Surviving Summer Camp: When Hazing Goes Too Far
It was unusually cold the summer I walked naked down a highway in the Santa Cruz mountains. Shortly past 2 a.m., a group of older girls had led me, blindfolded and with my hands tied, to the edge of the road. By the time I worked the blindfold off, I found myself alone.I was 13, a nerd with thick glasses and frizzy hair, when my mother sent me to an upscale residential summer camp.
She hoped that by going away for a summer of horseback riding, crafts, swimming and day hikes, I would somehow blossom into the cheerful, successful and well-liked teen that my older sister had somehow become during junior high. Her dream came true-but it came with a price.
While "hazing" is usually associated with college students desperate to join fraternities or sororities, it happens in many other places as well -- high schools, detention centers, group homes and even high-priced summer camps. Almost nine million kids in the United States go to summer camp each year, and the number has been increasing by about 10 percent every year. "Name calling, cliques, bullying, pranks and acts of retaliation" have become such a problem at camps that the American Camping Association has devoted an entire section of its web site to responding to and preventing such problems.
As for me, I arrived at summer camp to find that all the other girls in my bunk had been going there since second grade. They were good friends, and I was an outsider. Even the counselor seemed to be part of the clique, and happy to ignore me. I spent the first few days wandering around sulky and depressed.
About a week after we arrived at camp, several of the older girls approached me as we were changing into our swimsuits. "We're going to be meeting at the fire pit after dinner," they told me. "You should come." Finally! This was what I'd been waiting for. I hurried over to the fire pit after dinner. Eventually, Vicky and Amanda, two of my bunkmates, showed up, followed by the rest of my cabin (with the notable exception of our counselor). Amanda seemed to be the leader, and everyone flocked to sit near her, especially Vicky.
Amanda finally stopped the chattering and addressed me. This whole group had pledged to be friends forever, she told me, and I would have to prove myself worthy before I could join their crowd.
I had no interest in giggling about boys or music, which is all they ever talked about, and I didn't want to spend my summer worshipping Amanda as the goddess everyone seemed to think she was. At the same time, though, these girls had come to represent everything my mother wanted me to be. Every trait I felt I lacked, they had in abundance. I agreed to submit to their "tests of friendship."
We began that evening in the fire pit. Giggling nervously, one girl lit a match and set a twig on fire. Amanda told me to pull up my pants leg, and the girl put the flaming stick to my leg and held it there as the group counted to 20. Years later, the scar is still there.
Several other "tests" followed but the last was the most memorable. I was woken up in the middle of the night and led outside, where Amanda and the rest of her posse confiscated my shoes and clothes. They blindfolded me and led me around for what felt like hours but was probably no more than 30 minutes. I kept stubbing my toes and rocks along the trail that cut my feet. But I didn't protest. I didn't sit down and refuse to go on (which is what I felt like doing). In fact, it didn't even cross my mind to question whether what they were doing was OK. They were the popular kids, and they had a right to make people suffer to join their crowd -- especially since, as they'd all told me, they had gone through these tests already themselves. When the camp director found me four hours later, I was walking down the side of the road, freezing and covered in mud. The staff wanted me to turn in the other girls, but I refused. We were friends forever, right?
For the next three weeks, I was part of the in crowd. Amanda saved me a seat next to her at dinner and whispered about how worried she'd been for me, and how now I was really one of them. I'd finally achieved the acceptance I longed for-but it was tinged with the bitterness of how much of myself I'd given up in the process.
Others who have had similar experiences have ended up with the same sense of betrayal and letdown. Holly, 16, was a camper in southern California four years ago when she went through a hazing experience that left her hurt and embittered.
"We had moved a lot because my dad was in the service," Holly explained, "so I was always having to make new friends. When some of the older girls invited me to join them, I was ecstatic."
About a week later, Holly found out what hanging out with this particular group entailed. "When Trisha explained that they'd all had sexual experiences, I was shocked," she says. "She told me that I would have to go with a particular boy and have oral sex with him. She said everyone else had done it, so I said I would, too. When I came back, they wanted me to describe it to them. I felt sick."
It wasn't until later that Holly found out none of the other girls had actually done this. "Sure, I felt like a victim," she says now. "Who wouldn't? But what's really messed up is that I agreed to it. In a way I wanted it, because I wanted them to see how cool I was."
Not all campers feel that the initiation rituals they went through were destructive. Thomas, a student at a high school outside of Boston, feels like the "tests" he was put through at tennis camp made his group of friends a lot closer. Those rituals included drinking, eating worms and bugs, staying up for two nights without sleep and mooning a girls' bunk.
"It was a real bonding time," Thomas recalls. "The four of us who were new that year became brothers because we'd survived this together. It was just a way for us to transition into the group."
To "join the group" is a universal and natural teenage wish, and participating in hazing rituals may be one way to fulfill it. But when hazing goes too far, it can leave its victims feeling more isolated or worthless than ever.
Vicky and I became and remained friends. Several years later, we got together for a weekend of reminiscing. It turned out she had hated the initiation process as much as I had.
"I'm an intelligent person," she told me. "Why did I put myself through something so stupid? I guess I was so insecure that I was willing to risk really hurting myself, or someone else, just so other people would like me."
This article originally appeared in Youth Outlook (YO!), the youth news project of Pacific News Service.