The Note I Wrote

NB: This is my first post as a member of the Exponent blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share this experience.

Photo by Alisa

by Alisa

A few months back, my mom’s ward had an Enrichment night where my old Young Women’s president spoke. I remember that she was the YW pres when I was 14 and had just moved into the ward. She was very involved and led the YW and YM in a program called “53 Days from Jerusalem to Commorah,” in which we would go to her house after school each day and read together the Book of Mormon so that we would finish in 53 days. Even though I had grown up in a scripture-reading family, that chance to read the Book of Mormon made a memorable, positive impact in my young life.

In the summer came girls’ camp. This YW pres and the other leaders put so much work into it. Our ward was determined to win the skit prize in the stake as we did every year. I enjoyed my new ward and its leadership. I got my hair braided into 50 some odd strands with beads. I was happy to be a camp girl.

Four days into the camp came our ward initiation for all new girls attending camp. This meant a few first-year beehives and me, even though I was in the mia maid class. I explained that I’d already done my initiation in my old ward and stake, when I was a beehive (we had to dress up as the statue of liberty to sing patriotic songs to the other wards). The YW pres told me that every person needed to be initiated in their specific ward. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but reconciled myself to its inevitability.

When the initiation came, we were told to put on adult diapers and blindfolds. They took us on a tour of the stake camp, and despite my blindfold, I recognized my “initiator” as another girl in my mia maid class who lived on my cul-de-sac. I still remember her laughing at me as I stumbled along. Next, still blindfolded, they had me and the younger girls feed baby food to each other while the rest of the camp watched. There was a lot of laughter, it was all in good fun, definitely not physically harmful. However, I was personally very embarrassed and after about a half hour went by, I could barely cling to my composure.

When the ordeal was over, I went back to my tent. We were to have the stake fireside that night, followed by a campfire testimony meeting for our ward. I felt the little braids in my hair and noticed that there was a significant amount of baby food in them. I thought about how long it had taken to put the braids in my waist-long hair, realizing I’d have to take them out now, and I began to cry of frustration and loneliness.

I undid my braids quickly, ripping and breaking my hair as I fumbled to undo the knots. I waited for the girls and leaders to go to the stake fireside, and then I walked down to our pit toilet and knelt on the dirt next to the water pump to rinse out my hair. It was dark by the time I made it back to my tent, dripping cold water from my hair, and I collapsed onto my sleeping bag and sobbed.

I didn’t attend the testimony meeting that night. The next year it would have been my turn to initiate new girls, including my little sister, but I felt homesick and had a leader drive me home early. I don’t remember going to girls’ camp after that, and I had already stopped going to Tuesday night activities. For the last two years of YW, I only attended laurel class a handful of times, telling my parents I just didn’t have any friends to entice me to go.

I’d like to say I that I am good enough at putting things like this behind me and that I am completely over it, but I’m not that big of a person. Over time, I have looked back on my girls’ camp experience with disappointment and anger, seeing how it rippled through my fragile teenage years. I am envious of the safe haven the Church provided for many teenagers, but not for me. I sometimes feel anger at the leaders’ involvement, at their supply of all the initiation materials and oversight of the ritual. Anger that they planned initiation on the most spiritual night of the week. Anger that I had to clean up alone. I’ve sometimes thought about writing a letter to my old YW president, but when the anger passes, I’m glad I didn’t act on that feeling.

Fast forward to a few months ago at the Enrichment night. My old YW president said she likes to keep special thank you notes to remind her that she’s made a difference in someone’s life. She brought an old stack to share. She red the first few, and then paused. “This next one is from Alisa, as a thank you for her wedding present.” She stopped to read the note, and began to cry, which soon turned to sobs. When she finally got her voice back, she read the note: “Thank you for being such a good YW president to me and welcoming me when I was new to the ward. I’ll never forget the time we read the Book of Mormon in 53 days.”

There are so many other things I could have told my old YW president, but for some reason when I sat down to write my thank you letters years ago, I mentioned the one hugely positive thing she had done for me. And she kept that note. That’s how she remembers me: not as a bitter woman twisted by some baby food that once got stuck in her hair, but as a gracious person who was specific enough in her gratefulness to warrant preserving the note.

I may be both of these things, both a bitter and a gracious person. Like everyone, I’m complicated that way. But this time I am glad that the note I sent was about the kindness I forgot, rather than the pain I remembered.

Alisa

Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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23 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow, thanks for this post, Alisa. There are so many interesting aspects to it. For one, I’m really surprised and disappointed that hazing like this occurs at girls camp. I only went one year, and thank goodness where I was there was nothing like that. I’d have been traumatized and upset by an experience like that, because when I was a young teen I was terribly self-conscious.

    Also, I appreciated the ending of your post. I’m glad your nice note meant so much to that YW Leader, and I agree, it probably was best to be gracious in the situation. I do wonder, though, what can be done to prevent things like this from occurring in the future… Perhaps one option is to communicate with the stake YW leader? That might work – it would save the YW pres’s feelings, but also communicate the problem.

    Anyway, I’m newly determined to have a talk with my ward’s YW pres about camp if I ever have a daughter who wants to go. I’d never want her to go through this kind of hazing.

  2. Sooooo very anon says:

    Wow, nothing like that EVER was part of our stake girls’ camp and I’m darned glad!!

  3. jeans says:

    Thanks for your post, your honesty, and your generous love. You weren’t the only one scarred by such experiences, I’m sure, and those leaders should not have counted on everyone being resilient and taking it all in fun. You wonder who sat around thinking this up and agreeing that it was a good idea. The Spirit was absent from that discussion, obviously.

  4. jeans says:

    And by the way, is “initiation” typical? You mentioned you had to be initiated in your old ward too. Is this concept widespread?

  5. Deborah says:

    What a bittersweet post. Thanks, Alisa — and welcome aboard.

  6. JM says:

    You aren’t alone in humiliating initiation rights. 20 or so years ago, when my sister was on her first YW camp, they held a ‘Kangaroo Court’ for all the new girls. As a sentence, one of the girls had to consume (in front of the entire young womens congregation) an unwrapped Oh Henry! bar swimming in a pool of apple juice that was situated in a childs training potty.

    I don’t think that girl ever went on another YW camp either.

    I remember even in my youth thinking how cruel that was.

  7. D'Arcy says:

    Alisa, thank you for sharing this post. May I
    commisterate with you?
    Girls camp, the two horrific times I attended,
    was full of guilt and shame and horror. I remember
    that each night when we went to our tents the girsl
    began speaking about sex. Telling inappropriate jokes
    Talking about how far they had gone….etc.

    It was graphically detailed.

    I was 12 the first time I went and I didn’t know
    any of this stuff. I got angry at these girls for
    talking in such ways. I tried to gear the conversation
    in another direction. There was, however, no change
    and there was NO Place to go. I was forced to sit
    and listen to these things…spoken of in ways
    that these girls NEVER spoke of in front of their
    parents or adults. It was such a double standard,
    and honestly I was so disappointed.

    Three of these girls ended up getting pregnant by
    the ages of 16-18. Unmarried. Alone.

    I didn’t attend again.

    I was simply disgusted.

    And I was horrified that not ONE single adult
    decided that this was the time in our lives when
    maybe we needed to hear about sex and love and
    have REAL conversations about it. Not just the
    conversations of “don’t do it. be pure.” when
    obviously the problem was big.

    Ugh.

    Girls camp.

  8. John Dehlin says:

    Alisa,

    When I talk w/ you, I always feel your graciousness far eclipsing any bitterness you may have.

    Sorry for the pain…but thanks for your many examples of charity in my life.

    You are way cool.

  9. Alisa says:

    Caroline, thank you for your thoughts and comments. You know, I never considered telling my parents about what had happened. I wonder if a lot of kids are like that if parents don’t ask. My parents taught us kids to “sustain our leaders,” and I didn’t want to violate that through complaining.

    Jeans, thank you for your comments and for the cross reference on Beginnings New! I hope that others can get something positive out of this story. I grew up in Utah, and I think that initiations at camp were standard practice (this was 15 years ago).

    A few years ago I served as the counselor over the Beehives, and our camp director made it very clear we would *not* be serving the traditional kitty-litter dessert to new girls at camp that year. I totally applauded her for that! I am hoping that this new sensitivity is catching.

  10. G says:

    thank you for this, alisa…
    I need to be a bit more like you in this type of thing.
    (sometimes I am more inclined to send the angry letter.)
    thanks.

  11. Alisa says:

    JM, That story is awful, and it makes me so sad that it happened. Thanks for commenting.

    D’Arcy, I have some memories along the same lines. You make a good point about how kids show a different side to each other than they do to adults. I hope knowing this as an adult will help me connect to kids better in the future. Thanks for your awareness.

    John, thanks for that observation. You’re an awesome listener.

  12. Alisa says:

    G, when my mom started to tell me the story about the Enrichment night, I started worrying that I had actually sent a letter like that! I definitely understand the emotion behind those things.

  13. hawkgrrrl says:

    Wow, what a great story. I actually welled up at the end.

    Being hazed at a girls camp is a completely foreign concept for me. I didn’t grow up in UT, but our leaders were very careful to make sure that we were respectful and inclusive of everyone. Lots of non-members and inactives would come to camp, too. I can’t imagine these horrid practices are still going on. The only one that was a remotely “hazing experience I ever heard of was a “Brownie” hike where the older girls would build tiny fairy villages and the younger girls would hike through where they had set them up and see where the “Brownies” lived. It was magical and cool.

    Kudos to you for ending the cycle by sending her the letter about the greatest thing she did. We should all learn from that example.

  14. Sue says:

    I didn’t grow up in the church, but I do serve with the Mia Maids now, and have gone to camp with them the last two summers. I’ve never heard of anything like this, it’s horrible, and I can’t imagine being involved, as a girl or a leader in something so degrading.

    How awful that must have been for you (and the other girls). The fact that you could write a thank you note of any kind to your YW president makes you a very gracious person if you ask me.

  15. Alisa,
    Let me just state right up front that I don’t believe the “good” that comes from girls camp outweighs the damage done, EVER!

    Now, you are quite an example of charity and grace as you so kindly responded to acts of insensitivity with out retaliation. As you have probably figured out, your YW leader is growing and progressing along the path to perfection just like the rest of us. The fact that she was reading personal notes that aggrandized herself out loud to the Enrichment group speaks volumes in itself.
    It is such a shock to believe that grown women would supply the items necessary for, and embrace this type of tactless hazing, but alas it is very common. Part of the problem is they simply want to be “liked” by the girls. When leaders and teachers learn that it is better for the girls to love the Lord more than it is for them to “LOVE” them as a teacher, things will change.
    Perhaps your disclosure of this experience may prick the conscience of some of your readers who may be leaders and initiate a change of heart.
    Thank you for your courage to share!

  16. Mariann says:

    Thanks for having the courage to share your story. I too did not have the best experience in YWs. I felt un-welcome and unfortunately no leader seemed to help. I don’t blame them, I was a punk teenager with an attitude. Its just hard for me when others share their great experiences with their YW leaders.

    I’ve now been serving in YW a couple of years and it has been difficult to know how to be a good leader and how to make sure all the girls feel safe and wanted. Thanks for your story, it gave me the “gut-check” that I needed to try harder to be a better leader.

  17. Jessawhy says:

    Alisa,
    I’m so happy to welcome you to the Exponent!
    Your post is very touching.
    What scares me the most is that I’m probably more like your leaders than I realize. I’m not very in tune with sensitive personalities, or even different boundaries on what is appropriate.
    I appreciate your story because it helps me try to be more sensitive in my interactions with others.
    Thanks for the insightful post!

  18. Alisa says:

    hawkgrrrl, speaking of tears, I wonder a bit what made my YW president cry from reading my note. We were never close, and I never got the impression that she linked my other less-active things to anything she had done. I assume she was just happy to have something she worked hard at remembered several years later.

    Sue, thanks for your comment and sensitivity. I think my note was just a formality from the wedding, and I was trying to think of something personal to put in it. I really didn’t think twice about what I wrote, more of a random thing.

  19. Alisa says:

    IntheDoghouse, I think you’ve really nailed it. We all feel insecure, even as leaders, and can show bad judgment. It’s hard to break with ward traditions too, I guess.

    Mariann, I agree that being a leader for teenagers can be one of the hardest things. Often it makes the leaders act like teenagers themselves! I know several of the women I served with as a YW leader were always down on themselves, comparing themselves to models, etc. It can be a very insecure position. Thanks for your comments.

    Jessawhy, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. You may approach things a little differently, from a more analytical perspective, but I don’t think that makes you less sensitive. I’ve always felt really safe sharing my feelings with you.

  20. EmilyCC says:

    So glad to have you on the blog, Alisa!

    Our “hazing” consisted of wearing sunglass, lipstick and a beauty mole (we had a Hollywood theme that year)–enough to make the girls feel special and yet, not that different from the rest of the girls. Gosh, we got off easy!

  21. rachel says:

    sorry you had such a bad experience w/ camp. for me, camp was the ONLY thing i liked about yw. i looked forward to it each year.

    i applaud you for writing such a kind note regardless of your pain. i needed to hear this.

  22. Kiri Close says:

    I’m going on my 3rd year as a ward/branch YW prez. Your feelings are so validated in relation to the experiences our YW really live through. I’m so glad you posted this! (tears…).

    And someday, I feel that it will be one of the girls (as an adult) who will read a positive note I have given her, & it will not be about the numerous times i was disappointed, difficult times as a youth leader. Instead, i wish it to be a kindness that affected her for good, eternally.

  23. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It blows me totally and completely away.

    While I never had issue at Girls camp (as it was pretty much what I looked forward to in Young Women’s), it is a good reminder to the sensitivities that can exist.

    I didn’t really enjoy several of my young women years as well although I was an active typical Mormon youth. The Young Women’s president was married to the Young Men’s president and as consequence it was nearly impossible for us to get the gym or doing anything non-spiritual for mutual. I still remember as Miamaid president going to the Bishop with the Laurel president and a few of the older girls to discuss the issues with leadership we were having (which were actually quite extensive). We felt bad when the president stepped down but were grateful that our needs started to be met. It taught me then that not all leadership in the church is inspired.

    However, as an adult, I respect that the sister was doing the best she could. A couple years ago I went to camp as a leader. There was a huge incident in my group in which several girls got sent home. I did my best but I know I made mistakes in the way that it was handled (although I was smart enough to get the camp director and priesthood leadership involved). I hope that I didn’t scar their experience.

    I think about the opportunities to serve youth and realize what a huge responsibility it is. I am still learning to live with the fact that leaders (and the church itself) make mistakes so can only imagine how hard it is in today’s world for kids to deal with this element of lay service. I pray that God will stay at the helm and touch everyone’s hearts involved.

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