Friday, March 16, 2012

Camp Counselorhood, and What it Taught Me

Me at camp with a friend.
Wake up
It's a beautiful morning
Honey, while the sun is still shining
Wake up
Would you like to go with me?
Honey, take a run down to the beach

—"Let's Go Surfing," The Drums

When I was 17, I had my first job. It was not a job I took by choice; my mother made the unilateral decision that I should be employed, and even went so far as to do all of the work required to secure said employment for me, getting me the paperwork, arranging an interview, and so on. After a fair amount of cajoling, I went along with it all and did what little I needed to do to actually qualify for the job, and I got it. It was summer 2004, and I was a camp counselor.

An ideal first job should have a modest measure of responsibility and short-ish hours. It should involve interacting with other people in a friendly but relatively low-key way. Something like stocking shelves or food service: these come to mind as good first jobs. Being a camp counselor is on another level entirely. You have all the responsibility you can handle—the health, safety, and emotional well-being of over a dozen young people is in your hands—you have one hour in every 24 to yourself, and you have to navigate a complex and shifting social network of older teens and young adults, often quite volatile and gossip driven. If learning to be employed were learning to swim, being a camp counselor would be falling out of your canoe in the middle of the lake.


Camp counselorhood taught me a few big lessons. The first was that I couldn’t rely on my “book intelligence” to get me through a lot of real-life situations: I needed to understand how people worked, and I didn’t. I had trouble getting kids to do what I wanted them to do, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had trouble understanding the motivations and actions of the adults and young adults around me. My social skills were wanting.

My favorite example: I had a kid who was totally good all day, enjoyed himself thoroughly and loved being at camp. But every night at bedtime, he would cry because his mom wasn’t there. And I had nothing meaningful to say to this kid. I would basically say, “Look, your mom’s not here, obviously. Please stop crying. Like, soon. Now would be good,” and then he just wouldn’t, of course. My solution: I gave him a bunch of tissues and left him alone. Others were critical of this strategy, but at the time, it just seemed like the most practical thing to do.


I also learned how easy it is to get pressured into doing something when you don’t have a firm sense of what is and isn’t a good idea in a given situation. Large groups, even composed of children, have a strong voice, and sometimes I gave in to that voice against my better judgment, simply because I hadn’t worked out all of the boundaries and rules I wanted to stick to beforehand.

Example: I taught an Astronomy badge at a scout camp for some boys, and I ran out of things to do with them. The camp owned these inflatable plastic planets, and the kids wanted to use them to play dodgeball. I hadn’t given much thought to what we should and shouldn’t be doing in class, so the kids’ logic (“It’ll be fun!” “It’s technically related to astronomy!”) got the better of me, and I set up a dodgeball game in our classroom, flipping tables on their sides and laying out the rules. We played a game. And the Camp Director walked in on us. I knew from the look on his face that I had made a bad call on what our astronomy class should have been doing that day.


The best thing I learned was the joy of leading others, of being in charge and making things work. I had to think quickly and act fast a lot, and I learned that I was okay at it most of the time. It was a good feeling. The last day of my astronomy class, I took the boys out to the big hill at camp for a stargaze. I convinced everyone to turn off their flashlights, let their eyes adjust to the dark, and walk by the light of the stars on the through the woods. We got to the top of the hill, the highest place in the county, and we looked up and saw the stars as few of us had seen them before: a clear country sky, no city lights, and, what’s more, no moon to outshine any star. I pointed out the constellations we’d discussed in class. I pointed out Mars, red and low in the sky. And we stood on the hill, looking up so long and so hard our necks hurt, and I knew I had led my boys to something wondrous and good.

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