Most summers from the time I was fifteen until I went back to graduate school in my early 20s I worked for YMCA summer camps. The first and last camp I worked at was YMCA Camp Silvercreek, which is located in Silver Falls State Park but is based out of the Salem, Oregon YMCA. From 1990 to 1994, I worked at YMCA Camp Orkila, which was on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. Orkila is based out of the Seattle YMCA.
My first summer at Orklia I worked as a cabin counselor, as I’d done at Silvercreek. I was working with the oldest kids, called Explorers. My very first cabin group were these guys, and I was not prepared for them. This group of kids became legendary, a baptism by fire.
One of these kids spoke no English. One of them had summer camp prescribed by his physician. One of these boys came from a really rough home environment and wept when it was time to go home. One of these kids was effeminate (possibly gay) and was teased mercilessly by the other boys. One of them was a political refugee from the Sudan, who almost drowned in a lake while I was on my day off.
It’s possible that I learned more from these boys about human nature than I have at any other time in my life. As terrible as those ten days were, they were a forge.
Working in summer camps has, without a doubt, prepared me more for my current role as a parent, college professor, and university program administrator than anything else I have done in my life, including earning a master’s degree and PhD. I got into the racket because it was fun, and it got me out of the way of my parent’s messy divorce. It also allowed me to earn a little money, not much, but enough. During that time, I tried a straight job for one summer, and I felt like a fern that had been yanked out of its pot. In fact, every time I tried to leave camp (and I tried at least three times) I felt drawn back to it like Richard Dryfuss was drawn to the Devil's Tower.
So, even though I got into it for very personal and ultimately very self-centered reasons, I ended up staying at camp because it made me feel like I was actually contributing something to the world. Camp was changing me into a decent person. Camp wanted me to step up my game and think outside of myself. Most teenagers are naturally self-absorbed, so much so that it’s a cliché. You can’t be that way when you’re responsible for the safety and well-being of somebody else’s children.
At camp, I trained to be a lifeguard and was eventually certified. You learn in real terms that a lapse in your attention could mean somebody drowns. Because of that training, I’m always on guard, always watching. Even when I’m at the pool now, with my own kids, I’m not relaxed. My eyes are always scanning the water. I always know where the rescue equipment is (Reach, Throw, Row, Go).
Not so long ago, I had a friend’s child at the local pool for a birthday party, and my attention was split. Some kids in the party were screwing around over in one direction, while behind me another kid plopped into the water. My eyes were off this child for five seconds! The lifeguards at the pool pulled her out of the water. Everything was fine. We did an incident report, just like I was trained to do, and I remembered that young people can actually handle so much more responsibility than they are normally given. I also thought to myself: that's how long it takes.
Camp asked a lot of me. It asked a lot of everyone who worked there. Camp asked me to pay attention to tiny details that might suggest that someone was being picked on, or left out. My friend Cara Wilson had a simple rule for this: everyone gets to play. As a parent, I go ballistic if I feel like any kid is being excluded. More than that, camp taught me to look past people’s immediate behavior and to try and sleuth out the thing that’s motivating what I'm seeing.
Time and time again, I would respond to a kid’s bad behavior, only to be dead wrong about the cause.
One time I got this right. I was a unit director with a group of cabin counselors under my supervision. One of the counselors came to me concerned about a girl who’d been stealing from her cabin mates. She’d been discovered because the only one who hadn’t reported a theft was the theif. She wasn’t sure what to do. Race and socio-economic status was getting all mixed up in this as well and this counselor wanted some guidance. We had ways of working with these kinds of events, but something about this particular situation was gnawing at me.
I said to this counselor, “Let’s try something weird.” She was game. I told her to spend a portion of the afternoon with this kid, just a special afternoon. “Don’t mention the stolen stuff, just do whatever she wants. Be with her. Maybe get her an ice cream bar at the camp store. Give her a couple of hours of your undivided attention.”
Later that night, when the staff was meeting socially in the dining hall, that counselor found me and said, “The stuff is back. Right on their bunks.”
“All of it?” I asked.
“All of it.” She said. “Do I do anything?”
“No,” I said. “She knows what she needs to know. I'm gonna guess this is over.”
I have thought about this encounter hundreds of times in the last twenty years, especially when I am furious with my own children or with colleagues. I make terrible leadership decisions when I forget that bad behavior almost always comes when people feel like they are being overlooked.
People who know me know that I have a million camp stories in me. I am planning to tell them. For years, now, I've been planning to write a book about how I was shaped by summer camp. I've been toying with the title: A Real Job: A Decade at Summer Camp. I’m certain that many of my friends are similarly indebted to the experience in their own lives as parents and professionals. As I prep myself to dive into this book, I’d love to hear from them about this and learn from their stories.