Hi, my name is Daniel O’Brien, and I am a hiker, Escape Room–avoider, and author, but before all that, many years ago, I was a camp counselor. I worked at a summer camp in Old Bridge, New Jersey for several years, and I still look back on the experience with tremendous fondness. I got to mentor young kids and spend the whole day outside, and I learned a lot about responsibility at a pretty crucial time in my life, all while still having fun.
Probably the most important skill I learned was how to make sure the coolest kid at camp likes you. To be clear, this isn’t about impressing my peers, the other counselors who were all my age. That ship had sailed. There was nothing I could do to make them like me. (True story: Mike, who was the counselor for the eighth-grade boys, once said “Cool it, nerd” to me in front of both of our troops after I asked him if he was excited about the upcoming camp trip to the beach. Mike smoked cigarettes and played guitar. Mike was cool.)
Having already accepted the fact that I couldn’t get fellow 17-year-olds to think I’m a “bad butt,“ I made the smart and brave decision to focus my efforts on impressing the cooler members of the younger generation (which, in my opinion, is the future). Are you a counselor trying to impress Brandon, the coolest kid at your camp? Here’s everything I learned about making sure you will.
Find The Right Crowd
My first year as a camp counselor, the kid that stuck out to me the most was Jeremy. Quiet, shy, and awkward, Jeremy was different from the other kids. There was nothing physically wrong with Jeremy, he just wasn’t really built for sports, and unfortunately, “doing sports” seems like the only thing little boys all agree to do together. He wasn’t interested in soccer, he arched his back whenever he tried to shoot a basketball, and he had a bad habit of closing his eyes and stepping out of the box when he swung the bat in baseball. It didn’t help that a lot of the interests he did have—theater, books, science—weren’t shared by most of the other eight-year-old boys.
I knew Jeremy had a tough road ahead of him. I knew he was going to have trouble fitting in for years. I knew that he would eventually thrive, that he’d find his pack of like-minded weirdos who accept him and make him feel like less of a stranger for the first time in his life, but I also knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. There’s something really heartbreaking about seeing an eight-year-old kid and knowing, really knowing, that he wasn’t going to feel comfortable in his own skin until, at minimum, college. You’re on the road to self-love, Jeremy, but along the way, you’ll be teased, you’ll doubt yourself you’ll try to be a different person to fit in, and that won’t work, either. For years, the world is going to feel like a very lonely place.
It’s probably pretty obvious, but I saw a lot of myself in Jeremy.
Friday was the only day of the week where campers could wear whatever they want instead of their camp uniform, and I vividly remember Jeremy showing up, all smiles, with a NASA t-shirt that was clearly faded from love and overuse rather than the store-bought, trendy sort of faded.
I took one look at him and said in a voice loud enough for all the other campers to hear: “Holy fucking shit, I didn’t know we were holding elections for the Nerd Mayor of the Fucking Moon already! Everyone check out the Queen of Space over here. Newsflash, your highness: Space is for virgins, and all of the planets smell like ass. Oh, this just in—” and at this point, I did one of those krrssh radio sounds, like when someone is talking over a radio or whatever, “Krrssh, uhhhh, Houston, we have a problem, his name is Jeremy and he’s a stupid cock. Over. Krrssh.”
The Apollo 13 reference seemed lost on the kids, except Jeremy, but they mostly seemed to get what I was going for and could now add “crying publicly” to the growing list of reasons that Jeremy sucked. (Partial list of other items on that list: Thinks bugs are “neat,” once accidentally introduced himself as “Germy,” had asthma.)
The lesson: Don’t get dragged down! It’s fairly easy to spot which kids just aren’t going to thrive in summer camp, and it’s important to distance yourself from those kids pretty early on. Jeremy probably grew up and lived a very rich and fulfilling life. (I actually never followed up after he dropped out of camp that year. I think maybe he moved?) But I knew if I’d spent too much time with him and we ended up bonding, that would have been social suicide for me. The coolest kid in camp will not associate with you if he thinks you’re going to drag him down. That year, it was Kyle—man, Kyle was good at soccer, he was like … some famously good soccer player. I can’t name one. I never got into soccer. If you want to hitch your wagon to the Kyles and Brandons of the world, ditch the Jeremys!
Be “Cool” About the Rules
Quick story: When I was 19 and still a camp counselor, one of the cooler fourth-graders (Connor McCloud—he had those sneakers that light up and a name that made him sound like a Final Fantasy character) asked me if I would give him my car keys so he could drive around the parking lot for a little while. His reasoning was that if he started practicing early, he’d be the safest driver when it came time to actually getting his license.
“There’s no arguing with your logic,” I said, thumbing through the official camp rule book, “but the rules say I’m not supposed to give any of my personal belongings over to the campers.”
“But it’s summer time,” Connor explained. “It’s vacation.”
“Aw, little buddy,” I attempted to reason, “the rules don’t take a vacation.” (This was my mantra at the time.)
Connor walked off disappointed, but I still felt like I’d made the right decision until the next day, when I saw my car had been vandalized. Someone had taken red paint and written “Counselor Daniel Fucks Rules, Signed: Connor” on my windshield. Suffice it to say, the rest of that summer was a wash. I wasn’t going to get in the good graces of Connor or any of the other cool kids.
The lesson: Relax on the rules! Kids spend all year in school following different rules from different teachers. When they get home, they have a whole new set of rules imposed on them by their parents, and while it is your job as a counselor to also enforce rules, it’s important to know that you’re allowed to relax about the rules when it comes to summer camp and also that rules are for losers. (At least, that’s what Connor says.) Kids deserve a break from the rules, and as a counselor, you are uniquely positioned to give them that break, thereby letting them know that you’re “one of the rad ones.” After that year, I was less about following the rule book and more about letting kids do “whatever made them feel good.” It made me pretty popular! If the coolest kid in your camp wants to do something against the rules, just let them!
NEVER Let Any of the Kids See You Cry
I know, I know, this one sounds counter-intuitive because crying is a very brave thing to do. That was my philosophy, and that’s why in my second year as a counselor, when I felt a wave of the weepies coming on, I just let it happen and cried right there at arts and crafts. Some necessary backstory: I did a painting of a dog, who was a good boy like me, and the arts and crafts teacher gave all of the kids gold stars but not me, even though my painting was good (like me! Like the dog!) because “The stars are just for the campers.”
What if they told Neil Armstrong that the stars are just for campers? Then we’d never be friends with the moon!
That was enough for me. I let out a big cry, thinking the kids would appreciate my bravery. Boy, was I wrong. Kids can be very cruel, especially if they have a counselor that explicitly encourages cruelty if it feels good (see previous lesson). They laughed and laughed and laughed at me.
“Riddle me this,” I began. “If crying wasn’t cool,” I continued, “then why would they have Fonzie cry in that one episode of Happy Days where Richie almost dies?” I gloriously concluded.
If anyone in the crowd was saying “He’s right” or “Wow, that logic holds up,” I couldn’t hear them, because they were drowned out by the ones saying “Who is Fonzie?” and “More like Happy Gays” and “A friend almost dying and not getting a gold star are not equivalent things.” It took me weeks to overcome the unimaginative nicknames they came up with (“Daniel O’Cryin’,” “That Crying Idiot,” things like that). I never cried in that camp again.
The lesson: Find other places to cry! I mean, I obviously cried in that camp again, at least twice later in that same day. The trick is to find private places to cry, which I did often in toilets or during one of my “walkabouts.” (This is a game I invented where I left the kids alone to take care of themselves and then walked off into the woods to cry because a kid said a mean thing about my nose or face or because I was thinking about the part in “A Little Fall of Rain” where Eponine never gets to say the last “grow” and, oh, fuck me, here I go again, time for a walkabout.)
There you have it! If you follow these three simple lessons, you just might be lucky enough to have the coolest camper ask you to be their number one lackey. Enjoy your super cool future!