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Faking it with confidence: the art of being a camp counselor and an adult

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: Opinions


As children, our parents and other adults know everything. They’re our source of information, telling us why the sky is blue and the difference between boys and girls. As soon as they became parents, they must have gotten a manual called “The Answer to Everything.”

Three summers ago, I realized that my parents had been faking it. They were smart but they definitely didn’t know the answer to everything.

I was a camp counselor, only four years older than my campers, but almost immediately I was the all-knowing adult. I controlled their day: the programs they did, what time they ate, when they went to bed. I remembered being their age. My counselors were so old, so cool, so smart. With more life experience, they always had the answers. Suddenly, that was me.

One night it was my turn to stay up and keep an eye on our campers in case of an emergency. I was sitting on the porch listening to my iPod hoping for a quiet night when Zoe* came out. Zoe was one of my favorites. She was always smiling and could always make everyone around her smile, which is why I was surprised when her brow was furrowed. It was obvious something was wrong. She sat down with me and told me that she was worried about one of her friends, another of my campers. Jenny* hadn’t been eating much, and what she did eat she threw up, blaming it on her lactose intolerance.

Being a camp counselor is great preparation for being an adult, complete with a catchphrase for every situation. You spend all your waking hours pretending you know exactly what’s going on (“you’ll find out after lunch”), fixing boo-boos (“drink some water and take deep breaths”) and giving life advice (“ignore boys … camp is about your friends and it’s too short to worry”). Zoe’s concerns, however, caught me completely off guard. It was something I’d never dealt with and I had absolutely no idea what to tell her.

I comforted Zoe, trying to think of what I would want to hear if I were in her position, and gave her some of the advice I remembered from every time I had been told what to do in her situation. I told her to make sure Jenny knew she was there for her, and to encourage her to eat and feel comfortable with food, but not force her or criticize her.

The truth was that I had no idea if anything I said was right or would make a difference. That terrified me.

Looking at Zoe’s face as I spoke to her made me realize what it must be like to be an adult. She trusted me, and thought I knew exactly what to say.

I didn’t know what to tell Zoe but I think I did just fine. There was no right thing to say, but I made her feel better and, with the help of other counselors, I helped Jenny. We just needed to remember that we might not have known what to do but we needed to try. After discovering that there was a link between her not eating and her new boyfriend, we tried to keep them apart at meals. My co-counselor had a long talk with her about the importance of staying well-nourished, especially at camp, because we are constantly running around in the sun.

By the end of the summer, Jenny and her boyfriend had broken up and her eating had gotten much better. We were proud of ourselves for helping and had all learned how to deal with similar issues in the future.

I also learned something very valuable about life. You don’t need all the answers, just enough to fake it with enough confidence to fool everyone, even yourself.

*Names have been changed.