It feels like every summer has a life and a story of its own. The past three have been the most emotional and life-changing of all my summers so far. Mostly, it’s been the camps that make it so.
Before I continue, I want to clarify for some readers who might not have experiences with summer camps. I talk about my camps a lot–some people in my life say too much. But anyone who’s been a part of a summer camp knows–there’s something about them. The closeness. The intensity. The season. The rigor. The relationships built fast and left too soon. The 16-hour days getting up early and staying up late. Getting down and dirty. If you’ve not experienced that, it’s understandable that you won’t feel the level of emotion that goes into my stories about camp. But if you have been a part of a camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There’s a piece of me that will always be stuck with the first summer camp I worked for. It’s a stubborn piece. Some days I want to be selfish and let it go. Some days I wish I could walk away without feeling guilty and broken. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I made some amazing friends at this camp, both with the other counselors and with the kids. I was barely 19, working with high schoolers in my first youth-oriented job. What had even possessed me to apply, and to interview passionately enough to be selected? I credit the South Dakota trip as the catalyst for my desire to work with youth. Setting out on the trip, I was terrified of meeting the kids and convinced that I would fuck up their lives in the three days we were there. I wouldn’t know what to say or do with them or how to interact. Going there and meeting kids from a place and culture I had little contact with shook me. Hearing the stories of the suicide epidemic was what pushed me into the place of wanting to combat youth suicide, which soon turned into a desire to work with kids in any way I could. My experiences from the trip were a huge motivator for me when I interviewed for the job and started working there.
But I forget that I applied for the job before the trip.
I can’t remember applying for the job, writing my application, finding references, sending it in, agonizing over it. I remember doing that for the resident assistant position at school; not for this summer camp. I remember getting the email from my supervisor suggesting the job to me and a few others. I can’t remember what interested me about the job, since I was still pretty afraid of kids. Maybe it was the fact that they would be high schoolers. Maybe it was because it was similar enough to my current position that I felt it would be easy enough to transition to. Maybe it was because I had friends who were applying. Though I wonder about it, I don’t think my abuser had anything to do with it—we were dating at the time; she had no interest in the job at all, so I doubt she convinced me. Maybe it was just because I wanted anything but to go back to my parents’ house that summer and was looking for any way to stay on campus.
At any rate, I got the job.
I felt like I sucked at it. The kids still scared me; I wasn’t always sure what to say or do. But I went through the training, learned a lot, and enjoyed it; I was making friends; I was connecting with my supervisors. By the time camp rolled around, I was excited to meet the kids. I acted as a TA for the first group, the middle schoolers. I learned the names of all the kids in my class and things about them. I made solid connections with several of them, and we talked outside of class. I didn’t have to, but I joined them each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cried when they left.
The next six weeks I worked as a dorm counselor for the high school campers. I was going through a lot at the time. My abuser broke up with me, but we made the dangerous decision to remain friends. She was running hot and cold with me, sometimes wanting to be my best friend and sometimes ignoring me completely. My family was becoming hostile towards me, offended by my decision to further my education and experience by staying away from home. Thanks to counseling, I was beginning to recognize my depression and anxiety for what it was and put a label on my panic attacks, which was both freeing and terrifying. My self-harm episodes became more frequent and more alarming. During the first week, the head counselor noticed the scars on my arm. She took me aside and I broke down, telling her how much I felt I was struggling, how I felt I was no good at the job and close to quitting. She calmly talked me down, told me I was doing fine, and gave me ways I could be supported.
I kept trying. I made friends with many of the kids and learned all their names, though not as quickly as I wanted. As would become the tradition, the queer kids gravitated towards me. I was teaching a class called Images of Gender and I hit the cap of 24 students. I spent time with the kids even on my days off, having nothing better to do. I enjoyed being with them, though again I didn’t always know what to do or say and sometimes backed off to let the more experienced counselors handle things.
I didn’t agree with their disciplinary methods—making the kids do pushups or having them go on all fours saying “beep, beep, I’m a jeep.” I thought there were better ways to handle behavioral concerns. I felt that having them do those things would humiliate them, and I didn’t like that. If I witnessed a camper breaking rules, I told them not to and explained that what they were doing went against camp policies. If they asked why, I’d say that they were at our camp and needed to follow the expectations of camp while they were here, even if what they were doing was something they would do at home. If I heard one of them swear, I would say “I’m pretty sure you didn’t just say something you shouldn’t say, because I know that you know the rules. So I know I’m not going to hear you say words like that. Right?” It amused them. I never had a case of a camper continuing to swear after I spoke out.
The only time I yelled was when I saw them throwing bananas around the room. I was angry; I hate seeing food wasted. I tried to address the problem by talking to the individuals throwing the bananas, but when they didn’t listen, I stood in the middle of the room and yelled at them to stop. Seeing me—the tiny, timid counselor—screaming at them made them all immediately freeze. Because I never yelled or told them to do pushups, they took me very seriously in that moment.
Many of the kids liked me. Some saw me as their enemy, but I knew that I wasn’t going to please everybody, and each kid was going to have their least favorite counselors. There were some days I simply had to hide. There were some days I took my fears and frustrations out on my fellow counselors. There were some days I was not as engaged as I should have been. I knew this was not okay; I knew I had to work on bettering myself.
I thought I was allowed a few days to be weak; I thought everyone was.
The summer came to a close and the school year began. When I ran into my supervisors, we’d talk excitedly about next summer. I asked several times how I could continue to be involved, attending some of their fall and spring events and keeping in touch with my campers on social media. I asked my supervisors how I would apply for the following summer. I was told I didn’t need to, but that I would be sent an email gauging my interest in returning, and all I had to do was say yes. I knew I was going to; as difficult as it had been, I loved that job. I loved my kids. They cried when they said goodbye to me. I knew I’d made an impact, and a positive one.
I didn’t receive the email, even as the school year came to a close, even as my friends who applied started hearing back. One day I ducked into one of my supervisor’s office, explaining that I had one day over the summer I’d need off and that I hoped it wouldn’t cause a conflict with move in days.
She looked uncomfortable and said, “Oh, this is hard.”
“What?” I asked.
“Well, we’re not hiring you back this summer.”
I couldn’t speak. I could only stare. I felt like piece of me were falling to the floor. I thought of all the kids I’d connected with. The things some of them had said to me, about how I’d helped them, how important I was to them. I thought of every mistake I’d made that summer, of the negative feedback I’d received.
“I hope you’re not mad,” she said.
“I’m not.” I wasn’t. Not yet. “I’m…sad.”
This was worse than a breakup, ironic because later that afternoon my then-girlfriend broke up with me. This was worse than if my supervisor had told me at the end of last summer that I wasn’t coming back. They’d been telling me all year I could. What had I done to change their minds?
I agonized over it for months. When summer rolled around I cried when I thought of what they would be doing without me. I did everything I could to stay in their lives, working three hours a week as an elective teacher and volunteering for field trips. The ones who remembered me greeted me with excitement and love. I made new friends as well, once again attracting and mentoring the queer kids. My supervisors continued to interact positively. They even let me take three of the kids to my on-campus apartment to visit my cat. They trusted me completely. So why hadn’t they taken me back as a counselor?
I attended the end-of-year banquets, crying and watching them cry as they left, tucking away my favorite memories and chalking them up to a summer well lived. Wondering what I had done wrong, why they had rejected me, why it had to be like this. Wondering what I would do next year.
I wasn’t a teacher this summer. My new job schedule conflicted with class times. I’d had so many experiences since that first camp that I went everywhere confident in my abilities to mentor, build connections, lead, love, and succeed. I knew what that first camp had let walk away. They could have kept me on and I would have done better. They could have been straight up with me and told me off the bat I wasn’t coming back, because apparently they’d known all along even as they told me I could.
The only thing I did that summer was sleep over in the dorms so they could maintain the required student-adult ratio, and attend one field trip.
I could barely handle it. I couldn’t stand arriving on campus after most of them had gone to sleep, but at the same time I couldn’t bear the thought of arriving early to spend time with them. I was angry I could only attend one field trip but did nothing to fight for more.
I fostered my existing connections and built new ones. Still, it wasn’t enough. I felt myself slipping from their lives. I became less important. They stopped needing me.
I realized I could not return for another summer without breaking even more inside.
This time when I left, I didn’t say goodbye.