There are many identities that form my perspective and how others see me. I am Irish, Italian, and Polish—in other words, white. I am female. I am not religious, although both of my parents grew up Catholic. I live in Manhattan. I have attended excellent schools since the age of five. And so there is nothing that I tell people about my past that evokes pity, except the fact that I am an only child.
Peers and adults alike seem to assume that I had a lonely childhood, but I love spending time with my parents. I have extremely positive memories of sitting on our living room couch together, eating dinner as a family, playing with our dog, taking trips, and attending get-togethers with my mom’s and dad’s relatives.
I’ll be the first to admit that, when it comes to siblings, I don’t know what I’m missing. I fundamentally do not understand, nor will I ever understand, the experience of sharing parents with someone else. Maybe I’m more selfish or spoiled as a result. According to The Independent, I’m likely to have poorer social skills but be more creative.
I was a shy child. By no fault of my parents, I learned how to speak to adults before I learned how to speak to kids my own age. I cultivated a love of reading, I learned how to entertain myself, and I developed a sense of self early on in my life. But I needed to develop an identity that existed outside of our two-bedroom apartment.
All of this changed when, at the tender age of 10, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time. It’s an understatement to say that I thrived. Within the all-girls environment, I made friends, threw myself into the activities, and enthusiastically learned the words to as many camp songs as possible. And as a self-identifying goody-two-shoes, I was well-liked by counselors.
By necessity, I came out of my shell. Every night, our counselors would leave for meetings around 9 p.m. and I would be alone in my cabin with three or four other girls my age. We would tell scary stories, play truth or dare, and fulfill every other stereotype about girls at summer camp. We were not immune to cliquishness or unkindness, but it was appropriate to our age. It was normal. It always blew over.
I can’t say this for certain, but I believe that a huge part of my confidence came from the opportunity to interact with a group of spirited, peppy girls. We were fearless. We were on top of the world when we conquered 4,000-footers, and we were taught to celebrate friendship.
I don’t think that this experience is unique to only children, but I believe that it is because I had no siblings that summer camp played such an important role in my life. I looked up to the older girls and counselors like one might look up to an older sister or cool, young aunt. As I began to grow up, I became a role model for the little girls that attended—some as young as six years old. And, being from the wonderful but admittedly largely impersonal New York City, I discovered a sense of community for the first time.
I was raised in a non-religious environment, so my respect for traditions developed at our quiet Sunday lunches and our weekly campfires, and through sharing thoughts on our “themes of the week.” My love for structure thrived and I discovered the concept of friendly competition. I developed my emotional intelligence as I spent four weeks bonding with and learning from my friends. Most importantly, I learned how to be simultaneously respectful and silly.
I still remember my last summer of being a camper, when I was 15, and a girl from my age group shared a thought on that last week’s theme: sisterhood. It was the last week’s theme every summer. She brought up those now-out-of-fashion best-friend bracelets that broke into two halves of a heart. She said, “I have only a twentieth of my own heart. The rest is split among my nineteen sisters. Wherever I go, I carry them with me.” I didn’t otherwise have an opportunity to form relationships like that as a kid, so these four weeks of every summer were especially treasured.
Now that I’m older, my apparently distinctive laugh booms throughout Wesleyan buildings, which ruins any chance of me becoming a super-secret stealthy spy, but reflects the fact that I am no longer afraid to take up space. I am not extremely extroverted, but I am comfortable amongst my peers. By throwing myself into the deep end of a nurturing, fulfilling, and welcoming environment, I developed my social skills and learned how to share as only children are stereotypically unlikely to do. I was able to be a kid for the first time, and I can carry that childishness with me, along with a twentieth of my own heart.
Hannah Reale is a member of the class of 2020. Hannah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.