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#12

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Goes to Camp



            His mother had forbidden him from taking books to camp, but at the last second, while she was sitting in the car and honking the horn for him to hurry, Jerry grabbed a book off the shelf without bothering to see what it was and stuffed it into his backpack on the way out the door.

            “Mom,” said Jerry as they drove. “Is suppression different than repression? Are they both different than oppression?”

            “Good questions, Jerry,” said his mom. “Write them down on your hand and then look them up when you get home from camp in a month.” After a full minute passed, she said, “Remember to shower daily” as if the two comments were unrelated.

            That night in his cabin, after all the other boys had fallen asleep and his teenage counselor had snuck out the window with a powerful flashlight, a pen, and a sketch-book to hide in the bushes by the lake and wait for his skinny-dipping peers to arrive, Jerry reached under his bed, unzipped his backpack, and rummaged around until he found the hard corner of the book with his hand. He slowly pulled it out of the bag and up under his covers, dying to know which book he had managed to smuggle. He ducked his head inside his blankets, pulled his tiny penlight out from under his pillow, and aimed its weak, yellow beam at the front cover of the book.

            “The Importance of Being Earnest,” he mouthed to himself. “Hmm.” He read it from cover to cover and gave it a B-minus as his final review before hiding it back inside his bag and nodding off to sleep. He had a few halfway decent dreams and woke to the clanging racket of the morning bell.

            At chapel, the Camp Director got up and said. “I’m Mr. Chris and this year, as every year, we’re going to be safe, safe, safe. We’re going to do things. There are no Playstation Ones, Twos, or Threes within miles. Also, we have a new Camp Song this year. It’s more of a medley, really. Last year everyone was begging for a medley, so we listened to you, and now you’ve got a medley. Also, Jerry Lowen, your mother called this morning, she knows you have the family copy of The Importance of Being Earnest here with you, and she wants you to turn it in at the main office immediately. She’d like you know that you can expect to be punished in a variety of ways starting as soon as your ‘little butt touches the seat of the car.’ That’s how she phrased it. ‘Little butt.’”

            Jerry raised his hand. “This is Fascism, right?”

            “Define Fascism,” said Mr. Chris.

            “I can’t,” said Jerry. “Is this censorship?”

            “Ha!” barked Mr. Chris. “You sound like my oldest. You sound like my first wife and her sister.”

            That afternoon, Jerry carried The Importance of Being Earnest over to the Camp Director ’s Official Office. Mr. Chris liked to joke that his unofficial office was his fishing boat, and that his least official office was his speed boat.

            Mr. Chris’s secretary was taking self portraits with a Polaroid camera held at arm’s length. She was 20 years old and frumpy. She glanced at Jerry and said, “Put it in the Confiscated Items Bin.” She pointed at a cardboard box next to her desk. “Cool,” said Jerry, peering inside. “A half-finished cut-n’-paste blackmail letter. And playing cards.” There was nothing else in the Confiscated Items Bin.

            “Just toss it in,” said the secretary. “You’ll get it back when you leave.”

            “OK,” said Jerry, and he slapped the bottom of the box with the book to make it sound like he’d dropped it inside, grabbed the blackmail letter and the playing cards, and left with all three confiscated items in his possession.

            That night, one of his cabin-mates whispered, “Jerry, are you a revolutionary?”

            “Probably not,” said Jerry. “But maybe.” Jerry opened his Swiss Army Knife and snipped the tiny scissors open and closed a few times. “Do you know where I could find a magazine? One with a lot of wordy headlines and titles and stuff?”

            “Sure,” said the cabin-mate. “The grocery store.”

            “Sheesh,” said Jerry. “You might be bourgeois.”

            That night, without re-reading it at all, Jerry upgraded The Importance of Being Earnest from a B-minus to an A-minus. It had just needed a little time to settle in. He was finding that it had some staying power.

            The next day, everyone from Jerry’s cabin went on a hike. They were planning on spending the night in tents. He could feel The Importance of Being Earnest pressing against his back through the fabric of his backpack as he walked and looked at trees, a bird, and cars going by on the highway less than 50 yards away. That night, too hot in the tent, Jerry stayed awake until an ungodly hour, thinking about greatness and sniffing The Importance of Being Earnest in an attempt to determine whether or not it smelled like a campfire to an incriminating degree.

            When he got back to his cabin the next afternoon, Jerry discovered that his area had been ransacked. His sheets had been pulled off of his mattress and his mattress had been dumped on the floor. He was glad that he had decided to take the playing cards and blackmail letter with him, tucked inside the front cover of The Importance of Being Earnest.

            He stood next to the overturned mattress in silence, pondering his next move. The bathroom door opened and Mr. Chris came out. “Well, Jerry,” he said. “I was watching your reaction from the bathroom. There wasn’t much to see, really, but I got tired of waiting for you to act suspicious and I’m sure you’re guilty. Care to confess?”

            Jerry’s shoulders slumped. “Am I an uprising?”

            “Hardly,” said Mr. Chris. “Few are.”

            Jerry took his backpack off and opened it up, reaching inside for the Confiscated Items and then handing them to Mr. Chris. “Is this about keeping me ignorant so I’m easy to control, whatever that means?”

            “Nope,” said Mr. Chris. “I sincerely doubt it.” He held The Importance of Being Earnest up in front of his face for inspection. “Look, Jerry” he said. “I think your bug spray was leaking. The pages are all warped. What’s this stain? A smashed berry?”

            “How did that even happen?” asked Jerry. “I hardly took it out of my bag!”

            “Well,” said Mr. Chris. “Growing up hasn’t gotten any easier since I was a kid. Hard to believe I was a kid too, huh?”

            “Sure,” said Jerry. “Social ills versus puberty, which is worse?”

            “Somebody get this kid some orange drink!” shouted Mr. Chris. Somebody did, and it was so watered down that Jerry wouldn’t have been able to identify the flavor if Mr. Chris hadn’t called it “orange drink.” Jerry swished the bland liquid around in his mouth and tried to think about girls, got bored, and wandered outside to play capture the flag.

            A few weeks later on the way home from camp, he wasn’t allowed to roll his window down, choose the radio station, or point out funny billboards.