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A Letter To Maddie's Camp Counselor

Dear Camp Counselor of Maddie’s Day Camp:

Last Friday as Maddie was finishing her breakfast on the last morning of her week-long school-sponsored day camp, she said, “Mom, can you set up a playdate with one of my counselors?” Turns out she had so much fun with her over the week that she wanted to keep the new friendship going. I explained that older girls wouldn’t come over for a play date, but as a babysitter, to which Maddie responded, “Then the next time you go out, will you call her to be my babysitter?”

“I’ll look into it,” I said, then added, “How will I know which camp counselor to ask? You have two of them!”

“Oh, it’s easy,” Maddie replied. “I want you to invite the one who likes kids, not the other one.”

Have you guessed, Camp Counselor? You are the “other one”.

When pressed to elaborate, Maddie said, “It’s just that the other cam p counselor is really harsh. I mean, not like Mommy harsh, but REALLY harsh. And I don’t think she likes kids very much – she never smiles or laughs unless she’s talking to other teenagers. And I get the feeling that all the questions we ask her are really stupid. Even though I try not to ask dumb questions, Mom, I promise! Maybe,” Maddie reflected finally, struggling to be generous, “maybe she just really needed the money. Or maybe it was the only job she could get, even though it’s with kids. Or maybe they didn’t tell her ahead of time that she’d be working with kids.”

That final morning I dropped Maddie off to find her table busy building houses of cards. I went to where you were sitting with the “nice” counselor, ready to sign Maddie in. While the other counselor greeted the kids and accepted parental sign-ins, you were sitting at a table busily making a house of cards of your own, even though it appeared that this exercise was actually for the children and not the people who worked there. From what I could see of the other tables.

“Grr!” you said in frustration. “Every time I get five or six stacked someone JIGGLES THE TABLE!” And then you glared accusingly at the seven-year-olds, who stared back cowed and apologetic. You started again. Maddie, breathless with fascination, leaned in to watch as I walked towards the door. I turned around in time to see your cards once again tumbled and you yelling at my daughter, “MADDIE! Go sit at the OTHER END of the table and make your own house! You’re messing me up!” As my daughter slunk off you rolled your eyes at your fellow camp counselor.

Let me tell ya, CC (may I call you CC for short, since you never in the entire week introduced yourself and I don’t know your name?) – if this had happened a few years ago I would have marched right over and sliced you to ribbons like a soup can under a Ginsu knife. And yes, I am that good at verbal attacks. But I have aged and mellowed over the past few years, and have learned the wisdom of walking away and speaking when calm. Or typing up that furious email, then sitting on it for twenty-four hours. That sort of thing. So I left.

I stewed the whole day, thinking about what I could say to you that would be accurate and instructive without crossing the line into abusive. Don’t you know that this is someone’s YOUNG CHILD you are working with for eight hours a day? Do you not know that these kids look up to you, with your driver’s license and your glittered flowers in your hair and your Bonnie Belle Lipsmackers in the coveted root beer flavor? Sure, Maddie can be a pest, constantly hanging onto the big girls in adoration, incessantly going off into a rambling monologue about a book she read on Lewis and Clark the night before and how they survived on tree bark for three days. Some days she drives ME crazy, and I’m her mother!

But here’s the deal – you never know the story behind any kid. You have no idea where they come from, and what a triumph it might be for them simply to get through a whole day without hitting another kid. A friend of mine has a seven-year-old battling a rare form of stage 4 cancer, and she said it was actually a relief when her daughter lost her hair to chemotherapy. “At last,” she said, “We’ve got a sign for the outside world to see – this child is fragile, please handle carefully. And not just my child – me too. When I take too long getting change out at the grocery store, please don’t yell at me – I’m almost as breakable as my daughter right now.”

This is what she has learned – that we are all fragile.

And this is why I did not say anything to you when I came to pick up my daughter on the last afternoon – though it would have been a challenge to do so if I’d wanted to, since you distanced yourself from the group and sat at the back with friends as the final slide show started. Because I don’t know your story at all, and you could be very well struggling just to put one foot in front of the other each day. Perhaps your parents are in the midst of a divorce and you are simply pissed at the whole world. Maybe your boyfriend is right now in Cancun and you’re stuck watching a bunch of brats because you got rejected from your first job at Starbucks for your lack of personality. I don’t know.

What I do know is that now that I am a mother I see the world differently. I see it as my duty to mother ALL kids, not just my own, and I know that somewhere behind your teenage body is a mother hovering, hoping I’ll treat her baby with kindness and gentleness. I wish I could have come up with a few sentences that would have opened your eyes to the reality in a gentle way, but I came up with nothing, and so the best I could do was stay silent. Perhaps a different mother would have found a way to stand up for her seven-year-old while still nurturing and affirming the teen in front of her. I don’t know.

What I do know is that we are all of us fragile. Perhaps that’s what I’d have wanted you to hear.

We are all of us fragile, so handle with care.


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