Monday, July 6, 2009

"Summer Times - Earl, the Counselor"

When I stopped being exclusively a writer and started being a show runner, I felt the same way I felt when I stopped being a camper and started being a counselor. If I could put a phrase to the feeling, that phrase would be, “There goes the neighborhood.”

I know I’m paraphrasing Groucho Marx but what kind of a camp is it that would have me as a counselor? My answer? A camp that was going seriously downhill.

As a parent, my brother refused to send his children to sleepover camp. He was concerned for their welfare, and, having gone to camp himself, he was cognizant of the qualification level of the counseloring staff. It was my level. No qualifications whatsoever.

Parents were entrusting me with their children. For two months. Apparently, they had no idea that I had no idea.

The camp tried to prepare us. The staff would arrive three days early for what they called pre-camp. Aside providing the staff a chance to get acquainted and to spruce up their areas of responsibility, pre-camp involved a series of orientation sessions to prepare counselors for the job ahead. I can’t remember one thing they told me at those sessions. Except for this:

“The boys’ side of camp is the boys’ side of camp; the girls’ side of camp is the girls’ side of camp. The boys will remain on the boys’ side of camp, and the girls’ will remain on the girls’ side of camp.”

That’s all I remember.

It’s not ‘cause I’m old that I don’t recall the content of those pseudo-psychological cram sessions. I didn’t remember the stuff when they were telling it to me. First off, the sessions were theoretical and boring. And secondly, I couldn’t focus on what they were saying, because I was in total “panic mode”, nervously counting the hours until helpless little children would arrive who would place their safety, happiness, health and wellbeing in my totally unqualified hands.

Were they out of their minds!? (And by “they” I mean the people who hired me, the parents and the children.)

As the older staff members shared their wisdom on promoting cabin-group harmony and dealing with homesickness, a mantra looped noisily in my brain, blaring a message that’s been with me pretty much my entire life:

“I don’t know how to do this.”

A more accurate representation?


Why did I agree to become a counselor? First, let me clear something up. Despite the impression I may have left in last year’s “Summer Times” posts (resulting from writing that failed to signal you to read between the lines), I didn’t hate camp. The stories I related focused on the bumpy parts of the road – like when the swim instructor threw me in the lake, and when my cabin-mates tried to hang me – but that’s what stories do. “I walked around and it was nice” is not a story. “I refused to eat liver, and my counselor made me sleep in the rafters.” That one, you want to hear about. (Or maybe they’re just easier to write.)

I can’t explain why I liked camp. My best shot at it is is that people seemed to notice me there. The thing was, after you turned seventeen, you were too old to be a camper. I became a counselor so I could keep going to camp. During my pre-camp jitters, however, this started to seem like not a good enough reason.

One thing I did learn during pre-camp is that panic is exhausting. As my energy depleted, my feelings of terror inevitably started to subside, replaced by…well, not hope, but something vaguely in that direction.

Who knows, I thought, when I started thinking less like a crazy person, I wasn’t any less qualified than the other first-time counselors. Nobody’d forced them to give me the job. Maybe I could handle this.

Maybe it would be okay.


It’s seven-fifteen, the first morning. The campers arrived yesterday. I’m the counselor of eleven year-old boys.

The wake-up siren rings. I slowly come awake, and tell the kids to get ready for breakfast.

I look around.

There is nobody else in the cabin.

The cabin door flies open. All my campers, fully dressed and, I’m told later, out for two hours, are filing back in!

Oh, yeah. I could handle this.


growingupartists said...

Cute! Like I said last year, between some lines I recognized but not sure from where though, what would summer be without Earl Pomerantz's camping stories?

What, you never had a s'more?

Anonymous said...

Today I so needed a good laugh and you've delivered again. I am very grateful for your stories. I do like the camp stories best because they make me think about my own experiences. While they were considerably different than yours (I liked the food and no one tried to hang me), I did have major shyness to overcome and one year my parents were camp counselors. That might sound okay, but it made most of the kids very wary of me. Like I was going to tell on them or something. And the fact that I never said anything just made them believe I was a spy. But I loved the sketches and the dances and the competitions. They really were designed to make you feel good about yourself and learn a bit more about living a Christian life. I would have become a counselor, but my father switched professions just before I became eligible and you couldn't be related to a minister and work for the camp. Something about nepotism having been a problem in the past. Thanks again for bringing up the memories. Your stories often do that for me and I'm grateful.