When I went to sleep away camp for the first time, at age nine, everything was new to me. Living in a bunk with other girls, sharing sinks and toilets and showers and such a small space, when I was used to having my own room, and my own door to close out the world. But one of the biggest changes was the lake. At day camps on Long Island I’d been swimming in pools, with see-through water and the burn of chlorine up my nose. At sleepaway camp we swam in a lake, with murky depths, and floating docks that moved with the water.
I didn’t do very well on my first swim test, on the first full day of camp, but that was okay with me, because it meant that my advanced beginner swim classes would be held in the shallow water by the shore, where I could touch the ground under my feet. I was willing to learn surface dives and summersaults and treading water, and basic swim strokes, as long as I could reach out and find the ground when I needed to.
We had swim classes every morning, five days a week, and in the afternoons we had free swim. For my first three summers at camp “free” swim was required, and we needed to have a buddy. The social anxiety of, every day, having to ask someone to go swimming with me, and be tied to me, metaphorically, for forty five minutes, was brutal. I did have friends at camp, in a way I didn’t during the school year, but even so, every day the specter of rejection hovered over me. “Will you be my buddy?” is as excruciating a question to ask as you might think it is, even when I was only asking for temporary friendship.
The buddy rule was to make sure that if one person started to drown, their buddy would notice and call for the life guards on the dock. And to make sure we were all still alive, at some point during each free swim period, we had to go through the torment of the buddy call.
So, some background. Depending on our swimming ability we received a buddy tag corresponding to the shallow water (red), deeper water (yellow), and deepest water (green). I had a red tag, so I could only go for free swim in the shallow water. Someone with a yellow tag could go into deeper water, still surrounded on three sides by contiguous docks, with life guards standing at regular intervals. A green tag meant you could go into the deepest water, which was outlined in stand-alone docks connected by buoy ropes. There was only one lifeguard on each of the scattered docks, so you were mostly on your own out there.
I never wanted a green tag. I was happy to be trapped in red water, even though it meant that friends with higher level tags wouldn’t want to be my buddy, because they’d be restricted to shallow water with me. We lined up at the buddy board, and each pair of swimmers would be assigned a number, in Hebrew, in red, yellow, or green water. Our tags would be placed on the board, under our assigned number, so that if, god forbid, we failed to respond to the buddy call, they would know whose body to search for.
I’d been studying Hebrew since kindergarten, but even I found it stressful to have to remember my number in Hebrew, under stress. The problem is that the number fifteen, using Hebrew letters as numbers, spells one of the names of God, and therefore can’t be said out loud. So instead of using the letters for ten and five, we had to use the letters for nine and six to make fifteen, I think. Just trying to think this through again is bringing up long buried panic.
Anyway. You’d be swimming along, splashing your neighbors (red water was always crowded, because I wasn’t the only one happy to stay in the shallow water), and then the whistles would blow, and you had to stay still throughout the buddy call. If you were in yellow or green water, and more than an arm’s length from the dock when the whistles blew, you’d have to tread water the whole time. I would stand in red water and listen for my number, reminding my usually non-Hebrew speaking friend where our number would be in the order, worried the whole time that I was remembering or counting wrong.
I always needed a nap after free swim because of the stress of it all.
Even now, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life dreading the buddy call, but now it’s the “Are you married?” “Do you have kids?” “Where do you work?” questions. The questions that really seem to be asking if I have proven myself worthy of being chosen. And if I haven’t? It kind of feels like I’m not allowed into the pool, or the lake, of life.
Cricket thinks it’s nonsense, of course. I mean, really, who wants to swim in a lake anyway? She also believes in the reject-them-before-they-can-reject-you philosophy, with lots of barking added.
I’m not sure where Ellie stands on these issues yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.