A lot of what I read in the old Camden Heralds is stuff that predates my own living memory and that of most people living in Camden today. Sometimes, though, I stumble upon things that I remember all too well.

One thing I stumbled upon recently that I did remember was a guest column from 2001 titled “Camden’s cancer.” It was written by a fellow student who attended high school with me at a time when we were facing an unprecedented number of tragic deaths in our small town, a result of both suicide and accidents.

I remember Evan’s writing got a lot of attention at the time, puzzling — and sometimes frustrating — the adults, but hailed as “spot on” by everyone in my age group. It started like this:

“For as long as I can remember, Camden, Maine, has been very sick, and finally Camden is dying. We live in a town infected with an obsession. We are a community stricken with almost every serious affliction common among teenagers… the truth is that we as a community are to blame. We are a superficial group, perpetually concerned with our image as a town.”

At the time, this resonated widely and almost wildly with many of us who felt exhausted trying to keep up in Camden. He went on to make vague references to the efforts and institutions that were concerned more with appearing to address problems than really solving them. Some residents responded with letters to the editor expressing a range of responses from agreement to defensiveness.

I graduated from Camden Hills Regional High School in 2002, so I was one of only a few classes to spend time in both the old high school and the new one. It was a time of rapid change. Not the little changes of a few parking spots and street trees that seem to consume us today, but a major reshaping of the town.

The high school was moved from Knowlton Street to Route 90 in a move that provided a state-of-the-art facility while also radically severing some of the community interaction that used to happen organically.

Somehow, we used to fit not just the middle school but the entire high school and all of the student and teacher vehicles onto Knowlton Street at the edge of downtown Camden.

You can still see the little signs on a few side streets prohibiting parking during school hours. They seem oddly placed today as unlikely streets to be overrun as a convenient parking spot. They are leftovers from another time when some of the residential neighborhoods felt they needed protection from a high school bursting at its seams. Now, the complaints are occasionally directed at parents picking kids up at the skate park… imagine what it was like when the whole high school was there!

An even bigger problem was that skateboarders were overwhelming the freshly built ADA ramps at MBNA and the Post Office. That and dealing with the problem of teenage loitering was a topic of endless concern from the downtown business owners. MBNA had a solution for that too, and an old lot on Knowlton Street was transformed into a fully staffed skate park.

But when our school community was confronted with the horror of multiple student suicides, the conversation changed for a moment from the problems that teenagers created for the town to the not-so-obvious problems that the town might be breeding in its teenagers. The relentless pursuit of perfection and the focus on improving the way things look rather than improving the way things are seemed embedded in the collective consciousness.

The 2001 column continued:

“I have spoken to peers who honestly believe that a C in math is the end of their academic career and their lives as a result. Students must learn to understand that there is so much more to life than high school. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the everyday stresses that our elitist community forces on us and lose sight of the bigger picture.”

Twenty years later, I can say with certainty that the school district has done a lot to foster an atmosphere that is more inclusive and less stressful. I’m not so sure that Camden as a town is making much progress winning the battle against the cancer that Evan Thomas spoke of back in 2001. We do have fewer kids downtown, that is for sure.

It took leaving Camden and seeing the types of problems that are faced in other parts of the world to shake myself mostly free of the paranoid fear of not fitting in or not meeting some standard of what success looks like here.

I’ll admit to secretly cheering for the people and properties that are overgrown and unkept in Camden. Too much perfection is bad for the soul, and sometimes, by striving so hard to force people and landscapes to conform to a template, we rob ourselves of beauty and creativity that we never imagined.

When the little parking lot next to Camden House of Pizza was redesigned and the retaining wall replaced, some were eager for a more manicured look, but I wished the whole thing would have stayed the way it was. We used to climb up the wall as kids in the same spot where there is now a staircase. Multiple mature trees had found a way to survive and prosper, embedded against the odds in rocks and pavement. They were nuisance weeds that had escaped the knife year after year until they became actual trees.

Nothing about it looked nice in the traditional sense and it used to be notorious for attracting teenagers with nothing to do. One resident, who shall remain nameless, even spray-painted the words “loser lot” in an attempt to dissuade teenagers from congregating there. But sometimes I really am convinced that it’s good for us to be at peace with the weeds, however we define them.

Just recently, an arborvitae growing alongside Paul Gibbons’ old office across from the town office was cut and now the incredible sound of the birds that used to hide there is gone too. I’m sure the new owner had no idea of the sweet sounds that used to mysteriously come from that tree.

When Harbor Park becomes overgrown, there are those in town who scoff and wag their fingers, but some of us delight in seeing the triumph of wildness in Camden.

For many years, the Montgomery Dam used to be sprayed with Roundup on a regular basis to keep the weeds from growing on it. I’ve been told we don’t do that anymore, but there are still plenty of ways that our obsession with a certain image can become poison to the people and natural resources we should cherish just as they are.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Vice-Chair of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.