(Photo: FilippoBacci/Getty)

My First Kiss at a Campfire Actually Taught Me a Lot About Life

Three life lessons from a teenage make-out over a bonfire


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I had my first kiss—not a Spin-the-Bottle peck, or a Truth-or-Dare mini-smooch—in front of a campfire. Unfortunately, it was also in front of about 100 other summer campers, and a handful of camp directors who didn’t appreciate the PDA. And it was hardly a show of genuine affection. Rather, I’d been sitting on a log next to a really cute guy who liked my friend; I knew she didn’t like him, so I figured he was fair game.

I decided to flirt with him—I’ll call him “John,” because that was his name—by poking him in the side sneakily, as my arms were folded. That’s how we tomboys roll. My move resulted in the two of us locking index fingers beneath crossed arms, the flickering heat of the fire dancing in front of us, which came in handy because we didn’t have to look at each other. We were sitting with our cabinmates on one end of the massive fire that connected the whole camp full of kids ages 8-17 in the Sierra Nevada that summer. It was the first all-camp bonfire of the season, and the early July mountain air was clear and black aside from the stars and our youthful skin glowing orange from the flames.

After a couple hours of goofy skits and singalong, a camp director yelled, “CAMPFIRE OVER, BACK TO YOUR CABINS” or some such. John and I stood up. He leaned in. Or I leaned in. I’m sure it was awkward, but we ended up in an extended French kiss. My first. We only stopped our sloppy smooching because my best friend grabbed me by the back of the sweatshirt and pulled me away.

I remember walking back to our tent cabin through the dark in disbelief of my own actions, excited but scared, the air smelling of smoke and pine trees.

I was a good kid, a rising freshman in high school who had never gotten into trouble with authority figures. I also considered myself a late bloomer in the romance department. When a camp director appeared in the doorway of our tent cabin and started in on the matter with, “Something needs to be addressed, and I think you know what it is,” I hid under my sleeping bag, sweating. I don’t remember his exact words; it was a long time ago. But I know that he delivered a stern  verbal lashing to my whole cabin full of 14-year-old girls that night. I was ashamed and thoroughly embarrassed.

But as with every experience in life, good or bad, I learned a few things from it. My first kiss, which happened to be at a bonfire in front of way too many people, was a coming-of-age moment. Looking back now—able to laugh about it and yet still sort of mortified—I’m realizing that moment taught me the following lessons:

What I Learned from My First Kiss at a Campfire

Labels Are Hard to Escape

The Big Kiss happened at the beginning of camp, and I was labeled a “bad kid” for the following two weeks. It was a sort of social profiling I’d not experienced before. I was blamed for things I didn’t do. My friends and I heard someone had written graffiti in soap all over the group bathroom mirror, so we went to check it out. The camp director found us there looking at the mirror, and assumed it was us—me, the public smoocher—who had vandalized it. He looked right at me and said something like, “That’s your second strike.” I couldn’t fight back. I had been labeled.

In writing this, I’m reminded not to label, or profile, anyone. Not the PTA president. Not the bully at my son’s school. Not the rude customer service agent. Everyone has a backstory, a bad day, a questionable action that even they themselves might regret. I vow to continue giving people grace, as I wish I’d been given all those years ago.

Double Standards Are Real

While I had gotten in what I felt like was massive trouble in the form of a lecture and intense guilt trip for our make-out, John earned the nickname “Striker,” as in, he’d gone in for the kill and succeeded. He was 16, I was 14. He was a boy, I was a girl. I think I heard that his counselor gave him a pat on the back, and I know his cabin-mates treated him like he was a hero. I don’t think people called me a slut, but I can’t be sure. I definitely felt like people looked at me in that way, like I was one of those girls. No one knew it had been my first kiss, not one of many regular make-outs I had with boys I was just getting to know, or hardly knew at all.

Striker was like the camp He-Man. He walked from canoeing to archery, rock climbing to ice cream-making seemingly confidently and always smiling when someone called him by his nickname. (My face felt hot and probably turned red.)

Unfortunately, double standards still exist. In my today life, I get mad at my family for giving me a hard time for wanting to watch NCAA women’s volleyball during dinner. I say to my husband and two sons, “If dad wanted to watch his team in a football game, it’d be no big deal. LET ME WATCH MY SPORT!”

Luckily, in my line of work, there’s been a shift from sexism and double standards to more equal representation. As a female outdoor sports journalist, I feel lucky to have found platforms for my voice in the media. But then again, should I feel lucky? Or have I earned it as a writer, male or female?

I Need to Lighten Up

I didn’t fully learn this one until much later in life and, in fact, am still working on it. I was really hard on myself the entire rest of camp after that bonfire and the scolding that followed.. I refused to kiss that cute boy ever again, afraid we’d get caught and I’d get another talking to, or worse, be kicked out of camp. I wouldn’t even kiss him when we were alone, with nothing around but pine trees and chipmunks.

John stuck with me for the duration of my camp stay—or at least I think he did, though he did dance with another girl (damn you, Elizabeth) at the very end of my two-week stint. He (and she) were staying the rest of the month. Had I been easier on myself, I maybe would have kissed that very cute boy a couple more times and warded off Elizabeth… at least until I was gone. I also wouldn’t have suffered so much from shaming myself, which I’ve learned is just wasted energy.

I still really hate the feeling of being “in trouble”—not filing a story on time, or even the thought of accidentally offending someone in casual conversation. But I’ve learned to forgive myself, sometimes, at least a little bit. Usually, the people I’m worried about wronging either don’t feel like they’ve been wronged, or let whatever it is slide off them more than I’m laying the guilt on myself. And beating myself up creates negativity I don’t need. Taking my own advice from lesson number one, I will continue to give myself grace when I feel I’ve messed up.

As for that kiss when I was 14, I forgive myself for not forgiving myself. And I’m grateful to that campfire experience for giving me the strength to make a move. I’m certain that if I had to look cute John in the face, I wouldn’t have been brave enough. Instead, staring straight ahead at the dancing orange flames, feeling the heat of the fire in the cold night air, I got Striker’s attention—and subsequently learned a lot about life.

Lead Photo: FilippoBacci/Getty