A Shy Kid With a Head Full of Spooky Stories

Thirty years ago I promised to stay true to my talents. It worked out.

Photo: Zafer Çimen/EyeEm/Getty Images

It was a hot summer morning in 1986 and I cowered in my seat on the camp bus. Sunlight shot at me from all sides. At 15, I was on my own for the first time. I was also about to leave the United States for the first time. Surrounded by 30 other teenagers who had enrolled in travel camp, I was sure I wouldn’t fit in. The other kids were wealthy, from affluent suburbs of New York City, while I lived with my single mom in South Jersey.

My mom had taken a similar trip as a teen in 1961 and it had helped to push her out of her shell. She hoped it would do the same for me — but I was much shier than she was. And my peers seemed less innocent and forgiving than the friends she’d described, who had come of age in the 1950s. By contrast, the popular kids in the back of my bus were playing truth or dare, telling dirty jokes, and razzing each other. How would I ever connect with these kids who seemed so loud and fearless?

My mom had taken a similar trip as a teen in 1961 and it helped push her out of her shell.

The few quiet teens on the trip all sat at the front of the bus. Across the aisle from me, two skinny kids named Wayne and Matt discussed their mutual love of warplanes. The girl beside me, Kristyn, was so shy that she communicated only by scribbling on a notepad. The counselors had evidently been briefed by Kristyn’s parents beforehand and complied without hesitation. Lucky for me, in every school or camp, there was always one kid more socially awkward than I. If I stayed close to that person, it at least meant the bullying was divvied up between us.

And I knew bullying well. While I had just finished an enjoyable freshman year of high school, I couldn’t erase the memories of the years before that. Every day in junior high, a kid named Louis had yelled sexual comments at me in the halls to make his pals titter. I ran from class to class, head down, carrying all of my books so I wouldn’t have to stop at my locker to change them. Another boy, Tom, shouted “Lips!” in the halls when he saw me, because he thought I had big lips — and the other kids repeated it. Young women are teased for our appearance and bodies for the first half of adolescence, often for having too much or too little of something, then suddenly expected to feel poised and confident in our bodies throughout the second half. I was confident about nothing at 15 years old.

Women are teased about our bodies for the first half of adolescence, then expected to feel poised and confident throughout the second half.

I was especially cautious around boys, often too shy to talk to them because I feared they might respond like Louis or Tom. As the bus headed north, I listened to the kids in back dare each other to French kiss. I couldn’t fathom wanting a boy to even see me up close.

But I soon fell in love — with everything I saw from the bus window, things I’d never seen before. We drove through the center of Buffalo, which looked bombed out, a former railroad hub — but bright lights shined down on construction underway, a transformation taking place. I imagined the bustling, important place it must have been decades ago and could be again. I scribbled in a notebook and raised my Kodak 110 camera to squeeze off a few shots, nurturing a love of photography that was just starting to blossom. I thought perhaps someday I’d live in a strange old city and take photos, maybe write about it too.

It didn’t take long for the bullying to start. The first night, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in upstate New York. The popular kids chased Kristyn around the parking lot, chanting, “Talk! Talk!” A group of boys said that a small kid named Davy, who sat near the front of the bus, was gay because he’d brought a purple toothbrush. The lesson of adolescence in the 1980s became clearer each day: Hide your differences.

I wanted to tell the other kids to mind their own business and leave Kristyn and Davy alone, but I wasn’t brave enough. I was frustrated with myself for not standing up. I did tell the counselors about the teasing so they could intervene.

I hoped someday I’d be strong enough to speak up for my friends, and for myself. Becoming confident in oneself is a lifelong process.

I tasted awe and jealousy. They looked at ease, so unburdened about whether they’d fit in.

The next night we visited a roller rink. I have a vivid memory of standing to the side, watching a boy and girl from the back of the bus hold hands and glide around the rink to “No One Is To Blame” by Howard Jones. It had taken just 48 hours for Glenn and Michele to become a couple. Glenn was tall and handsome, with blond surfer hair swept to the side. Michele had a cute curly ’80s perm and a short denim jacket. As they approached, I saw Michele’s mouth moving to the words, “Aaand… sssssshe waaaants you…” I tasted awe and jealousy. They looked at ease, so unburdened about whether they’d fit in. Kids like them were social giants, light-years ahead of me. I felt young and childish when I was around them. I was supposed to be a teenager, yet I was afraid of my own shadow. When would I feel more mature?

Toward the end of the week, something changed.

We spent the evening by a lake in Canada. Flames from a bonfire licked high into the air.

Our counselors announced that we were going to have a ghost story contest.

My heart leapt. We were on my turf! I had scribbled a short story in my journal just before camp. Even my cynical brother had read it and said it was one of my best stories, and he wasn’t generous with his praise.

By the lake, two boys told their spooky tales. I timidly raised my hand to tell mine.

The other kids looked surprised, since they weren’t used to me talking much.

A warm breeze skipped up my back.

“Kerri Cotton was 14,” I began, “and she liked to wander into places she didn’t belong.”

In my tale, Kerri walked behind an abandoned house on her street and spotted a pile of dirt. She dug down and found a skull — probably the remains of a boy who’d disappeared in her town long ago.

The other campers sat in rapt attention.

“Is that the reason you’re so quiet? Because you’ve got all these stories in your head?”

“That was awesome,” said Glenn, when I finished. Even though Glenn was one of the most popular kids on the trip, he never belittled anyone. In fact, he always smiled and said “hi” whenever Kristyn or I passed him. It seemed like he was so well-liked that he didn’t feel the need to tease others to fit in. I hoped the other kids would catch up to his maturity level — and fast.

“I think Caren should win,” Glenn added, “because I was shitting bricks from Caren’s story.” (Our male counselor had told us on the first day of camp that we were allowed to curse, and the boys took full advantage.)

Ethan, a freckle-faced kid with perfectly parted ’80s hair, looked at me said, “Is that the reason you’re so quiet? Because you’ve got all these stories in your head?”

Kristyn tugged at my shirt and nodded vigorously to indicate her approval.

The counselors basically agreed with Glenn and awarded me first prize: $10 cash, not shabby in 1985 money. I spent it after we returned to the United States, on a glass heart at the Corning glassware factory. I decided to keep it as a reminder to always be myself — even if I’d probably be, well, a little weird. I also vowed not to give up my passions and dreams, even if they were different from everyone else’s. I decided I’d at least try to stand up for others who were different, in my own quiet way.

What mattered wasn’t responding to the worst of people, I realized — but looking for and learning from the best. If kids like Glenn could be popular and kind at the same time, maybe the others would gain their own kind of confidence and follow.

Exactly 30 summers later, in 2016, I crossed the border to Canada again, this time by plane instead of bus. Customs officers asked why I was coming to Canada. I said I was there to attend the Toronto Film Festival. Actually, I was there for the red carpet premiere of a film based on a teen novel I’d published — about an awkward young woman who slowly learns to connect with other teens. A trio of female filmmakers had adapted the story into an indie film and even nabbed actors Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, Vanessa Bayer, and indie film favorite Bel Powley to star.

On a Friday in September, I sat in an audience of 1,500 people and watched them laugh, smile, and applaud my main character’s bold steps. Later, some audience members told me they had connected to the protagonist’s awkward, brave steps out of shyness.

At cocktail parties afterward, I got to talk to some of the stars, including Bayer, Powley, and Jason Ritter. Several people at those celebrations said they related to the story too.

Cocktail party — Jason Ritter and Melanie Lynskey. Photo by the author.
Jason Ritter signing a copy of Carrie Pilby. Photo by the author.

Later that night, I wandered through Toronto for the first time since 1986, thinking about the summer when I vowed to stick to the writerly hopes and dreams I had under a starry sky.

Author of nerdy novel CARRIE PILBY (film version‘s on Netflix). Finishing up offbeat memoir. Love dogs & puns. Read more: http://carenlissner.com.

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