Confessions Of A Newbie Counselor

Camper-turned-counselor Barak Hagler, on left, with his bunk.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in October 2013.

I am a camper, simple as that. Those four words summarized my summers for the past six years. For one month every summer, since 2007, I’ve been at Camp Dora Golding (CDG) in Pocono Mountains, PA. Last summer though, when I was too old to be a camper and became a junior counselor instead, my summer was like none I’d had before. Growing up from camper to counselor was one wild ride full of transition and change. While I gained maturity, I learned that no matter how old you are, a successful counselor is a camper at heart.

I held my breath as the division head announced who got which age group, from oldest to youngest. He started with the middle school campers. That was OK, I wasn’t expecting the oldest campers anyway. When he announced the sixth grade counselors and I wasn’t called, I started to sweat. The fifth, third, and fourth grade divisions were left.

Eight bunks later, I heard my name called for Bunk Beis, the youngest division. I almost fainted. The junior division, campers entering fourth grade, is the least desirable. The campers are notorious for tales of homesickness, babyishness, and other ailments of little kids in sleepaway camp for the first time. My first counselor job and I’m stuck with the youngest bunk!

My fears waned after my brother, a former juniors’ counselor, told me that juniors weren’t really so bad. They were funny and very cute. The young kids looked up to their counselors and they also go to sleep the earliest. By then I was feeling downright optimistic that I had received the best division in camp, not the worst.

When the campers arrived, everything took a turn. I walked into my bunk and saw one thing: absolute chaos. Ten fourth-grade boys and all their luggage flung into every corner of the bunk, the whole place looked like it was ravaged by a hurricane of clothing, sports equipment and toiletries. I felt my optimism fade as quickly as it had arrived.
My counselor and I were tugged by little hands, “Help me… Where should I put this?” “Which cubby is mine?” “Can you make my bed?” It was hectic and I was feeling extremely overwhelmed. I never had any sort of responsibility even close to this; the most I’ve ever had was lead to lead Shabbos groups in shul. If not for my counselor reassuring me that the first day was always the worst, I would have bolted. But my first day worries were far from over.

On the first night of camp in CDG everyone gathers for a huge bonfire and dramatic storytelling topped off by a dazzling fireworks display. For the new campers it is one of the highlights of the summer, but for my campers it was a different story.

They decided they were too cool for the show and instead wanted to sit inside and play illumination with their flashlights against the bunk wall. All my persuasions fell flat and it hurt my pride. Until now, I blamed all my troubles on my inexperience, but here I couldn’t even get them to listen to me. It made me feel incompetent. Eventually I gave up, left them with a counselor, and headed to the bonfire alone.

I plopped down next to my brother and did the one thing I still could do to stay sane: I ranted to him and vented all my feelings. Then I started to tear and my throat dried up. I missed the comforts of home and my lack of responsibility. I felt ashamed and more like a homesick camper than a respected counselor.

After the fireworks, I steeled my exterior (even though I still felt miserable inside) and slowly trudged back to my bunk to get them to sleep. That was it. I collapsed on my bed and fell asleep that night almost in tears, wondering how I would ever last the month.

The first few days were torture, one of the longest and hardest stretches of days in my almost-16-year-old life. Around every corner was another unprecedented problem bringing me to the brink of tears. It was tough keeping it together, but I had to — you can’t let your campers see you cry. Whether it was getting them where they had to be, keeping them quiet during davening, seating them at the table during meals, or making sure everyone played fair on the field, everything was incredibly difficult. I felt sadness, anger and frustration at the difficulty of my job. I was in a terrible mood and filled with bitterness and angst for the first week.

But after the craziness of the first few days and one Shabbos, things started to move along a little faster and easier. The campers became used to the rhythm of each day and I started to get used to my responsibilities. My ability to cope with the daily push and pull of camp grew tremendously. First with me not tearing up at the drop of a hat and then evolving to my handling of issues alone, without needing my counselor for backup.

My confidence started to build and I went from meekly pushing them along to confidently telling them, with my counselor authority, what they needed to do and where they had to be. My relationship with my campers grew. I began to do fun things and extra activities with them instead of remaining an aloof, bossy superior. Everything started to click and with the budding new relationship between me and the campers, a mutual respect began to grow. I respected their individuality, flexed rules to fit what they needed and they respected my authority and listened to things I told them to do.

A big example of their growing respect was the shower schedule. Now it may not sound like much, but to a bunch of 10-year-old sleepaway campers, showering is the absolute last activity on their minds and it’s a real hassle getting them under the faucet. Although I had spats trying to coax my campers into the shower, they (mostly) respected my decision that they needed to shower and they even listened when I told them who was first to shower that night. (As much as they hated to shower, they hated being the first even more.) I let them go shower-less for a night if they promised to shower the next day, which led to them respecting my decisions even more.

With my days becoming easier, my nights became a time to relax with the other counselors instead of immediately dropping into my bed to snatch a few hours of sleep. I saw the advantages of having the youngest campers; they did go to sleep earlier than the rest of camp, at 9:30 p.m. as opposed to 10 p.m. and later. (Although my bunk was the last to go to sleep out of any junior bunks, no matter how hard we tried.) And they really are funny and kind of cute, in an innocent sort of way. Plus, you can make things up and they will still believe you. Telling a camper that one of his bunkmates had a jawbreaker garden growing under his pillow was an excellent stress reliever.

My problems eased from nerve-wracking panic attacks to inconveniences that made for excellent anecdotes later. (For all you squeamish readers I advise you to skip to the next paragraph.) One example was during a late-night staff appreciation party. Right before the event, I returned something to my bunk. When I got inside I was informed that one kid threw up. I was on my own. I thought it was a minor case, but boy, was I wrong. I won’t go into all the gruesome details, but basically the sick camper threw up on the railing that separated him from his neighbor’s bed and he felt feverish. I called my division head, who called the assistant head counselor and we shipped the camper to the infirmary, sealed his bed sheets in a plastic laundry bag, and cleaned up the regurgitated food. By the way, I had to clean up all the vomit armed with only Lysol wipes. I have to say, I have certainly done more pleasant things in my life.

By the end of the session my ability to care for children had grown and my temper had been tested and therefore lengthened. But above all, I gained maturity. I went from being the one scared of bugs to the only one who will kill the bugs, from the who throws up to the one cleaning it up, from the needing to be taken care of, to be giving the care needed; I went from being a camper to being a counselor. So yeah, I am a counselor. But don’t you think for one second that just because my camping days are done that I’m not a camper anymore. Trust me, if there’s one thing I learned it’s that sometimes, to be a good counselor, you have to be a camper again. 

You have to approach counselor-hood with excitement and an almost awe-like trepidation. You have to be pumped to be a counselor the same way campers are pumped to be campers. If you set a good example, campers will join you. You have to be enthusiastic about all the trips, activities, games, meals, even the boring stuff. If you, The Cool Counselor, are involved in everything as if you were a camper, your campers will end up following you, respecting you, and loving their summer.

So yes, I am a counselor. But I was, am, and always will be a camper at heart.