Once a year, young folk are faced with the challenge of finding a summer job, and the last two loops round the sun, I’ve tackled that challenge by being a camp counselor at Stanford, where I spent six weeks nurturing and supposedly educating forty kids whose parents paid thousands of dollars for them to spend their summers sitting in stuffy lecture halls taking college-level classes because they desperately want their children to be accepted to an elite university. And let me tell you, the whole experience is…well, really fun, actually! The kids are all smarter than I am, they’re full of energy and fun to talk to, and most importantly, they’re the perfect dodgeball fodder for my three-time-intramural-champion rocket of an arm.
But it’s not all fun and games at Stanford camp. Well, it is for the counselors, but with the kids, it’s nose to the grindstone from dawn till sort of a late eveningish hour. There’s a highly varied breakfast of pre-packaged pancakes, tater tots, and surprise sausage, which comes in exciting circular and cylindrical varieties depending on the day, then three straight hours of lecture which the counselors get to sleep through. Then lunch, three hours of study session (which I ruthlessly command), and finally a bit of free time to do tomorrow’s reading before lights out, at which point the counselors absolutely do not immediately begin to booze heavily, sneak into faculty hot tubs, or play spin the bottle, because those things would be against the rules laid out in the often-read and ever-cited handbook. All told, the amount of work we put in is about half that of the students, and we’re paid to be there. Who’s the smart one now, poindexters?
But there’s one day each summer that is worse for us than it is for the kids, one day on which we earn all the minimum wage scrill they throw at us, and that’s Arrival Day. We wake up at the ungodly hour of six a.m. and drive to San Francisco International Airport, where, over the course of 8 hours and scores of flights, around seven hundred children ages eleven to seventeen spill out of every terminal all across the airport and run amok. They weave in and out of a roiling sea of adults, cackling as they sneak past us, and all we can do is stand there, ineffectively raising tiny, handheld signs welcoming them to camp, hoping against hope that our charges will notice. It’s very stressful.
To make the experience more bearable, I invent dances which I sync up with the various announcements. I get down and dirty with the “Please do not leave your luggage unattended. Unattended baggage may be confiscated and searched.” That one’s got a lot of head tosses. If I’m in the mood for some more thrusts and shimmies, I go for the “This is a loading zone only. There is no stopping at any time. Repeat. This is a loading zone only…” It’s got such a good flow to it. I could never write that stuff.
Anyway, my dance moves get me a lot of weird looks from angry airport-goers, the type so fed up with the annoyances of regular travel that any modicum of joy sends them into an apoplectic rage.
I’m a lot more successful when I whip out the sexy-model turn and lock eyes with a stranger. Caught off-guard by my unexpected attention, I have them in my grasp for but a moment, during which I flash the camp sign and give them my most longing and hopeful look.
Then they either respond with an embarrassed Zoidberg scuttle in the opposite direction or say something like “Summer camps are such a delight,” or, “Isn’t that the camp where blind kids learn to read Braille?”
Rather than trying to puzzle out why we’d attempt to catch blind children’s attention with signs, I told her that yes, it was indeed that camp. She was very supportive.
Despite my heroic, deeply shaming efforts, the kids don’t pay the slightest attention. One moment I’m ready to snag a gaggle of children (snaggle!), and the next, all the passengers have disembarked and we’ve only located two of the thirty kids from that flight.
How does this happen?! We’re supposed to keep these kids safe. The moment they step off that plane, we’re their legal guardians, but before the race to prove I’m mature enough to hold down a job has even begun, I’ve dropped the fragile, child-laden baton. So now I’m sprinting up and down the baggage claim area, shouting at the top of my lungs for little kids, all the while doing my best to shrug off the looks of horror from airport patrons shocked that someone would be so brazen. After twenty minutes of extremely loud and less-than-tactful shouting, this one woman (just arrived on the scene), asks her elderly mother (who’s been watching me intently the entire time), “What is he doing?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she says, comfortingly. “He’s just looking for little boys.”
And before I can control what’s coming out of my mouth, I say excitedly, “And girls!” No filter. Both women shake their heads in mingled shame and terror but thankfully refrain from calling airport security.
I manage to wrangle about six small children, including this one 11-year-old girl who’d been completely lost and traumatized. She’d gotten on a different flight than we were expecting and had been wandering the airport for hours, nerves fraying like the ropes of that bridge that’s always situated over an unthinkably deep chasm. And no matter how much I cajole her with my charm, balloon animals, improvised reproductions of Richard III, or unlabeled candy, she refuses to speak to me. I swear I’m being friendly, but who knows what’s going through her head.
I somehow manage to gain enough control of my six energetic devils to herd them over to the predetermined meeting place. There’s a father there with his daughter, and he strikes up a conversation with me. Turns out his daughter’s taking creative writing, and because of my special mental condition that prevents me from ever learning from past experiences, I say, “That’s great! She’ll spend her summer rooming with me then.” Maybe word spread that I’d been on the prowl for little girls, or maybe the dad just didn’t like the looks of me, but he gives me a glare that could stop a tidal wave, and as I fumble for words—“No wait. I mean, that’s not—I’m a counselor,”—he protectively places his arm around his daughter’s shoulders and walks away.
My first day interacting with the kids and already I’d made a huge blunder. If he complained to my boss, I could be in serious trouble. I needed this job. It was the first step in the grueling process of doing things I could actually put on a résumé, unlike Dungeons and Dragons club, and an English degree and, well, you remember the zombie hunter fiasco. So I’m standing there, pitying myself, when little Ms. Silence pipes up.
“Next time,” she says, speaking with the confident, innocent logic only an 11-year-old can muster, “you could probably handle that better.”