Why camp is for the counselors.
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That summer, I learned what it is to be a minor god. To rule over my kingdom with casual confidence. To throw off the chains of the workaday world and trade them in for lazy days on a lake. To skinny-dip with a flock of hot, 22-year-old counselor chicks.
And the skinny-dipping wasn't even the best part of the job. (Though it's the part people always want to hear about.) No, the best part was the limitless power over the campers. Not so much the power to plunge them into the freezing lake whenever it so pleased me, but rather the power to shape these kids' entire conceptual framework.
If you are a young-ish counselor who is even moderately good-looking, athletic, or funny, you have the ability to define "cool" for your campers any way you see fit. I mostly used this power for good ("Hey, it's not cool to run on the dock"), while others had less noble ends ("Hey, it's really cool to give your counselor all the best food from your care package"). The ultimate goal, though, which I found I shared with many of the other good-hearted counselors at my camp, was to bring to life that beautiful, age-old fantasy: the one in which a summer at camp becomes a visit to a better, kinder, fairer world than the one back home.
I tried to accomplish this by declaring the shy kids "cool" within earshot of the actually cool kids. By breaking up cliques before they could start. By acting like a mensch as best I could and hoping it might rub off.
Some of the kids started to dress just like me and carefully emulate my speech patterns, yet would fail to pick up on any of my behavioral cues. A few kids, though, started to buy what I was selling. They'd break up cliques on their own, and they'd take the shy kids under their wings. When I saw small triumphs like this, I felt like Gandhi and John Lennon rolled into one. It was a soul-thrilling feeling. It's this feeling, I think, that brings some counselors back to camp summer after summer—despite piddling pay and sharing a bathroom with a bunch of 10-year-old boys.
I remember the first time I got a night off that summer in Maine. A group of us counselors drove out to the one little pub in town, and we got drunk and played pool all night, relishing our time away from the kiddies. It was fun. But we soon realized we weren't Gandhi in that pub. We weren't magically more cool and attractive. We weren't shaping anybody's universe for the better.
After that, on our nights off we mostly just sat on the empty dock in the moonlight, our bare feet dangling in the water. Or sometimes we'd smoke a joint off in the woods somewhere and sing camp songs. We never wanted to go beyond those wooden gates at the camp's entrance.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.