If you wanted to get a scholarship to an in-state school in South Carolina, it was prudent to go to Girls State or Boys State, a leadership camp in Columbia, the summer between your junior and senior years. I knew a little bit about Girls State and Boys State because the previous year I had been dating a boy and he went to Boys State. The boy had called me from his dorm a few times during the camp. He told me he was doing well and was a representative for his city. He said some things about how he was learning to be a leader for the next generation. He told me about the songs they would sing. They changed some lyrics so that one song was about big pythons. He had also learned Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song “I Like Big Butts.” He thought it was really funny. He hesitated for a minute, then pointed out that I had a ghetto booty and sang me the chorus. He seemed to mean it as a compliment, or at least a pretext for saying something sexual. I flirted back and felt a little twinge of excitement in my crotch.
When it was my year to go to Girls State, I first had to do an interview with the American Legion. My friend warned me that they would ask you about politics and whether you loved your country. I braced myself and prepared answers in my head. I was interviewed by three old women in my school library. They asked me something about how much I loved my country.
“I don’t think it’s perfect,” I said. “I think there’s a lot wrong with our country,” I paused thoughtfully, “but not as much as there is wrong with every other country in the world.” They nodded. I left feeling ashamed and also proud that I had said something vaguely critical.
I was accepted into Girls State. Later on that summer I arrived at my dorm. My roommate arrived late at night, far past the window of time we were scheduled to arrive, and she was weirdly assertive and I felt a little scared of her. She seemed really ghetto, said one of the other girls.
We gathered at the auditorium three times a day. We broke into groups of various sorts. Every time we were all together in the large group in the auditorium, we would sing. Some of the songs were about South Carolina. We sang an altered version of “Sweet Caroline” a lot.
I was a ‘listening bird.’ My mother joked about this term, because she had had the scarring experience of being told by nuns in the 60s that she wasn’t to actually sing. My mother found this funny in hindsight, and years before she had also pulled me out of multiple church choirs that I had joined of my own accord. I had her voice and I too was a listening bird. The assemblies were the only extended chance I had had to sing. I lip-synced most of the time, but other times I started to find it pleasurable, joyful even, to sing. But then I would hear my own voice and go back to lip-syncing.
I hung out with other girls in my dorm and wore a tie-dyed spaghetti strapped shirt and bell bottoms with a flower pattern acid-washed onto them. I felt pretty good. Some of the girls on my hall went to a private all-girls high school. At the school, some girls, but not them, played something called Twat Tag, where you take turns hitting each other’s twats at random. This was the first time I had heard the word ‘twat.’
“Wait, what does ‘twat’ mean?” someone asked. “The vagina!” One girl told how a friend of a friend had kicked another girl in the vagina very hard, so hard it had damaged her. A different girl unpacked some of her clothes in front of us, and we talked about liking underwear with different patterns. Later we noticed that the dorm rooms all had two mirrored cabinets, right next to one another, so that they created this infinity effect if you opened them and put your head in between.
In the assemblies, we had various speakers come and speak to us, and we would always serenade them as they came in. We had to make synchronized hand motions as well.
When the speaker was a man, there was a special song we would sing: “What’s a Girls State, and that’s a Girls State, what’s a Girls State without aaaaaah maaaaaaaaaan!” I thought, I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman before, but now I have been.
One of the highlights of the week was Strom Thurmond’s visit. He was to address us mid-way through the week, and the counselors got everyone very excited about it. Back at home there had been a rumor that he had goosed a girl from my school the previous year.
The day of his visit, I mustered my courage, and I did not lip sync or do hand motions when we sang “What’s a Girls State Without a Man” for Strom. I swayed a little bit so that I wouldn’t get in trouble. But this meant that no one noticed that I wasn’t singing or doing the hand motions, and it felt the same as if I had done them.
He addressed us: “Well! I must say, and I don’t say this every year...this is the PRETTIEST GIRLS STATE I’VE EVER SEEN.” Everyone went wild clapping. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful bunch of young women in my life. Just look how pretty you all look. And you are going to grow up to be the prettiest young women in the state.”
The speech went on for ten or fifteen minutes. Then we had to file down to shake hands with Strom. I had thought earlier about not doing it. But then I chickened out. If he goosed me, I thought, I would say something.
I waited my turn and the line moved pretty quickly and I shook his hand quickly and he did not goose me. I thought about the girl from my high school who he had goosed the previous year and realized I had known all along I wasn’t pretty enough for him to goose me. I wanted him to goose me just so I could make a fuss about it. But instead I shook his hand and moved along.
Later that night I was sitting in the common area with a friend I had made. She had been upset and I sat with her and we sat in the dark because we weren’t supposed to be up. We talked a lot. Eventually she asked if she could tell me a secret. Yes, I said.
“I have cancer,” she said. She showed me a lump on her knee. I didn’t know what to say.
“Oh my gosh,” I said.
“It’s okay, though,” she assured me. “They can get rid of it. I have to have surgery. And I will be okay.”
“Oh my gosh,” I said. I started crying.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said, irritated, and walked out of the room.
At assemblies, they started to pump us up about the parade that would take place on the last day. Boys State was at a different college. Then on the final day, Girls State and Boys State would hold separate parades that converged in the horseshoe at the university, and there would be a picnic. Shirt-trading was a tradition, and everyone at my high school who had gone to Boys State or Girls State had a t-shirt from the opposite-gendered camp.
“Make sure to buy an extra shirt,” the counselors urged, “you will want it, because you’re going to have to wear your Girls State shirt when you march in the parade. That means when you meet up with Boys State you will not be able to trade shirts with a boy unless you’ve bought an extra shirt.” I felt angry at the idea that I would spend $15 to trade shirts with a boy and angry because it seemed embarrassing for anyone to want attention from boys so badly. I did not buy an extra shirt.
The counselors hyped the meet-up. “Just three days until you meet the handsomest, cutest, smartest young leaders in the WHOLE STATE.” “In two days you are going to meet the best-looking boys in South Carolina, the future leaders of our state, and I have seen them and ladies they are very good-looking!” Everyone would cheer wildly. Some girls were very excited and would talk even outside of the assemblies about how excited they were and make a motion where they fanned their faces with their hands. I felt an ugly little flicker of nervousness, like on Valentine’s Day.
On parade day, we marched through the streets of Columbia with a banner. I wore a navy blue skirt, which was particularly ugly. It had been mandatory, and my mother had been irritated that I had to buy a piece of clothing that I would never wear again. We bought the cheapest one we could find at TJ Maxx. I also wore my single Girls State shirt, with navy lettering. I wouldn’t get to trade with anyone, even if there was someone I wanted to trade with.
We waved American flags and South Carolina flags and I kept walking too quickly and getting ahead. We arrived in the horseshoe, a big grassy campus-y area, before the boys and everyone spread out and chatted under the shade of the trees. We weren’t allowed to eat the picnic food yet. It was very hot and there was not enough shade and I was hungry and I felt vaguely sick. The counselors hyped us up a bit more. Eventually the first few boys appeared through the iron gate at the end of the horseshoe. Everyone ran to the edge of the path they were on and started screaming.
“Woooooooooooooo!” People screamed and held their shirts out as the boys walked up the path.
I walked over to a tree and stood facing away, not really knowing where to put my body. I felt glad I had not bought a shirt. I tried to peek over and look for a handful of boys that I knew from school without appearing to be looking at the boys. Eventually my best guy friend, with whom I also had a sort of flirtation, appeared near me. I thought about asking him to hold on to his Boys State shirt so we could trade once we were back home, so that we’d each end up with the proper shirt. But it looked like he had already traded. We were both embarrassed.
“Did you see that that girl over there took off her shirt?” he said.
“Yeah, like just a minute ago. She got in trouble, though.” Everyone was saying that she had just taken her shirt off to trade instead of buying an extra one. Right in front of everyone, because she was trashy. The girl had been on my dorm floor. She had huge boobs. She was from Goose Creek and everyone had thought she was trashy the whole time, actually.
Later my mom picked me up. And the next year I got the scholarship — a free ride to a state school, with a living stipend.