It’s a warm summer night. Cicadas drone outside. In my cabin, I’m completely asleep, stuffed into a sleeping bag. The room is silent but for a few rising breaths. A particularly nice dream I’m having fades into the background, and I’m groggily aware of a threatening presence standing next to the head of my cot.
I open my eyes slowly; the figure raises one hand high into the air. I’m barely awake- there’s a split second for me to process- and then the hand comes down, smacking me full force on the face.
“I gotta pee,” the figure says.
In the summer of 2017, I had the honor and privilege to work on the staff of a summer camp for kids aged 7-14. When I saw the internet ad, it seemed like fate. At my parents’ awful dinner parties, I was routinely assigned babysitting duty, keeping the younger children out of the adults’ hair. I didn’t mind. Why would I want to sit silently at a table, listening to the world’s driest conversation about loan financing, when I could be playing Cops and Robbers instead? I’m a kid person, with a fairly good work ethic and admittedly excellent patience. A summer camp job was a match made in heaven.
I signed up, made it through the vetting process and interview without too much trouble, and in three short months got a letter of employment: for four weeks of the summer, I would be working in the Firebird Village. I was ecstatic. Firebird campers were 7-9 years old, the youngest age group. They came without the pubescent horrors of Bugbear Village, and without the emotional baggage of the older Raindance campers. Plus, Firebird kids were the most fun.
My first week of camp came at the beginning of Session 2. Two rotations of campers had already come and gone before me, and everyone else seemed more in the loop than I did. I sat on the railing of my cabin’s porch, nervously awaiting something, anything. Thankfully, my cabin had one more staff member assigned to it. Tom was a veteran counselor of three years and just a generally cool dude, so I felt I could ask him for advice.
“You never know what you’re gonna get,” he said simply. “Give up and let it happen.” Surprisingly enough, this did not make me feel better.
Gabe, the Firebird Village director, my boss, came jogging down the hill with a clipboard and a cabin list. Gabe was usually all smiles, so when I saw the expression on his face, my stomach did flips.
“Just a heads up,” Gabe said. “You guys have a lot of bus kids. Good luck.” Tom took the list, and Gabe was gone.
‘Bus kids’ was a friendlier name for scholarship campers, or campers whose families didn’t have the money to pay for summer camp. Every year, a bus from the city delivers a swarm of kids to us. Most scholarship campers have never actually been camping, and are frequently uncomfortable with the great outdoors- a problem summer camp intends to fix. Through grants and donations, the administration pays for the kids to come spend a week in the woods, and then supplies them with sleeping bags, backpacks, and water bottles. It’s a wonderful program, and hundreds of kids get to come to camp each year who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
As much as everyone loves the program, there’s a bit of a stigma with bus kids. Of course, just like any other group of campers, there’s variation: plenty are model campers, easy to love. Some are well-intentioned troublemakers. The rest, however, were the stuff of legend. Whereas a normal camper could be a handful, a bus kid might be a bucketload.
My first cabin had three bus kids. There was Colten, who was far too smart for his own good. One night, he snuck food out of the dining hall to make a ‘raccoon trap’. Three days into his week, Gabe had to confiscate an iPhone 7 that he had stashed in his luggage. Colten was a planner, and it was hard to keep on top of him at all times.
David, on the other hand, was pretty easy to supervise, because on the first night he decided I was his favorite and wouldn’t be separated from me. David was a sweet kid, even if he had angry outbursts every now and then. He made me hold his hand as we walked around camp.
And Matthew… Matthew was a human disaster. For the five days I knew him, I was constantly amazed at how this living person functioned. He would scream without warning or provocation. Matthew, barely 4’5”, tried to fight every male counselor he saw. Matthew, who didn’t ever want to wear shoes. Matthew, who stole flashlights. Matthew, who ate rocks.
By dinner on the first night, I was ready to quit. There were seven kids in my cabin- three were completely average, two needed constant supervision, one wouldn’t detach himself from my leg, and one was Matthew. At dinner, he went to the salad bar and came back with twenty croutons and a puddle of ranch dressing that sloshed off the plate when he moved. Tom called it a ‘Matthew Salad.’ I called it upsetting.
That week was not a good week for anyone at camp. The two previous weeks had been a breeze, especially for the girls staff. That Monday, the bus dropped off nine problem campers into Firebird’s sister village, Kelpie. Even if it was bad on the male side of the cafeteria, I could see it was worse across the room. If Firebird was a knife-fight, Kelpie was Normandy. There was screaming, and crying, and a mysterious stain on the wall that was either raspberry vinaigrette or blood.
Hunkered down at my table, oscillating between bouts of dread and telling David not to smash his milks, I was faced with an uncomfortable reality. Is this what camp is always like? Do I have three more weeks of this?
That night, Colten locked me and another counsellor, Kendall, out of the cabin. He shouted out the window that we were threatening him with a gun, and then decided that Kendall and I were named “Gay #1” and “Gay #2”. I told myself that this was a nightmare, and when I woke up, I would be in Camp Rock, with Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas instead of Colten the reverse-hostage and Matthew salads. This didn’t happen.
The next day, during our hour off, the Firebird and Kelpie staff sat silently in the break room, totally shell-shocked. Nobody had expected this. Occasionally someone would break the silence, pipe up, and tell us a story about one of their demon campers. We would all moan agreement. Then it was noon again, and we headed back outside to try and do our jobs.
After the summer ended, Kelpie had a survey. It turns out that every staff member in Kelpie had broken down crying sometime during that horrific week. I have a feeling that, if we asked, Firebird would get a similar answer.
That evening, I was assigned Bedtime Meds duty, along with my friend Coop. Bedtime Meds was a nightly parade of campers who had medication they needed to take in the evening. Firebird had three campers that Coop and I shuttled to and from the nurse’s office: two angel campers, and, because karma is real and hates summer camp counselors, Matthew.
Getting to the nurse took long enough. Matthew walked in whatever direction he wanted to walk, and he absolutely refused to be stopped. Coop tried to corral him while I chilled with the two angels. I have to say: while I don’t necessarily condone it, you have to admire his commitment to individuality.
After doing several loops, our intrepid party made it to the nurse’s office. Everyone took their meds. The nurse gave me Advil, and we left. The night was looking up.
Halfway across a giant ballfield, Matthew stopped and turned to look back at us. “I’m peeing in fifteen seconds,” he said, completely deadpan.
“We’re, like, a hundred feet from the bathrooms. Can you hold it?” asked Coop.
“Fourteen,” said Matthew.
We did not make it to the bathroom in time, though we very much tried. In the end, we were about twenty feet short- Coop had picked up Matthew and started sprinting. As a last ditch effort, he set Matthew down in a thicket of trees and told him to go there. Matthew dutifully pantsed himself, and the rest of us- me, Coop, and the other two poor campers who were now twenty minutes late for lights out- looked at each other with a sense of resignation. What are you going to do?
I could tell a hundred Matthew stories, and I have. There were the times when Matthew wouldn’t walk past trees without putting one leaf from each tree in his mouth. There was the time Matthew faked an ankle sprain so he could go to the nurse’s office, where he stole the camp director’s walkie talkie. There was the time when he tried to run away and go home, and I had to chase him through the forest. I could talk about how Matthew always made me pick out his pants for him, and then how he wouldn’t let me leave when he got dressed because he didn’t want to be alone. I had to face the wall and hope that this wasn’t a HR violation.
Instead of all that, I’m going to talk about Matthew at the pool.
It was an especially warm day, so the whole village decided to go swimming. Tom and I marched our cabin down the hill, all the while breaking up kids who were fighting and taking the sharp sticks away from the kids who would use them to start fighting. If that week taught me anything, it was multitasking.
Across the field, I could spot the procession from Kelpie. It felt like it should be preceded by war horns- it had all the cadence of a raiding party. The screams were audible from all the way over here. Girls darted every which way, desperately trailed by counselors in pink shirts. By comparison, our parade looked absolutely serene- which is how I knew something was wrong.
Matthew was not trying to ruin anything, and he was wearing shoes. It had been hours since he last screamed. Weirdly enough, Matthew looked worried.
Any suspicions I had were confirmed when we got to the pool. All of the campers changed into their bathing suits, and Matthew into his basketball shorts (which was a point we thought it futile to argue about). As the kids got ready for their swim test, I spotted Matthew pacing wildly. Without his big hoodie on, I could see his tiny arms waving around, attached to a disproportionately broad stomach. I saw the thick line of scar tissue directly above Matthew’s heart, and I was reminded of just how little I actually knew about him.
As the whistle sounded, Matthew hit the water belly first and started thrashing. He disappeared in the fray of waving arms and kicking legs. When he finally appeared again, he was bobbing several feet behind them, gasping for air, trying as hard as he could not to slip under.
Matthew did not pass his swim test. When the lifeguards passed out swim necklaces, his was bright red- a unspoken symbol of shame. He would not be allowed out of the shallow end.
For the first time since he got here, Matthew started to cry. I looked at Tom in bewilderment. This is Matthew, who picks fights with staff members. Matthew, who steals radioes. Matthew, who seemed so belligerent, so invincible.
As hard as we tried, he refused to get in the pool. Along with with a crowd of other sympathetic counselors, we tried to talk Matthew into getting in, shallow end or not. I bribed him with piggy back rides. I gave him the Cheez-its I had in my backpack. Nothing would get him to budge. I knew Matthew was stubborn, but this was different. Before, he was defiant. Now, he seemed defeated.
Surprisingly enough, other kids who Matthew had spent all week terrorizing- David, Colten, the two angels from his Bedtime Meds run- all tried to cheer him up, asking him to come in the pool with them. David showed him his matching red necklace, but Matthew wouldn’t even look at it.
Through thick, hot tears, Matthew said, “I can’t swim.” And that was that.
I had no love for Matthew, I’m not ashamed to admit. He beat me, jumped on me, smacked me in the face. Matthew called me ‘Pimple Boy’ for two days when I got a tiny blemish on my chin. But I was still his counselor, and somehow, that meant enough to get me to keep trying. As disgustingly cliche as it sounds, maybe that’s what camp taught me: kids who are hard to love need it that much more.
I borrowed a yellow necklace and a green necklace from the lifeguards and clipped them on around his neck. It was a purely symbolic gesture, and I’m sure everyone knew that, but maybe when he had three necklaces he’d be less embarrassed by the red one.
I don’t know if that’s what did it, or maybe he was just done sitting, but finally Matthew stood up and climbed his way onto my back, taking advantage of the piggyback ride I had promised him. We went down the pool steps together. I crouched around the shallow end, trailing him around my neck like a cape, so he could feel like he was swimming. All the other counselors told me how much they wanted a turn with Matthew, making sure to be loud enough that he heard. I couldn’t see him behind my neck, but someone told me later that Matthew smiled the entire time.
When Matthew left, he didn’t seem like a different kid. He still screamed, he still ate leaves. Moments before the bus came, he was ramming his fingers in David’s ears. Even our goodbye was a little anticlimactic- I told him that I had a good week with him (lie), and that I was going to miss him (lie?).
“Bye,” Matthew said, and then he boarded the bus without looking back.
As it pulled out of the parking lot, the kids waved out of the windows at the collection of staff who was here to show them off. They all shouted over each other, yelling about how much they’d miss camp and how excited they were to come back.
Maybe he was copying the other kids, or maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Matthew’s head popped up in an empty window.
“See you next summer,” he yelled at me. And for whatever reason, I hope he meant it.
Hank Wahl is an author from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is probably the least interesting thing about him. He is also a chicken enthusiast and is trying to assemble the world’s first chicken dance team. It’s not going so well.