Playing Mom for a Month

Postcard from Denver

DENVER—If there is one lesson from my youth that has haunted me this summer, it’s that Mom is always right. And no matter how old I get, I keep trying and failing to prove her wrong. She told me once, “Someday you’ll have kids of your own who will torment you.” When I was younger I could laugh away the prophecy; this summer I am living it.

Being a camp counselor puts one in a curious position, particularly with a group of middle schoolers. They very quickly identify and exploit every minor fault and weakness you have. You are under pressure 24 hours a day to be a friend and a confidante while simultaneously filling in as a surrogate parent. Each day you find yourself carefully navigating along the very delicate line between being the authority figure and being the buddy.

The good counselors, like good parents, do it with style.

It’s not that my kids torment me—that would be too strong a word—it’s more like they try to make my life as difficult as possible. Every decision is questioned, and every activity, no matter how much fun, is grounds for moaning and criticism. Why can’t we do long jumps over the coffee tables in the lobby? Why can’t we buy swords at the Renaissance Festival? Do you have to punish me for starting a food fight in the cafeteria? Why do we have to go to bed? Why can’t we hold our breaths until we pass out? I’ve decided that some sick individual must go around America sucking out all the common sense from teenage brains and hiding it in a vault somewhere underground in Montana until sometime, well, sometime after college.

Of course, there’s no hiding the fact that I am not as wise and infallible as the Mom of my youth. And as much as I loathe the fact that my kids will endlessly question and test every decision I make, I know very well where it comes from. I was painfully—and I mean this quite literally—reminded of my own adolescent tendencies just a week before I arrived in Denver. I was visiting my mom in San Francisco when I went outdoors for the day without sunscreen. She had reminded me, as usual, before I left that morning: “You’re going to get burnt if you don’t wear any sunscreen.” And I had walked out the door, shrugged my shoulders, and thought: “San Francisco is foggy and cold; I’ll be fine.”


I spent the following week and half with a bright, red blistering nose. It was rather embarrassing when I arrived in Denver for counselor training, looking like Rudolph. When we talked about reminding the kids to wear sunscreen, I sheepishly hung my head in shame. Every time I looked in the mirror I was reminded of the cold hard fact that Mom is always right and I still had much to learn.

Last weekend, one of my campers got terribly sunburned at the Renaissance Festival despite my persistent pleas to wear sunscreen. I had even given him a bottle to use. Why he chose to ignore me, why I chose to ignore my mom, is one of those mysteries of adolescence.

But certainly not all of their tormenting is intentional. For instance, on the third night, one of my campers was sleepwalking at 3 a.m. and locked himself out of his room. His roommate turned out to be the heaviest sleeping kid—ever. It took 20 minutes of pounding on the door before he woke up. I never knew I could be so patient.

A few nights later at 1 a.m., a water balloon launched from a frat house across the street shattered the window of another camper’s room. Fortunately no one was injured, but we had to move the kids to a different room on a different floor until the window could be repaired—in the middle of the night. Campus police were powerless because the frat house was situated just outside the border of University property. Again my patience surprised me.

And then late last week, bottles were being dropped from five floors above our kids’ rooms. Two of my campers—the same kids who had woken me up at the crack of dawn with electric guitars—came running from their rooms. I never knew how it would feel having kids run to me in the night, calling my name.

Today is my day off. I never fully appreciated the value of having a day to myself each week until I began work as a counselor. I don’t even leave campus on my days off (I don’t have a car anyway); that’s not important. What is important is simply that the huge weight of being responsible for the well being of other people’s children is temporarily lifted. Yet in that one day a week, the only time I have to myself, I keep thinking about my campers, even worrying about them. Who knew I’d find such satisfaction in being depended upon?

Only Mom, I guess. I think I’ll go call her and thank her.

Benjamin J. Toff ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. He has recently earned the nickname Benito Mussolini from his campers for his dictatorial discipline enforcement, although on his days off, he can be found fearfully hiding from them in dark corners of the University of Denver campus.