Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Working at a summer camp takes patience, resilience and an unflinching ‘Disney smile’ to hide the exhaustion of working for twenty-four hours a day. Add to this, the gossip-mill of Love Island. Combine this with the regime of a high security prison. Finally, welcome six hundred children whose parents pay over sixteen thousand dollars, expecting their offspring to have the summer of their lives. While this seems like a toxic combination that no one would give up their summer to experience, it presented a bizarre emotional challenge that felt daunting yet exhilarating to take on. If I could deal with the struggles of thirty-eight attention-craving, over-indulged ten-year-old girls, I could cope with anything. Recommended by my friend who worked at the camp previously, I knew this camp attracted a certain type of clientele. The children were given everything money can buy and this included me for the summer – a confused, underpaid graduate who was slightly unsure what she was about to experience.
My role at camp seemed straightforward at first. I was a general councillor: aka, a temporary ‘mommy’. To prepare for this role, we had orientation week. Similar to fresher’s week minus the vodka shots and hangovers, everyone was the perfect version of themselves, ready to make flawless first impressions. The week consisted of cringe-worthy role play scenarios. An overly zealous staff member would volunteer to act as ‘the bully’. The acting skills were so convincing that it was almost like glimpsing into her past as the school ringleader and tormenter. The ‘victim’ proceeded to meekly stand up for herself as the bully pushed her into the corner – both literally and metaphorically. Having to face the plight of a small, vicious blue-eyed bully myself, I was transported back to the sinking feeling of being the victim. As adults, we often forget the pack mentality of little girls and the havoc that ensues when cliques are formed. I was adamant that any girl in my care would not experience this feeling of ostracization.
Skip forward a few days to the girls arriving, colourful braces gleaming in the sunlight, hair perfectly keratin-ed, nails manicured with the camp logo neatly painted onto a ‘statement’ fingernail, clutching colourful cookie cakes the size of their heads. These girls were the high-maintenance princesses of the Upper East Side stepping into their summer playground.
It became clear that my summer job would be unlike anything I have previously experienced. I applied knowing that it would have its challenges but underestimated to what extent. Our phones were taken off us for the duration of the summer and given back to us on our weekly day off. This attempts to create the perfect camp environment through banning phones, resulted in an undercurrent of hostility and distrust between senior staff and councillors. Disconnected thus from the outside world, a suffocating microcosm was created. The strict curfews, lack of personal space and sleep deprivation meant summoning a sort of energy I didn’t know existed. Even a quiet moment to shower would be disrupted by a small voice demanding attention. Working in this environment pushed me to every possible limit of patience.
Living in a small space with twelve campers and three other councillors meant ordinary boundaries were broken down at a rapid speed. You become incredibly close with some councillors, forming friendships that allow you to laugh at the bizarre circumstances you have voluntarily placed yourselves in. At other times, this living arrangement caused an undercurrent of tension and hostility bound to come crashing to the surface. Valiantly keeping the peace meant speaking honestly about our relationships with one another – something that can more easily be masked and hidden among work colleagues in an ordinary nine to five job.
One thing I did not prepare myself for was visiting day. Five weeks of psychoanalysing the behaviour of each child before I went to sleep and my questions were suddenly answered as soon as the swarm of parents approached. Hugs were quickly exchanged before the gifts were presented. New polarized Ray-bans, Timberland boots and Nike trainers. Followed by pad-thai from their daughter’s favourite restaurant, sushi on ice, rainbow bagels and smoked salmon, crates of Fiji water, gourmet cupcakes and candy buckets the size of their small bodies. The guilt of leaving their children for the whole summer disguised by logos and cold, squashed food from New York’s finest takeaways and delis.
Each parent’s competitive gift giving left some of the councillors feeling a little heart broken. Behind the gleaming smiles as presents were unwrapped then quickly discarded for the next, the girls were craving attention and love. The sniffles at night, the clasping of clammy small hands in the day and the constant braiding of hair clearly highlighted this fact. Behind the material possessions, these little girls needed some extra love and I was more than happy to fill this void.