Summer Camp Counselor Job Taxing but Rewarding

I’ve worked a lot of summer jobs, beginning with a filing stint at a high-tech office when I was 15. Although I welcomed my paychecks, I loathed being shut inside an air-conditioned, professionally decorated meeting room with only stacks of musty paper to distract me from the San Diego sun.

I opted for a change when I was 16: retail. This job stationed me at a UTC kiosk alone for seven hours at a stretch. I certainly got my fill of the San Diego sun — I think I was perpetually sunburnt for the three months I put up with the stinking job. That summer, I grew to hate the mall and all it stood for: whining brats, pushy parents and commercialized, useless goods shoved down the throats of sheep-like consumers.

No wonder then that I returned to office slavery the next June and suffered again the hellish commute, insulting supervision and repetitive tasks. Last summer, with tuition looming, I worked a combination of my dreaded occupations, pushing paper by day and hawking overpriced stationery by night. I averaged 70 hours per week in July. By September I was exhausted and by June I knew I couldn’t sit behind a desk or stand behind a counter for one more minute.

About then, my best friend told me that she was interviewing for a camp counselor position. My interest was piqued. I envisioned myself on a grassy knoll, perhaps under a spreading oak tree in dappled summer sunlight, with a group of sweet-eyed youngsters around me eagerly devouring my lesson on poetry forms and short story techniques.

As I posted my resume on some camp counselor job placement Web sites, I was already quantifying the impact I’d have on the lives of impressionable, guidance-hungry children. What challenges I’d face! What maturity I’d gain! What a stirring, rewarding way to spend a summer!

I ended up taking a position at a Southern California horse-riding camp, far enough from home to feel like I was embarking on an adventure, but close enough to dash down to San Diego to take care of business when necessary.

It didn’t matter that I had little horse experience per se; I would teach electives like singing and drama, and I’d head up our weekly camper-produced newspaper. Of course, I wasn’t picky about what I would teach. All I wanted was to spend my summer outdoors, working with children and animals and other students like me.

Sure, the work would be hard, I told myself naively, and the pay would be low compared to, well, anything, because minimum wage laws don’t apply to camp counselors. I reported to training week with high spirits and a backpack full of books — training week, you see, was also finals week, and I commuted back and forth, praying that I wouldn’t crash my car as I taped lecture notes to my steering wheel and studied my way down the highway.

The directors of the camp taught us everything we would need to know for our 10 life-altering weeks of summer camp. Horse-illiterate people such as myself were given basic riding instruction and taught how to care for the horses on the ranch. We had seminars on “”risk management,”” — “”risk”” meaning “”lawsuits from parents of injured children”” — and emergency preparedness. We discussed how to handle homesickness, bedwetting and other “”problem camper”” concerns. I was primed on that first Sunday, ready to tackle the job, sure that I was up to handling whatever came down the path.

OK, so I wasn’t so sure. In fact, I was terrified. Here I was, 19 years old, without younger siblings or much baby-sitting experience to have prepared me for assuming responsibility for minors. What was I thinking, stepping in “”loco parentis”” and taking the challenge of improving campers’ lives?

I knew the camp once was a Christian camp and while many of the campers were strongly religious, I am not. I am comfortable with the basics of Christian theology — thanks, MMW — but I was hardly the person to consult during a crisis of faith.

And what if my girls were having boy trouble? Sex is a touchy topic at camp — essentially, it’s not supposed to exist — but if my girls came to me with questions or concerns, was I to turn them away empty-handed?

Trials came at me fast and furious from the start. I mediated a dispute between two bickering siblings, and while neither party was entirely satisfied with the outcome, a moderate success was achieved. I was surprised to find that teenage girls are incapable of keeping their belongings clean, even if punishment is threatened and enforced.

I faced rumors that the staff members that remained from the camp’s Christian days were trying passionately to convert the heathens like me. Several of my girls were appalled when they found out I wasn’t Christian, and were likewise upset when I interrupted their religious discussion — at 10:30 at night, long after all the other girls were asleep — and made them go to bed.

And while the sex issue has been largely null so far, my girls have run the gamut from ignorant about “”that reproductive thing”” to very knowledgeable in the ways of the world. I have had to monitor their conversations closely, and artfully change the subject when things shift toward the dodgy.

I have had girls in my cabin whom I was devastated to see leave, and girls I would have sent packing on the second day of the week. My classes have been filled with charmers, prodigies, trouble-makers and attitude-coppers. When the summer began, I was nervous about my lack of experience with children — how does a 10-year-old act, anyway? I have since learned that they are just people, slightly smaller and less formed than adults.

As the other counselors and I embarked on our first week of camp, one of the camp directors told us to touch one life each week — that should be our goal throughout the summer.

Have I met that goal? I don’t know.

At the end of this week, I collected evaluations from my girls; two of them said their least favorite thing was “”evil counselors”” — could I count myself among them? That very same day, I overheard two of the younger girls who had attended my newspaper class mention my name. “”Claire?”” one of them said. “”She’s the best!”” I tried not to grin stupidly, and failed. My life is being touched, too.

I have six weeks left of camp. Some days, I can’t imagine putting up with one more dirty cabin, one more mouthy camper, or one more rumor spreading through the staff. All I want to do is pack my things and move into the Hillcrest house that waits for me when I return to San Diego in September. Other days, when the weather is fine and the ponies are calm and the children are cooperative and bright and unique, I imagine quitting school and staying here forever.

Yes, I shovel horse poop and tell 7-year-olds not to run to the waterslide at the pool, all for the grand sum of $1.04 per hour. We’re on call 24 hours a day, six days a week. But every experience is an important one, and one I wouldn’t give back for nine-to-five in a cubicle or a coffee shop for all the money in the world.

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