I’m nose-deep in a dish of chocolate-pudding graham cracker with a crowd of kids cheering me on alongside four other pie-eating contestants. I’m standing in a shallow pool of water, most of which is airborne from ceaseless splashing. I’m reloading 20 dollars I don’t have onto my Dunkin’ Donuts app to support my intensifying coffee habit. I’m a camp counselor.
“I don’t like kids.”
I can hear my past self saying this as I clock into my eight-week, 9-to-5 near-minimum wage summer camp job. Seasonal gigs are difficult to come by as a college student. No one wants to hire some 19-year-old kid for two weeks of training and three weeks of actual work for them to just flee back to college as soon as they can. If you aren’t doing an internship or returning to a part-time job you had back in high school, camp counselor jobs are pretty attractive.
I was going to stay in New Paltz this past summer. Getting a job around here would have been simpler than back at home since I could keep it as the school year went on. However, in the wake of Tom O’Rourke’s tragic death on campus last semester, many of my friends and I who were planning on staying felt we needed to go home for a few months.
I love New Paltz—even back then I really still did. But after spending the last month of the spring semester cooped up in the dorms grieving, this vibrant kaleidoscope hippie town didn’t feel so colorful anymore. I felt almost uncomfortable to even be here.
Plan A: My once novel cashier job at Spencer’s from the summer before. Due to the low traffic of weed paraphernalia and whoopie cushion consumers, I had too much time to sit around and think about the past semester. I soon left the neon, lava lamp world of Sasha Grey-molded fleshlights in search of something more fulfilling.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I’m getting existential about my life in the middle of a less- than-voluntary dance contest featuring me soloing in the middle of a gym full of children and counselors. Through awkward, camp-appropriate movements, I hear the confused applause of the 8-year-old kids in my age-division and I see my group leader’s makeshift “I <3 Mel” sign. There I am, doing the good ol’ side step to some pop song, looking around wondering how the hell I got here.
Being silly and smiley while still harping on a painful loss for the sake of some kid’s day at camp sounds awful. It was frustrating and difficult to reason with third and fourth graders on subjects such as fair turn-taking with go-carts. Leading a pack of wandering children through the depths of the Bronx Zoo on a hot day was stressful. And mediating fights between kids on the grounds of “he/she started it” just seemed so arbitrary.
But it wasn’t awful. It was a distraction, an interruption. An incredible interference from the constant questions in my brain asking why Tom had to go. The frivolous wants and worries of a little kid helped reminded me of the many lighthearted interactions in life. You can make kids’ days by sitting next to them on the bus or appointing them the special task of collecting cones on the field after a game of “sharks and minnows.”
Of course, these kids have no idea how they affect the counselors. They just know whether they are having fun or not. But they do form bonds with their counselors—they remember kindness and attentiveness in a place they thought they might not receive it. Innocence and silliness helped me dodge a potential summer filled with only heartache and painful contemplation. Many of these kids I will never forget, and the awesome people I worked with made this difficult job easier and just plain funny at times. I actually don’t dislike it now.
Being a camp counselor was a weird experience, and I won’t be doing it again. But it was exactly what I needed and I am so happy I didn’t spend the summer any other way.