look like you could be a thrift store model, from the large section,” a blonde-haired girl says. Now that’s more direct. I flush and look down. They run off, laughing. I walk to the camp store with my dollar and then go to the cabin. My friend Mouse is on her lower bunk. I have the upper.
“Want some chocolate?”
“Sure,” she says. Mouse hates camp. A quiet girl, she has no interest in the revival meetings after dinner, Kum Ba Yah around the campfire, or the big circle handholding during prayer session. She’s getting picked on too. Mouse and I are the two nearly-twelve-year-olds in the thirteen-year-olds’ camp retreat. We’re light years behind these curvy girls with tampons and cherry chapstick.
My tall chunky body is on the cusp of hormones that will shoot me up three inches and whittle the baby fat, while Mouse is a tiny whisper of a girl with a child’s body. The sexy teenagers with their padded bras terrorize us. They flounce their hips around in shorts and wear cropped Endless Summer t-shirts. They joke about Aunt Flo being in town that week. We’re awkward children, and they make sure we know it. Days are hard.
At night, we deal with Miss Pamela, our senior citizen cabin counselor. The first evening, she insists “We can all take our shirts off and walk around with nothing on top! We’re all girls here!” Mouse and I look at each other and raise eyebrows. We undress quickly on the far side of the bunk from Miss Pamela, although Miss Pamela meanders through the cabin as girls get ready for bed. The older girls in the cabin rush to cover their bodies, shaking their heads after Miss Pamela walks by, gawking at us.
Miss Pamela “gets more comfortable” to model it to us. She sighs deeply, “Oh, my! What a day!”-- and peels off her t-shirt. She has one of those cotton bras my brother calls over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders, and once removed, her breasts loll down just above her navel. I glance, of course! This is before the Internet, so I haven’t seen breasts except in the National Geographic. Hers look like flattened fried eggs, and she looks around, assessing her audience.
“I’m damaged for life,” mutters Mouse. I nearly choke.
“Keep your covers pulled up,” Mouse adds. We’re best friends from that time on.
We whisper goodnights and retreat under the covers to read books with flashlights. At home on the farm, I play and climb trees, or hole up in the dark attic reading encyclopedias. My favorite reading includes tales about young royals smothered with pillows by power-hungry relatives, adjusting line of succession. I also study the metamorphosis of caterpillars to butterflies. The idea of a creature changing so dramatically appeals to me. I hate my size, my awkwardness. Mom says I’ll change in time.
Mom went to summer church camp when she was a girl, and she had such a fun time. Mom registers my sister, a year and a half older, for the young teens camp. She talks them into taking me, too: “She’s very mature, and tall for her age.” Mature, yes. And while I’m tall, I’m awkwardly large. The following year I become the happy owner of a lithe body and high cheekbones, with breasts and periods and long legs. At nearly twelve, I’m all belly and chunky limbs, with messy brown hair and a book, a random smear of chocolate at the side of my mouth. I’m not looking in a mirror much yet.
The final night of camp is a celebration. I feel mildly excited most of the day. At the giant rope swing, I spot my sister with a group of girls. Thin and blonde, she’s ignored me the whole week of camp. Still, she gives me a quick wave when I shout her name, a happy moment. One of the five girls who accosted me on the trail walks up.
“Hey, we’re doing a skit on stage tonight. Can we borrow your tennis shoes?”
I’m so eager to be one of the cool kids. I say yes.
“Thanks. I’ll come by your cabin after lunch.” I’ll have to wear my old navy blue flip-flops while she has my tennis shoes. I worry about this. Why does she want my shoes? I’ve already said yes, I tell myself. After dinner, all the girls in camp sit on the cold cafeteria floor, facing the stage. The lights go down and the camp director welcomes us to the evening’s performance. First, a prayer. Then the skits.
The curtain parts, and the spotlight reveals five girls. One of them wears my tennis shoes and has strange mismatched clothes—stripes and polka dots, and of course, my old faithful shoes. Suddenly I get it. She’s playing me. As an adult, I now think, “those mean little bitches!” As a child, I thought, “I want to die right now.”
The four cool girls act like they take “awkward girl” in, and welcome her. At first, awkward girl is alone, skipping around the stage. She sits down and opens a book. When the cool girls befriend her, hugging her, she’s suddenly happy. Her life has meaning.
I feel my mouth tighten and my heart beats fast, remembering their cruelty, how scared I felt when they surrounded me. Now, I’m shocked. Humiliated. Embarrassed. Does everyone watching know I’m being mocked? The little fashionistas finish and bow to applause. How generous and kind they are to befriend awkward girl! I hate them.
At the end of the performance, the blonde pixie who wore my shoes runs lightly to me and lays my old blue tennis shoes next to me on the floor without a word, running away fast. My knees are pulled up to my chest at this point. I can’t even look at the shoes and need a magic ring to disappear. I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Mouse whispers, “they’re really mean. Don’t even think about them.”
The lights come up, and the camp director announces the bonfire in an hour. All the girls rush out, laughing. Mouse leaves. I play the piano in the cafeteria, Fur Elise, Saturday in the Park, and other songs. I close the lid and pick up my shoes. It’s nearly time for bonfire. Camp’s over tomorrow, and I’m relieved. I long to go home, read and play piano. I’m tired of worrying. Will I ever fit in? Am I destined to be a big, awkward loner all my life? I decide to head out and find Mouse.
Then I hear someone. The door in the back of the cafeteria swings open, and Miss Pamela’s there. I didn’t know she stayed back. My heart pounds.
“Honey, come here!”
Oh, no. I can’t disobey an adult. I walk over.
“Come in, come in. It’s warm in the kitchen here. Would you like a cookie?” I stare at her. What’s she up to? She stands facing me and puts her hands on my shoulders. This feels bad.
“You know, we all worried about you, that you wouldn’t fit in with the older girls, but you have done so well,” she said, staring at me with colorless eyes. She pets my hair with both hands. I stare at her. What is she doing? My heart screams and blood pounds in my ears, but I can’t move. She leans forward and kisses me on the lips. That’s when I take flight. I yank away and flat out run to the cabin. I stop outside to wipe my mouth and spit, wiping it again.
The bonfire has started, and I find Mouse.
“Miss Pamela just kissed me on the lips, the lips!” I whisper to her, horrified. Mouse makes the “silent scream” face. I tell her the whole story, the petting of my hair, the scary approach with her old wrinkly mouth. Her disgusting breath. Her cigarette-yellow fingers gripping my shoulders.
“That’s it,” she said. “Why should we stay in that cabin one more night?” I agree with her, but camp is over the next morning. We’ll stick it out, we decide. We sing Kum Ba Yah and roast marshmallows, but in the prayer circle, neither of us hold hands with the others. “Don’t break the ring!” warns the director, but we resist, stepping out of the circle, taking our stand. When we get ready for bed, Mouse holds a blanket up as I change clothes, and I do the same for her, glaring at Miss Pamela. Camp is officially over.