Ashley Andrews poises herself proudly on the stage. Her pretty pink slippers sweep angelically across the scuffs of the wooden floor. The nine year old darling drifts in sync with Tchaikovsky’s “sleeping beauty waltz,” her yellow loops of hair coil and shimmer like slinky’s with her movements.
“Ooo’s” and “Awwe’s” bounce along the four corners of the South Ocala Elementary School auditorium. She steals the show, and first prize.
Welcome to my summer camp experience. The end of summer talent show, or as I know refer to it, the “Hootie and the Blowfish”, nightmare
Mom made us go every summer. While most kids spent their summers splashing around the waterpark, hammering together backyard tree forts, and watching Nickelodeon reruns, my brothers and I had to go to summer camp, at South Ocala Elementary school. We were Ward Highlands Elementary School “Hornets,” every other month out of the year, but come summer, we were forced to brave the wild frontier of this “other,” school where we didn’t know anyone.
“It’s going to be fun, better than last year.” Mom would always say, with a pat on my head and a motherly, ‘aw, isn’t she cute when she pouts,’ smile.
Why couldn’t I just stay home alone while mother dearest went to work? Oh, how I wished I could have just napped in the comfy chair with my PBS cartoons, cheeze it stained fingers, and juicy juice. If only life were so easy.
There were very few fun and exciting things about summer camp for me. Mom dropped us off at eight o’clock every weekday morning, with a brown bagged lunch. I never got my hopes up that lunch would be tasty, unless I could trick the weird, quiet girl with the glasses into trading hers with mine.
It was soggy tunafish sandwiches most days, “Cheese on Wheat” crackers, (note to mothers everywhere: wheat crackers taste as good as sawdust to a kid), and a generic juice box. If I got exceptionally lucky, I’d find Grape Gushers instead of crackers and a gooey PB and J instead of slimy tuna.
I didn’t get lucky often.
The talent show was the grand “sha – bam!” of the camp experience. It was always during the last week, so kids had plenty of time to tarry and toil over their acts of talent.
Ashley Andrews had been the dashing duchess of the show every year I could remember. She was the girl all of the kids wanted to play on the playground with. Always glowing like a saint and blushing like a babydoll, she was the divine archetype of pre teen prettiness. Her ballet performance sent parents swooning and boys crushing. It made me sick.
“Why did Jesus make girls like Ashley Andrews so pretty and perfect and not me?” was what I wanted to know when the Sunday school teacher asked our class what we would ask God when we get to heaven. I never had the guts to raise my hand, though.
The summer of 1995 would be the year.
It would be my date with the dazzle of the spotlights.
The counselors allowed us two hours of free time on the playground every morning. Ashley and her prim posse of pretties would spend it gliding gigglishly through the air, their waify white fingers gripping the chain links, jelly sandals skimming the humid air like swans cutting the surface of a lake.
The boys pounded rubber red kickballs in sneakers caked with scum on the soles, hollering and howling at each other as they fluttered around in the dust of the dirt.
Over by the oak tree, was where you could find me. Drawing in the sand with twigs and sticks, making conversation with ants and building houses for bugs. I kept to myself a lot that summer. My brothers made friends with the big kids and disassociated themselves from me as soon as mom pulled away in the morning. That’s what big brothers do.
Most of my early childhood was spent huffing and puffing up the climb to “coolness,” where girls like Ashley Andrews and my brothers stood valiantly.
My disinterest in Atari, street hockey, and Freddy Kruger movies, made me the token sissy kid sister. I learned early on that keeping up with the latest music videos on Mtv, back when Mtv actually played music videos, was a must in the mid – nineties.
My brothers watched them every morning and afternoon, especially in the drag of summertime. So in my attempt at adolescent assimilation, I learned to love the Billboard Top 40.
Nirvana, R.E.M., TLC, Mariah Carey (pre Nick Cannon) and my favorite: Hootie and the Blowfish.
“Hold my Hand,” was my favorite. I hummed it while making shampoo bubbles in the bath tub, sang it off key to my audience of stuffed animals, and bopped my bangs to it on the radio in the car.
And so, it came upon a bright blue summer afternoon, in the old family Cadillac, that the idea came to me.
My song came on 99.9 FM and I demanded my mom turn it up.
“I wanna love you the best that, the best that I can,” I kiddishly crooned in the backseat.
“Jamie, why don’t you perform this song for the talent show, you like it so much,” Mom suggested smilingly.
It was that fateful line from the lips of mother that prompted me to make one of the worst decisions of my girlhood.
I decided to perform on stage, for the eyes and ears of an auditorium packed with parents and kids my age, the song, “Hold my Hand,” by Hootie and the Blowfish. Solo.
Yes, that’s right, I would sing and dance to a song about lovers, all by my lonesome.
The morning of the show, I scarfed down my sugar pops and scrubbed my teeth squeaky clean.
“Your skort will be out of the dryer in a couple minutes, do you want me to style your bangs?” mother said, as she smothered our sandwiches with Smuckers.
We would get PB and J, today. It was a sign.
Today would be a good day.
“Mommy I can do my own hair now,” I scowled.
Dressed in a pinky purple top, bunched at my hip with a blue scrunchie, my best Bongo skort, and Keds slip ons, I was ready for my dashing debut.
My heart pattered in a most nervous pattern, as I waited for the end of Ashley’s turn on the stage. She beebopped and boogied to the “loca motion,” with two other betsy buttercups like her, bright and smiley, dressed in poodle skirts.
The crowd broke out in thunders of clapping at the girl’s final curtsy.
“Jamie, your on,” my camp leader grasped my shoulder and motioned me onto the stage.
I swear I felt a dribble of pee trickle down my leg.
‘Calm down Jamie, you’re going to do good,’ I told myself.
My eyes sunk amidst the sea of beady eyes blinking at me from the audience. I froze center stage, realizing a moment too late, that I really had no idea what I was doing. I thought it would be just like singing in the car with mommy, but here I stood, in all my girlish glory, with no mommy. Just me and a microphone
Darius Rucker sounded over the speakers and the strum of the guitar ushered me to begin.
I swayed along the stage, swinging my arm in an awkward hand holding motion, as if I was holding the hand of an imaginary dance partner. I didn’t practice the dancing part, and I only knew some of the words, mostly the chorus. This posed a major problem.
My cheeks reddened like radishes as I choked back my embarrassment.
Determined, I glided gracelessly along the stage.
No choreography needed for me, I danced to the rhythm of my own rumba.
60 seconds into the song, I needed to use the little girls room. Badly.
A combo of the rhythmic dancing and erratic nerves, no doubt did me in.
My apple – grape juicy juice chose the most inopportune time to be released.
I had to leave the stage.
I bolted for the “EXIT,” sign over the side stage door and abandoned my performance.
I could still hear Hootie playing in the auditorium as I squirmed away.
Eight year old little Jamie held her face shamefully in her hands as she perched herself upon the potty.
“I ruined it!” I pouted.
“Everyone is going to laugh at me now.”
I sat alone in the bathroom for nearly twenty minutes, a shimmer of sadness glazed over the brown of my eyes.
“I want mommy to come pick me up, I hate this place!”
I buttoned up my Bongos and drooped my way back to the auditorium.
Just in time to hear the announcing of first place.
“Ashley Andrews.” Fourth year in a row.
I didn’t even receive an honorable mention. Not that I should have expected it.
“How did it go, Jamie? Did you win?” My mother chimed excitedly as I threw myself in the backseat of the Cadillac that afternoon.
“I never want to go back to summer camp again, mommy, never ever EVER!”
It was the end of an era. Mom promised I’d never have to go back to that awful place again. From now on I’d stay with grandma and stick to singing only to my stuffies.
Lesson learned: never drink a juicy juice before hitting the stage.
You wouldn’t have to tell me twice.