Pecking Order 

By

In some ways she was an easy target. Dana had a severe heart condition, her lips and nails were always blue and she was fat. We met in 1968 when we were eight years old at a summer sleep-away camp in New York State. I started one year before Dana but we became immediately linked by our race and religion.  In a camp where 90% of campers were Black or Hispanic everybody thought we were cousins because we were Jewish and White. Sprout Lake Camp was only for children with heart conditions, mostly serious, some slight. I had one ventricle instead of two and low functioning lungs. Dana walked slowly and was the last to arrive to activities. I had a less severe condition so my lips and nails were only blue when I was cold or tired. Although I also walked slower than some other campers I was faster than Dana and this gave me the license to tease her mercilessly. Everybody teased Dana but I was the ring leader. “Hey Dana, be careful you don’t bump into me. I don’t want to fall if your fat body touches me.” 

Most campers at Sprout Lake Camp were poor. Almost everybody lived in Brooklyn, in neighborhoods that were riddled with poverty: Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, Sheepshead Bay and East Brooklyn where my father spent his childhood. I lived in Midwood, a middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn where my father was employed as an overnight special delivery postal worker until he was finally fired for breaking rules, like coming home to dinner during his work hours and fighting endlessly with his boss about his route. Dana lived in a wealthy suburban town on Long Island with her parents and older brother. Dana was fat, blue and comfortable and I despised her. I didn’t want to be associated with the only other White, Jewish camper, especially one who was so rich and sickly. I wanted to fit in and I wanted to be part of the popular group. In so many ways, I was always on the outside looking in. For these reasons and for so many more that I couldn’t totally explain or understand but felt deep in my belly, every time I saw her I made a face or a quip, “Hey Dana, why are you so fat? Ever hear of exercise?” I was disgusted and made no secret of it.

Whenever I saw Dana in the bunk, with her puffed, webbed fingernails, swinging ponytail, and slow walk to her bed, I ignored her. When I saw her in the cafeteria, I goaded her and said something like “What a big chicken” or “Slowpoke” as the campers ran from the dining hall and headed back to their bunks. The dining room was down a winding hill and there was a van waiting to take the kids who could not walk the steep climb. The hill was twisted and long, an almost vertical pitch. The van was big enough for 10 campers but I never took a ride and Dana always did. I didn’t want to be associated with Dana in any way. I was cruel to her but secretly I also wanted to take the van. I quickly became breathless on the climb. I hid it by discreetly stopping and starting in tiny segments. I pretended I wanted to see the campers who were in back of me so I stopped and waited for them to climb while I caught my breath. When I finally crested the hill, I saw Dana headed to the bunk. Across the common area I screamed, “Look at Blue run!”  “Jeez Dana, can’t you do anything? What a baby.” I shouted as she stepped in the van. Dana avoided eye contact with me and sat in the front seat. The road was made of gravel and the bus blasted the Top 40 as it drove up. Kids waved and danced on the hill as favorite songs played on the radio. The trees were green and thick, the highlight of the summer season.

 “Why are you doing this?” Dana sometimes screamed.  Her blue face turned purple. She could hardly catch her breath, and she looked miserable and sad. I saw the pain in her eyes because it mirrored my own.  It mirrored the misery and isolation I felt in my neighborhood when kids played games and left me out, or made fun of my slowness and blue lips. I knew I was different, and the endless circle of judgment and self-hatred never stopped. I couldn’t admit how similar I was to Dana and by bullying her and acting superior I could hide my own anguish. As I grew older, I would tell myself to stop, but I couldn’t.  It took several years to realize that I was triggered by my own frustration with the limitations of my body.  I hate her. If she didn’t take the van all the time I could take it sometimes too. I’m sick of this and I’m so tired and I blamed Dana for it.

One day, when I was nine-years-old, my friends Tamika and Juan came up the hill after lunch.  They were talking about the camp-wide dance we were having later in the week. Tamika was all pigtails, dark-skinned, an intellectual even at the age of seven. She adored nature and photography and she was allowed to stay in the nature shack during her other periods. Juan was lanky and always in motion and he knew everybody in camp. I had just shamed Dana for riding the van and he was standing next to me. Juan said “Karen, chill out. Why do you always be like that? Why are you always bugging her?”

“She’s just so gross” I replied but I felt a tinge of shame because Juan was one of my favorite friends. “Hmmm,” he said, clearly not convinced.

“Hmm what?” I said.

“She’s not hurting you. It’s weird.”

Tamika rolled her eyes. “Can’t you just leave her alone?” This was the first time I began to get blowback for my treatment of Dana. I looked them right in the eye, standing my ground. I said, “You just don’t know her. I know her.” As I walked into the bunk I turned my back to them.  

Back in the bunkDana was reading an issue of Tiger Beat, a popular teen magazine full of articles about boys, make-up tutorials, and advice columns about how to be a good friend and girlfriend. Dana was lying with her back turned away from us, completely engrossed by the centerfold of Bobby Sherman, one of the many gorgeous teen singers who had bright, shiny, white teeth, a muscular body and sweetness in his eyes. It was 1970, and his hit song “Julie Do You Love Me” was one I loved to sing loudly in the shower. 

“Juan told me to leave you alone, so I guess you have one friend,” I said. Her eyes did not leave the page. The other girls snickered, and when it was time, we went off to the snack bar without her. I didn’t feel guilty, not exactly, but I did feel a twang of remorse as we left her by herself. 

 

In 1967, when I was in second grade, due to my heart condition and the policies and laws that discriminated against persons with disabilities, I was kicked out of my neighborhood school in Brooklyn. Until then I had been happily part of the mainstream population. I was doing well academically and I had plenty of friends. My older brothers taught me to read early and I loved my teacher’s compliments about my clear reading voice. Suddenly, instead of taking the bus to the neighborhood school with my brothers, I was assigned to another school where I was segregated with other disabled, emotionally disturbed and developmentally delayed students in a place I called, with venom,  hurt and confusion: Retardland.

The first day in the new school, if you could call it that, was utterly confusing. My parents told me that I did not have to climb stairs in my new school, but very quickly I was swept away with other students straight up the stairs that we did, in fact, climb. Our desks had inkwells, which I’d never seen before. Our teacher terrified me; she was small and mean and no-nonsense; she told us we could play with the inkwell for five minutes and then never again. I didn’t touch it. When she took attendance I was not on the list. She told the assistant teacher to find out which class was mine and then said, “Get her out of here, she doesn’t belong.” Soon I was walking down the stairs to a musky, short corridor where a teacher popped out of one of the classrooms and smiled widely and said, “Here you are.” In the classroom there were fifteen students with varying disabilities. Some of their bodies were physically different and some were developmentally delayed. I was afraid to look at them, especially a boy with encephalitis whose head was almost as big as his body, and a girl who was missing her arms. One boy would run and shriek down the hall and rip everything off the walls. I was afraid that I looked like them. I didn’t want to be part of them. I was afraid that now I belonged here, with the outcasts and the unwanted.

Most students in my classroom were poor or working class and all of us were white. Restricted to the basement of the school, with only a single window above our heads, we were not allowed upstairs, and we were not allowed to have contact with other students, as if our disabilities might be contagious. Although the lunchroom was next to our classroom, we ate separately. On Fridays during school assembly, we were not allowed to speak to or sit with our schoolmates; they sat up front while we sat in the last row.

It was humiliating to watch the “normal” kids march down the aisle while making fun of us, staring and pointing. Many kids hissed “retard” to us and made wild gestures that mimicked whatever being “retarded” and disabled meant to them: limping, drooling, and flapping their hands. There were no trips to the school library, no science projects in the laboratory, and no art or music lessons.  Instead of learning, we played all day. Our favorite game? “Regular School,” and in this I was always the teacher. In the end, I barely received an education, graduating from the eighth grade without having taken math, English, science, or social studies. The one time I was allowed to go upstairs was when my father took me to see the “normal school” as a treat. I couldn’t believe all that they had. I could hear them outside at gym, I saw their library, their science experiments lined up in a row at the science fair in the auditorium, and I heard students as they banged their hammers in woodshop, the only other classroom in the basement.

I watched my parents try to find me another school. I was rejected by all of them. I now understood how dismissed and demeaned we were. Within a few years I was angry and fought with my teachers and complained about how bored I was. I wanted books from the library. I wanted to go to the science lab. I wanted to make friends. My teacher told me that we were lucky to go to any school. After she said that, I began to run up and down the stairs, goading my teacher to try to catch me. I wrote petitions protesting the lack of education and tried to cajole my teacher into letting me go to the woodshop class which was held in the basement.

In eighth grade I asked my teacher again if I could take the woodshop since it was the only other class in the basement.

“Ms. Condren, can I please take the woodshop? I don’t have to take the stairs.” 

“No, it’s just for boys.”

“So what?” I replied insistently. “Who cares that I’m a girl?”

The next day I came in with a letter from my parents giving permission for me to use the tools in the woodshop. My teacher talked to the woodshop teacher and he agreed to take me. My first piece was a duck with a slit for a beak where the scissors were held and pegs for the spools of thread. I wanted more challenge. I made a spice cabinet that I still use to this day. It was hard to make. I had to use the jigsaw, the first electric tool I used, measure the pieces, pound the nails. I loved the big blocks of wood and the vibration from the saw against my body. The boys in the class were nice to me and didn’t know or care about the basement class. I felt competent. I felt smart and like I belonged. I was the only girl. I won the award for woodshop that year and I finally got to walk to the front of the auditorium to accept my trophy. It was the only time I was recognized by my classmates and teachers. My body felt like it was floating to the stage and I smiled at my parents as I saw them from the corner of my eyes.

All year I waited impatiently, longingly, for the summer to begin, because then I’d have camp, and there I felt I belonged. After spending the school year confined, labeled, and humiliated, at Sprout Lake I finally felt free.  I could swim in the heated pool and run the shortened baseball diamond or jump hoops if I wanted. I took every science and art workshop offered. I could walk anywhere I wanted, talk to anyone and the freedom I felt at camp dislodged some of the hatred and sadness I felt toward able-bodied people during the year as I walked and felt the wind on my face.  I would walk down to the river and the minnows would snap at my toes and I just laughed. I felt released.

On Saturday nights we ate hot dogs and beans around the campfire while Maury, the camp director we all adored, told ghost stories, always scaring campers with his vivid images of ghosts coming back to haunt us when we returned to our bunks. We walked back afterwards in groups, too embarrassed to show our fear, and giggled and whopped on the trails. Girls held hands and sang and the boys ran. The campsite smelled of the marshmallows we roasted and the pine needles crackled while we ran as quickly as we could to the bunks. 

Through my five years of summer camp, most of the same kids came every year and we would slip right into our relationships again like well-worn shoes. From seven years old to twelve years old we had the same friends, same counselors and the same activities. It is when we became teens that some kids did not come back, including my two best friends, and we lived in another part of camp, called “Teen Camp.” 

We had our campfires every Saturday from the time I started camp to the end. During those evenings we sat in rings of circles on wooden benches in a cul-de-sac in the woods. It was quiet and peaceful as we took turn singing songs in front of other campers. I always volunteered even though my voice was shaky at best. I sang freely and openly, my throat open wide, glowing and happy with my friends.  I sang “Mariah” and “Two Brothers,” the second an anti-war ballad. Sly, my favorite counselor had a big Afro and patient eyes; I watched him nod and smile while I sang. Lots of campers sang songs inspired by the Civil Rights movement, labor songs, and gospel and church songs. In camp, songs, activities in art and drama almost always had a political theme. You could hear fervent conversations about race everywhere. 

Near the middle of the program, most campers became breathless and anxious, waiting for Maury to come and start his story. I wasn’t engaged by the stories; by age seven, I was already a realist. There was never a time that I believed in happy endings, believed in ghosts, God, or supernatural forces. I was an old seven year old child but I did cherish the cool dark where the only light came from the stars, the hot campfire, and the sounds of joking and laughing with my friends. At that moment, nothing else mattered, not even Dana. I was so content, so happy to be part of something beautiful that I didn’t need to hurt Dana or make quips and jokes at her expense. Year after year, there was a “we” not a “you and I” and everyone was included. 

My best friends were Tamika and Etsi. Etsi, a light-skinned Puerto Rican, was also from Brooklyn. Short, wiry and intense, she was quick to laugh but easily angered. After the counselors left to drink in the neighborhood bar, Etsi would slip into bed with me. We took turns writing letters on each other’s backs and giggled hysterically when we spelled out dirty words.  We crept out of bed to shine our flashlights on our sleeping bunkmates, and then counted to see how long it took for them to stir, stifling panicked laughter when we detected movement.

Tamika, a Black girl, also from Brooklyn, was quiet, with a shy smile and huge eyes. Tamika spent most of her free time in the Nature Shack with the nature director, where she coveted the photography books of brightly colored birds and exotic flowers. We shared this passion, and I loved having a friend with similar intellectual pursuits. Usually reserved, Tamika was radiant when she acted in camp plays. Tamika and I vied for the starring roles and even when I had the lead part she usually managed to upstage me. We were sometimes chosen to be paired, Black and white doppelgangers in “Snow White” connected by linked arms.  Tamika was slightly disapproving of my antics with Esti, she often urged me to “cool it” about Dana. 

The three of us went everywhere together and spent our free time playing Double Dutch and jacks. We shared our care packages from home and combed and braided each other’s hair, fascinated with the differences in color and texture. As we saw our differences laid bare, with the food we were sent or the amount of money we received from our parents in those packages, we sometimes noted them. 

“Oooo, Karen, you’re rich. Your mom sent you $10 and I got $1. Tamika what did you get?” Tamika said it was rude to talk about money and we went back to sharing our food.

Every morning, every year, right after clean-up, the day’s activities started with “Sing.” Since it was the height of the Civil Rights Movement “Oh Freedom,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Study War No More (Peace)” were my favorites. I sang with passion and conviction. Although racism was intimately known and understood by the campers in a way that I didn’t or couldn’t this space gave me a language for my emotions. I sang those songs of racial injustice and freedom and gave a voice to my desperation and provided me with hope.   I too knew intimately the impact of being viewed as sub-human and I understood what it meant to be considered slow and stupid and not worth educating. I knew what it felt to feel like I was worth nothing at all. My anger, or more accurately my barely contained rage at my separateness during the year came out at Dana. Her physical frailty inspired my contempt. Her emotional fragility was equally contemptible. No match for the toughness of the other campers, she exuded only fear and vulnerability and I pounced. And though I was of a different race and class than my bunkmates and their suffering was deep and present, I thought I understood some of the façade that hid their sweetness and sadness, and they understood mine. I could not afford to appear vulnerable at school. I too could appear untouchable. Sprout Lake Camp was the only place where I didn’t need to pretend.

The campers and counselors never talked about disability at camp.  While racism was openly acknowledged and our plays and songs and lectures focused on racial injustice, there was absolute silence about our damaged hearts. We learned about racism, but not about the cruelty faced by people with disabilities. There was no language or framework to understand the injustices in our lives.

Every summer we had a memorial service for Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and later, after he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. but we never acknowledged the campers and friends who died.  Eve died when I was nine-years-old, followed by Carl and Roger. 

 

One winter, when we were both twelve, Etsi called me on the telephone.

‘Hey Karen, Dana’s not coming back to camp this year.”

“Why?” 

“Dana said she was tired of fighting with you and didn’t want the girls to hurt her anymore.”

“What’s her problem?” 

I didn’t let myself fully know how guilty I felt but I told myself that I couldn’t believe that Dana singled me out as the main reason she wouldn’t return to camp. A little voice in my head knew I was lying. Of course it was because of me. Of course.  

I sat on my parents’ bed, confused. I felt teary and although I did not understand why, I wanted Dana to come back. I didn’t exactly want to be friends or close to her but I wanted Dana to return. I’d once thought my behavior with Dana was justified. I thought she was weak but I was so tired, just so tired of the being mean, of  keeping the flame going, of hurting her with my relentless bullying. And as I watched campers die or become too sick to come back to camp I felt vulnerable and scared about the changes coming. Campers were leaving, especially the older ones, and I just couldn’t imagine starting the dynamics between us over and over.   In the 1970s, disability rights activists lobbied Congress and marched on Washington to include civil rights language for people with disabilities into the 1972 Rehabilitation Act. Disability rights activists continued to advocate for The Education for All Handicapped Children Act which was enacted by the United States Congress in 1975. This act required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education for children with physical and mental disabilities. The political battle to pass the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, to make it into a standalone law and basis for Federal funding of special education, was heated.  This meant that education laws were starting to change, especially the laws around school and disabled kids and their right to a free and appropriate education. I was getting ready to go to high school and was preoccupied about going to school with able-bodied peers. 

I decided to call. I felt nauseous. It was the first time I was unsure of myself with her. I telephoned her. “Etsi told me you weren’t coming back because of me.”

Dana replied, “It’s not just you” but she didn’t say anything more.

My heart started to beat faster and my breath quickened. “Listen, I want you to come back if you want to.” She was quiet and so was I. There was a heavy silence and hesitant words and I said again that I wanted her to come back. I kept swallowing hard, afraid I would cry, though I wasn’t sure why. I looked down and saw that I was clenching my right fist. I wanted my mother with me, holding my hair back in case I puked. 

Dana said, “If you really leave me alone I do want to come back but I have to ask my parents.” Soon after, Dana called me back and told me she would return.

The next summer, although other girls still teased Dana, I refused to join in. My friend Tamika asked me why and I told her that I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure, but maybe I had the sense that in hating Dana I was actually only hating myself. When I looked at her I still felt the urge to hurt her and it was hard but I stopped myself. I thought “Why do I have to be disabled?” “Why can’t I have normal friends?”  “What will it be like when I leave Retardland?”  And maybe, just maybe, I understood that being a bully gave me no power. Maybe I just felt guilty. 

The next year, when I was assigned to the bed next to Dana, I discovered that she was funny and she cracked me up. Her brother kept her well stocked with one-liners and gross-out humor, and she delivered these jokes with exquisite timing:

“How many Californians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Californians don’t screw in light bulbs, they screw in hot tubs.”
“Is your refrigerator running? A: Yes. Q: Then you had better go catch it!” 

Slowly, tentatively, we became friends, and our friendship deepened.  I shared with Dana my struggles at school; she couldn’t believe I was in the basement class.  She was outraged. 

“You mean you go to school with the retards? Why did they put you there?” 

Her fury surprised me since I had always viewed Dana as incapable of strong feelings or action.

“Where are you?” I asked, truly curious. She told me that because she could not climb stairs her class was moved to the first floor.  Her teachers ensured her participation in extracurricular activities whenever possible. I was jealous, of course, but her story gave me an inkling that our isolation in the basement was a choice made by school administrators, and that in that sense, it had nothing to do with my intelligence or abilities. Dana helped me come to terms, with her own sense of outrage, and her own disbelief, with all that I lost and all that I could have had. 

Of course I’d seen Dana reading teen magazines, but her knowledge of pop culture amazed me. She described in detail the pictures of Bobby Sherman and Ringo Starr that plastered the walls of her bedroom at home. 

“I loovve Bobby Sherman. He’s the cutest, the best. But still, I love Bobby Goldberg. Have you heard of his best song, ‘Honey’?” Honey is about the early death of his wife and we both related to it. We pretended to cry while we sang. 

When Dana told me she loved the song “Chick-A-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrops, I said excitedly, “I do too! I love listening to the Top Forty on Sundays. Do you listen to Casey Kasem?”

Yes!” she replied. We learned we were both fanatically loyal to him. I told Dana that I loved egg creams; Dana was partial to malteds.

“Ugh.” I said. “I had to have a malted a day for months after I got out of the hospital. I wanted to throw it in the garbage.” 

“I wish I had malteds when I came out of the hospital. I just had crappy medicine that I had to drink.” We were both quiet, lost in thoughts about hospitals and fear and loneliness. 

Dan couldn’t believe that I voluntarily attended Hebrew school when I considered myself an atheist.  

“Well, I was good at it. I would speed read against the rabbi since I was the number one reader in class. I was always the best. We could chew gum if I won. Guess how many times I won?” 

“Did you go to Hebrew School once a week?

“Twice.”

“You won twenty times?”

“Nope,  none. I guess he had to win because he was the rabbi.” This made us both laugh.

Even though I started to become friends with Dana and was still popular I worried about being linked with her, worried I might look like a weak-willed, white Jewish girl. I felt a new sense of discomfort in camp. It was 1971 and Black Power became the main political viewpoint in the camp. Now in the teen bunk, Dana and I were the only white campers left.

One night Diane, a new friend who was fun and daring and always had an opinion, said, “Diana Ross should never have married a white man.” There was ferocity in her voice that I recognized.What a traitor.” 

My chest tightened. I thought of all the posters of Diana Ross and the Jackson Five that covered the walls of my room at home. I partly understood what Diane was saying but I loved Diana Ross and I even had a picture of her with her new white husband pinned to my cork board.

“Yeah,” I said, laughing nervously. “My parents told me I should always marry someone Jewish or their hearts would break.”

Some of my bunkmates snickered.

“Karen, that’s not the same thing.” Dana was clearly annoyed.

“I know,” I said, and felt chastened, even embarrassed.

But the thing is: I did know. I was a teenager now and I completely understood why Diana Ross’s marriage would feel like a betrayal with the long history of miscegenation. I understood that it was not the same as Jews marrying non-Jews. I was simply desperate to maintain a place in the only group where I had ever felt as if I belonged.

Yeah well, Malcolm X said that whites are devils.” Diane’s follow-up was confident.

I wondered if they thought I was a devil, too. I still had close friends, though Etsi and Tamika no longer came to camp. I felt some fear about what the summer might be like. I didn’t want my status to change; I still wanted to be loved. Other campers made noises in agreement and Diane said, “We’re not taking any shit anymore.”

I felt a flame go up in my body. I hated anyone who was not disabled. I didn’t want to take shit anymore either. I wanted to punch out my school principal for the patronizing way she talked to my class, and I wanted to smack down the students who made fun of us. More than anything, I wanted to rail against every stupid rule that told me and my disabled friends what we could do and be, and what we couldn’t. 

The lights went out and I turned away from Diane, even though I did not usually sleep on that side. She pulled the covers over her body and soon began to snore. I wanted reassurance that I would still be included in the world of camp and not treated like an enemy, but it didn’t seem like the time to ask. I lay in the dark in the middle of the night and knew that camp had already changed. I felt lonely and scared and worried about being ostracized.  

I couldn’t bear the idea of being excluded so when Dana told me she was leaving camp early, I was relieved. I told her I would miss her, but inside I thought, “Good.” I no longer had to worry about my divided loyalty. Within minutes I was elated, glad to have our long and troubled relationship come to an end for the summer but I was also teary and dizzy with sadness over her departure. 

“I’m having an operation, not serious, but I want to be with my parents and brother.”

“Will you come back next year? Will you write?”

We promised to write and call each other in the fall. I will call you, I promise,” I said to Dana. 

“You better.”

When Dana’s parents came to pick her up, Dana gave me a hug and a Yankees baseball cap. She waved wildly and I waved back until her car receded. 

I still felt like I belonged but felt more cautious about saying something that would mark me as a stupid white girl.

At summer’s end my father picked me up to take me home. I sat in the hot, sticky back seat of his car, a used Cadillac that was beat up and old. I felt caught in a spiraling sadness over leaving my friends and going back to the school that I detested.  

Halfway home to Brooklyn, driving fast on the crowded FDR Parkway, my father told me that Dana had died during the operation.  I was stunned; it felt as if a knife went through my chest, and I immediately began to cry. I didn’t want my father to see my tears, so I lay on the ripped back seat and cried silently while my father ranted about the incompetence of Dana’s doctors. “She shouldn’t have done it. I told Dana’s parents not to do it,” my father bellowed. He was afraid, of course, but couldn’t tell me that, and I hated him for his inability to console me. I was gutted. I lay on my back and watched upside down trees from the window and screamed inside.   

In my child’s mind, I had killed Dana. And although I now have compassion and insight into how those lowest in the pecking order often brutalize each other, I still feel sorrow and guilt about my cruelty toward her. Dana and I had one small summer to repair the damage; it was not enough.

 

 

***
Rumpus original artwork by Lisa Marie Forde


Karen is writing a memoir about disability, trauma and communities of healing. She began writing during the pandemic and "Pecking Order" is the first essay she has had published. Before this she was a child and family therapist and a faculty member in a Master of Social Work program. Karen grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in the Boston area for twenty years. She dedicates this essay to Ronnie Sue Schlecker More from this author →