We all waited.
Myself, the other counselor and a group of 8 & 9 year old boys gathered in a circle.
It was cold outside and getting colder.
We had circled up because that was the method we used to sort out and resolve conflict.
We were waiting on one of the boys to communicate his understanding of his role in the conflict. He was choosing to hold the entire group hostage by not engaging.
Sometimes these huddle-ups could go on for an hour or more. They were designed in part to show how the choices we make impact others in the group and the group as a whole. New members of the group would realize the power they had and would weaponize the system to “get back” at someone or everyone.
After weeks of experiencing huddle-ups, these new members would realize their group hi-jacking efforts were futile. Except for the temporary abuse of power, they didn’t result in any true satisfaction. Over time, the campers would learn that engaging with their peers and facing the problems would lead to resolution and they would begin to actually express their truths more maturely.
I decided to apply for this "counselor" job because previous to that I sold insulation material to HVAC & Plumbing contractors and soft drinks to grocery stores. I sold history books and life insurance over the phone. I was a debt collector for a major car manufacturer for a week, a typesetter for a printing company for a few months and had begun the application process to become a Dallas Police Officer. I did go on a 2-3 month tour as part of a gymnastics show and that is what I really wanted to do but gigs like that were extremely rare and almost non-existent.
I wanted to do something that truly made a difference and I considered this meaningful work. I was helping young people figure out how to live in a world that they believed did not value them.
The camp was off the beaten path a little north of Tyler, TX. We lived in log cabins and made our own food on those occasions when we were huddled-up too long to make it to the cafeteria in time for meals. No matter the weather, we carried out our daily lives and huddled-up to sort out the conflicts. The campers attended classes for portions of the day and this gave the counselors a bit of time to do paperwork and catch up on personal stuff. The counselors worked on a rotating 5 day on, 2 day off schedule.
It was tough work but to be able to witness the transformation of a kid made it worthwhile.
Many of the problems these kids had were the result of adults neglecting them, abusing them, ignoring them, betraying them and more.
They needed supervision, guidance, tough love and a feeling of significance from adults that they could rely on and count on and trust. When they received this, it altered the trajectory of their lives.
After the first month, I settled into the schedule. I had given up my apartment so on my days off, I would drive down to Dallas and hang out and stay with friends and then drive back up and get back in the groove.
I loved doing the occasional flip or tumbling pass to entertain the boys but mostly we provided structure and safety and reliability. The other counselors had degrees in mostly the psychology or sociology realm and it could be argued that this job was what they went to school for. I have a bachelors in business marketing so I was a bit out of my element but in a way, wasn’t I selling these kids on the idea of their significance. I was using what little business experience I had combined with my classroom knowledge to persuade these kids to believe they mattered.
After 2-3 months, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on life outside of the camp. A concert that I didn’t have the day off to attend. A road trip with friends to Houston that I missed. A friend’s birthday dinner I had to hear about. I sucked it up, there’d be other concerts and road trips and birthdays. I had made a commitment to the organization that hired me and the kids who were there to be guided.
After 3-4 months I began to wonder if I had made a mistake when I originally counted the costs of taking on this position. I really missed being able to go here and go there. I was 23 years old and as much as I understood what leaving would mean to these boys it felt like life was passing me by. We have a way of convincing ourselves to do things that we know we shouldn’t do but that we really want to do. We stack the deck on the “pro” side and can only think of a reason or 2 to place on the “con” side and we don’t fully consider the weight of these reasons.
Around 4-5 months in, I got a message about a performance opportunity. A 10 day gig, tumbling in a 15-20 minute show 3 times a day. The gig would be starting in 3 weeks or so from that time but I needed to let them know ASAP so that arrangements could be made for travel and show creation.
I wish I could say that I turned down the tumbling gig and put my head down and continued to push through doing the job I had already committed to.
I left the camp job, flew out to California and began performing. Because I hadn’t been tumbling consistently, I was unable to perform for the full 10 days. I developed extreme shin splints that created inflammation so severe you could press a finger into the swollen part of my leg and within the fluid was so dense, it would leave an indention. This was after day 4 or 5. I toughed it out till day 7 when an EMT on staff suggested I take a break or suffer the consequences of something much more debilitating.
I flew back to TX with partial payment of the 10 day contract and explored some possible gigs, none of which I was able to get excited about. Without money, without an apartment and without a job, I headed back home to Denver and moved into my high school bedroom at my Aunt Rosie's house. For about 6 months after that I wallowed in guilt and fought massive doubt about knowing how to navigate life. I did some deep soul searching while working another telemarketing job.
I do not know for sure what effect my leaving the camp job had on the boys I abandoned. I did not give my supervisors at the camp adequate time to make adjustments before I left, so I was not allowed to say goodbye. I often wonder what happened to Kyle and Jay and one of the newer kids, Cedric, who had so much potential.
How did their lives turn out?
I will never know.
I had become just another adult who let them down.
I cannot help but make the connection between this experience and the message that I now share with students in the schools where we perform. When the opportunity presents itself, I remind students that they are 1 of a kind. I tell them that their rarity has value and gives them power. I encourage them to make it their mission to discover and take an inventory of their gifts, talents abilities and the combination of those things that makes them significant.
Then I encourage them to understand that they are uniquely equipped to do certain things and do them in a way that no one else can because no one else has exactly what they have and if they don’t do what this power has equipped them to do then the rest of the world misses out. I tell them that yes, their mission can change the world simply because if they don’t do what they are here to do, it will not get done.
I then look them straight in the eye and ask them if I can count on them to accept this mission
they respond "Yes!"