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I used to be a camp counsellor

Sometimes I say that to a crowd of people and it's met with laughter.

'Well, that explains it!'

Usually it's when we're trying to start a fire, or put up a tarp or play a song on the guitar . All three of which I'm not very good at, because, truthfully, I wasn't a very good camp counselor.

I was only a camper for one year, at 14 years old, because my mom was the camp nurse and she got a 'deal'.

Maybe it was my counsellor singing Ani DiFranco songs, staring at the ceiling in my bunk, surrounded by equally entranced young girls that made me want to go back.

Whatever it was, I went back the following year and applied to be a counsellor. But I wasn't your average applicant, as I wore make-up, blow-dried my hair and stole my sisters clothes any chance I got.

Somehow though, I got the job.

They named me Dale after Dale Earnhardt for nearly driving off the road with a car-full of counselors the morning after a staff party.

The summer started off well.

“Your girls just love you!”
“You must be doing something right, the way your kids talk about you!”

I think kids are attracted to sensitivity, and I was both highly sensitive and extremely vulnerable at the age of 16. We related. I was still silently terrified, but as my confidence grew, so did theirs.

As the summer went on, I shyly participated in more and more activities, dressed in costumes for skits and even started teaching water activities I knew nothing about. Like the time I filled in as a kayaking teacher, only to be rescued by the kids as the wind carried me down the lake at a terrifying speed.

My camp world began to unravel the night my kids did a skit for talent show. Each of the 6 girls took turns 'playing' me – their counselor. They borrowed my signature cat-ear toque and pretended to be me, sleeping in, napping all afternoon, skipping the morning mandatory health-hustle & polar plunge, and just generally being a shitty counselor. I was mortified. They were revealing all my secrets. They were getting so many laughs – at my expense.

Did I mention I was a very tired (and lazy) teenager?

My favourite part of the evening was the 30 minute window where the kids would get ready for bed, and we'd go to the office and check e-mail/ICQ/Messenger, whatever it was we did back then. A small group of us would take turns dicking around, telling stories about our day, and prank-mailing eachother's camp inboxes. I still have some of the 'camp mail' I received, my favourite being a photocopy of Snipers hand that reads: Big hands I know you're the one. 

After our mini office rendez-vous we'd run back to the cabin for bedtime, hoping no one noticed our absence. Sometimes the girls would blow my cover by running over to the oldest boys cabins whose counselor was actually there, and tell him they couldn't find me.

But mostly they would  just dance around the cabin singing and yelling with the pre-bedtime hyperactive hysteria that always appeared at 8pm. I'm sure if I'd stayed in the cabin during this vulnerable time, it could have been avoided, but hey, I was a kid too.

Once we'd calmed them down, shoo-ed all the boy campers away from the front porch, and got them into their bunks, we'd talk about the day. Usually in Rose & Thorn style. It worked well because everybody got a turn, even the quietest kids who usually couldn't get a word in . Like I said before, these kids were sensitive, so a fun day could really turn sideways if they scraped their knee on a rock in the lake, or a cabin mate put yogurt on their face during breakfast. Talking it out was cathartic for all of us. Often the thorn was how homesick they were, which is not always obvious to a counselor. Camp was often the best part of their summer, and the most difficult, emotionally and socially. I used to take one camper to her little brothers cabin every evening to say goodnight to him and she'd cry the whole walk back to our cabin. 

After the girls would go to sleep, I'd run off into the night for an hour or two, talking and flirting and laughing with any counselor that would indulge me, hence the 'tired-lazy-teenager' the next day.

I worked at Camp Kawartha for three summers. Although I'd never win a Camp Counselor of the Year Award, the experience helped form me. I like to think I'd be better at it now, at the age of 32, and maybe I would. But I still can't kayak, and I love staying up late.


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