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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Thirty(ish) years ago I was a summer camp counselor.

I was a counselor for… let’s see, girls aged 6, 7, 8, and 9… four years until I don’t know what happened and I quit, quite possibly because I was tired of girls and quite possibly because I graduated college and started teaching. Quite possibly both.

So many things I don’t remember! Like why I worked at summer camp in the first place. I suspect it was one of those “get experience” things because I wanted to be a teacher.

Up until summer camp, my summer jobs consisted of two things. One, working in Van Heusen folding clothes, helping people find a size medium, and, if I was really lucky, using the cash register. Two, opening pieces.

The latter was for my grandparents, who ran an artificial flower company. My grandfather would press flower shapes into stacks of paper and fabric, then someone would have to separate each layer of the stack into individual petal pieces.

Their factory was in the city. I worked from their basement in Mahopac, going over after school and during the summer with my key, letting myself in, and sitting with Duran Duran playing in the background while I opened pieces for hours on end with little rubber tips on my fingers to help.

It sounds tedious but it was not. It was actually quite relaxing and satisfying. I could play loud music if I wanted, and there were always snacks upstairs. It was an ongoing contest with myself to see how many pieces I could get open in a day, how many flower petals would be piled in a box for my grandparents when they got home.

Eventually I graduated to summer camp.

Things I remember about summer camp: cute boys.

There was absolutely no question that summer romances were going to happen. You didn’t get thrown into a room full of people on summer break and not expect at least a few of those people to pair up. You did not show up to the first day of orientation and not scope out the hotties.

I had exactly one summer romance, which ended when it turned out the guy had a girlfriend who was not entirely pleased with the idea. And I had one maybe-a-romance but more like a strange mutually dependent friendship with a very sweet and dorky guy who both put up with me and was utterly baffled by me.

My experience at summer camp followed a typical trajectory. It was really fun at the beginning when everything was new and exciting. It became more commonplace over time. And it ended with me never wanting to see another nine-year-old or shuffleboard for as long as I lived.

I enjoyed the experience, though, and learned a lot. Namely, if you walk barefoot on the grass long enough you will step on a bee and it will hurt like all the fires of the blazing sun have been injected into the sole of your foot.

I learned how to wear just enough sunscreen to not go home like an over-roasted beet at the end of the day, but also to not interfere with a crispy tan.

I learned that eventually, and usually by October, even the best tans fade.

I learned that eight weeks is both an eternity and a blink, and that the Summer Camp Rule is both wise and true.

The camp director invoked the Summer Camp Rule every year and drilled it into our heads: you could have the best summer ever, but if the last day of camp was bad, that’s all anyone would remember. It worked the other way around too. Not that we didn’t try to make sure everyone had a great time, but the truth was that camp could be pretty crappy for a lot of reasons – sunburn, bees, rain, girl-fights, personality conflicts, not enough swim time, too much shuffleboard time – but if the last day was spectacular, it’s all anyone would remember.

It’s probably one of the more valuable and practical life lessons I learned. You can apply it to meetings. Client interactions. Vacations. Nights out for dinner. You name it.

I think it has a lot to do with our affinity for storytelling. Everyone wants a happily ever after. In the arc of the summer camp story, how did it all turn out? With an ice cream party, or by finding out you were responsible for helping some guy cheat on his girlfriend?

It matters to the narrative.

One of the most memorable summer camp events was the annual campout. It was a day camp, but once per summer each group got their own special night to sleep over in one of the pavilions in the woods.

You’d bring your sleeping bag and pajamas, and after everyone else went home you’d have the whole property to yourself. All the games, the pools and pond boats, the art supplies. You had free run to do anything you wanted.

Mostly my groups wanted to play in the pools, and sometimes do crafts. The camp had a cookout for us, and when it got dark we’d retire, just me and group of six-seven-eight-or-nine-year-old girls, lay out our sleeping bags across the hardwood floor in the pavilion – often with much to-do and jostling and arguments about who wanted to be next to who and not next to someone else – and…

Well, certainly not sleep.

I should take a minute to set the stage. The pavilion was set up in the woods on the camp property. Not exactly Camp Crystal Lake level of woods, but past anything else on the property and up a long dirt path. It was built on stilts into the side of a hill, with half-walls. You pulled down canvas tarps to cover the other half at night, a little like a real tent. There was a wooden half-gate but no door, and no lock.

There were no lights.

The nearest bathroom was down the hill in another building and the closest human was the camp director and his family who lived across the street on the far end of the 16-acre property.

Now that I put it like that… can you believe someone left a 20 year old kid in charge of a group of six year olds kids with no overnight supervision in the middle of the woods?

This is in pre-cell phone days, so if you actually needed help or one of your nine year olds decided that maybe the last scary story wasn’t working out so well, your only choice was to trek the entire group through the dark woods to the house across the street and ask for help or a phone call home.

I have a strong suspicion nobody does this today.

Still… we survived. We survived the dark and the hooting owls, whatever that crunching sound was, and having to pee but not being willing to go out into the night. We survived when someone just couldn’t hold it anymore and everyone had to put on their shoes and trek down to the bathroom in nightgowns because we didn’t want to leave anyone alone.

We survived and were very proud of it.

Summer camp taught me a lot of things, but I think mostly it taught me to be brave. To jump off the diving board when your team is relying on you for the race, even though you’re pretty sure you’re about to die a horrible, watery death. To stand up on stage and perform your part in the play even though you’re absolutely phobic about being in front of people.

And to be the grown up and protector even when you feel like a scared little kid yourself.

In the arc of the summer camp story, there is a happy ending. I didn’t much like those nine-year-olds but with the hindsight of 30(ish) years I can appreciate everything that happened, even the bee stings, even the tipped over boats, even the boys who didn’t play nice and never told you they had a girlfriend in the first place.

Photo: I couldn’t possibly guess whether there are any photos of my pre-digital summer camp experience, so enjoy this picture of my family goofing off in our pool instead.