If you ever want to feel like you’re behind on pop culture, spend a summer with 10th graders. “You don’t know who Austin Mahone is?” “You didn’t give anyone your Snapchat password to keep up your streaks?” “You keep your Instagrams up even if they don’t get likes?”
My 15-year-old campers goggle at me. Though the age gap between us is narrow, as they waste no time reminding me, the three year difference puts me in a place where I can relate to them and yet still retain authority and maybe even a little wisdom.
Every time they pull out Tiger Beat Magazine, I can’t help but think about myself at 15.
Fifteen was a weird age. Constant fluctuation. I would feel so sure of myself and who I was for a moment, but the moment was always fleeting. A feeling would change or click and suddenly I would be really sure of something completely different. I wore a lot of cardigans. I was into peace signs, unironically. I inhabited my own world where I was happy but didn’t have anything about myself fully figured out yet.
With my campers, I’m simultaneously removed and wholly immersed in my own 15-year-old self. I remember the experience, but my memories are filtered through layers of rosy lenses and hazy transformations. There were a lot of changes between the second year of high school and the second year of college.
The girls are already laughing at me on the first night when I admit to them that I love inspirational quotes. I brush it off, a little jittery—as it turns out, the first night in charge of 15-year-olds is intimidating. The quotes and stories I share are completely unsubtle way of trying to give my campers advice. I leave them with a quote or two every time I take a day off, hoping if I overload them with cliché quips about positivity that maybe one or two will seep in.
My devotion to sharing life lessons with my campers is driven by a deeply rooted understanding that my own 15-year-old summer was one of intense personal growth. That year, I spent countless nights awake long after the rest of camp had fallen silent, lying in a single cot with my best friend as she whispered to me about something she’d barely opened up about before. She had struggled with an eating disorder for years, and as I learned about the challenges she had faced and continued to face, my entire understanding of the world I lived in expanded.
I felt heartbroken, protective, and enlightened at the same time—and I wasn’t alone in my sentiments. My rock through these weeks of hushed, emotional conversations was our counselor Abby. Abby joined in on our talks, became involved in a way that felt safe. She had an uncanny ability to make each of us feel individually loved and wholly supported, on days both good and bad. As I watched Abby handle everything that summer—from gripes about not wanting to swim in cold weather to the personal crisis of a serious eating disorder—I was amazed.
Abby’s positivity and grace under pressure made every day easier, better, happier. She made us smile through it all, and after being a camper in her cabin I went home with a deep, newfound appreciation for the power of a positive outlook. I was acutely changed.
Now, as I step into my own role as a counselor, how could I possibly have the same life-changing impact on my own campers? How could I emulate Abby in a way that feels organic, natural, personal?
The truth is, when I talk to my campers, I see myself. Nerves and enthusiasm and braces and all, I’ve been there.
Everyone wishes they could go back and give advice to their younger self. A pat on the shoulder, a knowing smile, an eye roll or two. With these girls, it’s like I can.
Love yourself. Don’t be defined by the way others see you. Wear sunscreen. Stop stressing about the boy who wrote you that letter. Cool it with the cardigans. You’ll figure it all out one way or another. And if you don’t? That’s OK too.
I hope that what I’m actually getting through to them is more understated than journal quotes doodled in Sharpie. I want to live in a way that lets me be a role model to them. I want them to know how much I care and I want them to find the complex, elusive joys of confidence and self-love that I always found at summer camp. I want to be an Abby to them, but I still want to be myself.
Halfway through the summer, I’m on the phone with my mom. “I’m not sure if I’m making an impact,” I tell her. How do you measure something like that? The girls are busy, running in and out of the cabin grabbing bathing suits and sneakers and sunglasses, friends to everyone and constantly in the middle of conversation. They are blurs of energy and movement. I feel grateful for the moments I’m able to capture with them.
Ultimately, this is the feeling I’m left with at the end of every day: gratitude. I’m grateful to them for being there, for spending time with me, for showing up. At that point, I was uncertain if I was getting through to them, but they were clearly getting through to me.
It wasn’t just that I was introduced to Austin Mahone, or took every quiz in Tiger Beat Magazine, or learned the optimal hour of the day to post on Instagram. My girls made me understand a new kind of love as they taught me how to put the wants and needs of others above my own.
The end of the summer comes in crescendo: building slowly until all of a sudden, in a tear-filled rush, it’s over. The last songs have been sung. The last laps in the lake have been swum. The last wood fires are burning to ash.
When my campers depart, trailing pillowcases and lacrosse sticks and sunscreen as they re-enter the real world, I open the notes they left for me.
The first one I open reads: “You make me feel so loved.”
Oh, good—she understood.
They continue: “I hope I’ll be like you when I’m older.” “Having you as my counselor made my summer.” “Thank you for always being there and supporting me.”
I’m touched and stunned and filled with love all at once. Somehow, in between the busy days and the journal quotes and the nights spent up late laughing, I got through to them. Giving them back to their hectic lives of after-school sports and SAT prep and 10th grade gossip isn’t easy, but I know that they’ve learned something deeper than any idiom I could ever throw at them. Their summer wasn’t my summer, but it was something better: their own unique development, special and exciting and eye-opening in its own right.
This realization is rewarding and humbling. I can’t help but feel as if somewhere in some time warp, my 15-year-old self is nodding and smiling. Maybe she got something out of all this too.