Quick, reader, rattle off some camp imagery. Canoes? Untied shoes? The belting out of “repeat after me songs” and cheers about alligators? These bits of nostalgia were hardly the reality of my experience working at an upscale day-camp in Montreal. Instead, it was OPUS cards, Starbucks runs, and bitter frustration.
Like any middle-class kid with two working parents, I attended a series of day camps and then graduated to those hardcore, month-long stints at overnight camps. One of the latter was cut tragically short by a regrettable tumble, resulting in a broken tibia and thigh-high purple cast. With exceptions such as these, I relatively enjoyed my time at camp. However, I wish to tell you about the unwritten narrative of camp: the trials and tribulations of being a 20-something camp counsellor in Montreal. A day-camp counsellor, at a very expensive day-camp.
In a sudden fit of independence, I opted to stay in the city and try to get a summer job instead of returning to the comforts of home and scooping ice cream in Toronto. Trolling through the McGill career planning website yielded few results beyond postings for teaching English in Korea or agricultural surveying in nowheresville, Quebec.
One day, however, I stumbled across a posting for a counsellor position at a day camp in Cote-des-Neiges, a neighborhood I knew very little about. But I didn’t care – the thought of spending eight weeks sunning myself and flirting with male counselors was incredibly appealing. Within weeks, I was called for an interview. After carefully assembling what I deemed to be both a child-appropriate and professional outfit, and lying about my bilingualism, the director offered me the job. His final question: “What age group would you like to work with?” Considering that my athletic skill level is equivalent to that of a five-year-old, I answered accordingly.
Finals come and go. I buy a new pair of running shoes. Day One at Camp. After a brief and insufficient rundown of the camp’s policy from the diva-esque manager of the toddler section, it was time to meet the campers.
The poorly executed themed days and the overly-sexed staff nights are hardly interesting compared to the antics of the campers I came to know this summer, and more importantly, their parents. It is hard to remember exactly what it was like to be five years old. What motivated you to do the things you did? In my “bunk,” there were the usual suspects, those rambunctious, energetic boys who don’t respond well to purely female authority. But there were a few kids in particular who really brought something unique to the table.
One boy, let’s call him The Aggressor, actually got kicked out of camp because he displayed such a sense of ferocity and – let’s just call a spade a spade – gross misconduct. You might be wondering, what could a five-year-old do that was that bad? Firstly, he performed what we could only call a non-sexual, non-consensual golden shower. He relieved himself in a YOP bottle during lunch hour then proceeded to sprinkle it over his peers. How would someone even think of this? It was so deliberate, so much more premeditated than simply peeing on the kids he didn’t like. This incident was paired with The Aggressor breaking another kid’s nose with a well-aimed roundhouse kick.
Events like these were interspersed with the usual volley of uncontrollable bowel movements. Needless to say, I learned the phrase “Il y a du brun dans mes pantalons” the hard way. No story is ever really good without at least one reference to fecal matter, but let’s get back to the kids.
One day, I sat The Aggressor down after a particularly violent display of martial arts and asked him why he hit the other kids so much. From what I could piece together from my dicey French, I came to understand that this five-year-old boy was claiming that his father encouraged him to always retaliate, to never let anyone have the last punch (or roundhouse kick, for that matter). I have no idea if this was true, but honesty from children reads as clearly and faithfully as the dictionary. I learned I would have to watch the parents as closely as their kids.
In every group, classroom or bunk, there is always THAT kid. You know, the one who is always the center of attention, the proverbial Bart Simpson. The kids love ’em and the adults hate ’em. My Bart Simpson was always picked up by a nanny, leaving me to wonder about his life once Mary Poppins had gone home. One Friday, Bart was getting picked up early for a weekend vacay in the Berkshires, so we got to meet the folks. Enter Dad: purple shirt, overly tan skin, and overly oiled hair. In terms of stature and demeanor, he was very Danny DeVito meets Napoleon. He strutted over through the sea of parents, eyes never leaving his Blackberry, and waved away my attempts to get his signature on the mandatory sign out sheet; “Don’t worry, they know me here.” Suddenly, it all made sense. The iPhone little Bart “accidentally” brought to camp, the sense of entitlement this kid displayed, came directly from Daddy. This epiphany however, did nothing to lessen my hatred for the little Bart (or was it Brat)?
Here, another poignant example of the childishness of parents: This kid arrived late on the first day, flanked by a bickering Mom and Dad. The mother took me aside to explain how her son had gone through a traumatic experience in the pool and that I should, under no circumstances, force him to swim. Moments later, his father took me aside to explain that I should force his son to swim in order to help him conquer his phobia. His mother then called a second sidebar to press her previous point and whisper confidentially, “As you have probably noticed, my husband and I are divorced.” Duh, thanks lady. The kid in question was as disinterested, uninvolved, and as apathetic as a five-year-old could be. When his mother came to pick him up, she would wax poetic about what a good little tennis player her son was, then flip the switch and berate me about how her husband had signed their kid up for five weeks of camp instead of spending time with him. When his father picked him up, he would tell me how much fun his son was having, then grill me like porterhouse steak about his progress in swim and “ockey.” The father registered his son at the camp with one surname and when the mother would call in to leave a memo, he suddenly had two.
In the weeks that passed, there were countless other instances where parents unconsciously, yet aggressively, inserted themselves into the lives of their children. One little girl came running up to me in tears sobbing about how another boy had told her his dad would put her dad in jail. Another boy revealed that he much preferred to stay at his father’s house because he had a bigger TV and more movies. It soon became a game for my co-counsellor and I to guess which mothers had boob jobs. (The trick, in case you were wondering, was to observe whether they perked to attention without the help of a bra.)
After days spent searching for lost underwear, and nights spent complaining to my friends, I had to ask myself: why do I even care about this? Every morning, my co-counsellor and I would sit on the metro, trying to convince ourselves that this was just a job, and that we shouldn’t let it infringe on our personal lives. It was a futile fight. Why did I find it necessary to tell and re-tell to anyone who would listen about the antics of these kids and their parents? Because, whether I liked it or not, I was invested. I ridiculed the parents so much because I was horrified at the way that these kids, at only five years of age, had started to turn into their spandex-clad, peroxided mothers, or their suit-wearing, Blackberry-wielding fathers. By observing the direct correlations between child and parent, I became acutely aware about how much power figures of authority exercise over children, and it bothered me.
There is an immutable difference between those who work at day camps and those who work at sleepaway camps. The latter can brag about wilderness fare, fire-making, taxidermy, or whatever you do out there, but day camp counsellor have an even harder job. I was privy to some of the most intimate and difficult relationships in children’s lives: the ones they share with their parents. It was a tricky balance of power for us, who had the kids all day, and the parents, who have them in the seemingly fleeting hours in between. Perhaps those repeat offender day camp counsellor are actually the truest counsellors of them all.
After all was said and done, the dodgeballs deflated and placed on the shelf, one of my superiors asked if I would return to work at camp next summer. I could only smile sheepishly. “I think I’ll head back to Toronto. I really miss my mom.”