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License to Aide
They all look up at me with a somewhat predatory gleam in their 2nd grade eyes. I was a rookie, a novice, a terrified twelve year old fresh from Program Aide training, frozen under the distinct and unwavering gaze of my charges.
“Your name!” came an urgent whisper shout from behind me, a voice that could only belong to my fellow counselor, Annie. One year older, and one year more experienced, Annie was my life line here, and my best friend. “Hello!” I said, my voice sounding completely unlike myself. “My name is Kirst,” and that was all I managed before being silenced by a sharp kick to the ankle. Again, my savior was Annie. Real names were like secret identities for counselors at Franktown Day Camp, my summer wonder week ever since my first July as a seven year old. “My name is Izze!” I blurted out, quickly relaying the name I had been dubbed after a severe hyperactive reaction to a pink grapefruit Izze at training. So here I was, Izze, the great with kids’ counselor that masked the girl who could barely survive four hours of babysitting without several urges to strangle a child despite legal implications. Somehow, it was different when I was Izze though, almost like two completely separate people. Not quite multiple personality disorder, but more of how when I saw my girls in the morning I put on a genuine smile even if I had a pounding head ache, an empty stomach, and a dire need for coffee.
After the name trauma, I began to lead the girls in a craft, noticing they were looking less predatory by the second. Yet not five minutes later I was having to deal with a full on kicking-dirt-and-screaming-way-too-many-expletives-for-a-seven-year-old-too-know tantrum. I guess taking it easy on the new girl was out of the question, I thought, as I received a face full of dirt at the hands of the child.
“Deal with her!” mouthed Annie, as she attempted to divert attention away from Little Miss Temperamental, and back to the incredibly intriguing bird feeder demonstration. Sure, hand over the emotionally unstable seven year old to the twelve year old who minutes ago was filled with name forgetting terror, I thought, real smart Annie. But despite my protests, she had seniority. So I was to deal with what I then thought of as Satan and a horror movie cheerleader’s love child. Satan for the evil, the horror movie cheerleader for her inhuman ability to scream for unbearably long periods of time without a breath. With my best adult-like composure, I gave my all to steering/dragging the girl away from the others, who were engrossed with Annie rolling a pinecone in peanut butter. When at a safe disciplinary distance, I recalled all my elementary school teachers lectures and channeling them, began with the “Your behavior is unacceptable” and ended with the “I’m trying to be your friend here”. Somewhere along the way, the girl’s eye rolls and crossed arms morphed into quivering lips and rapidly blinking eyes. Then all at once, the tears began to flow, and speaking in the gasps-between-sobs type voice that is barely audible with a second grader lisp, the explanation came.
Her name was Jenny, and she had been having a really bad day. Today, before she was dropped off at camp this morning, her mom had left for a two week long business trip. She hadn’t said goodbye, instead she yelled at Jenny for not making her bed and brushing her teeth. Jenny’s best friend, Sarah, was hanging out more and more with the new girl on her block, Molly. Jenny’s dad was making Brussels sprouts tonight, her least favorite food.
It was right about then that I realized, as a counselor even the simplest seven year old woes needed to be treated delicately. Jenny may not have realized then that her mom was going to call that night to say “goodnight and I love you”, as all mothers never fail to do. Jenny didn’t know that friendships don’t end when others begin. Jenny never could have foreseen the day when she would wake up and start eating her vegetables, no complaints. All these things she would need to learn on her own, and it wasn’t my place to teach her. It was my place to make sure she smiled and laughed like any seven year old should at camp. All this I realized while hugging a crying camper who was tear staining my shirt.
All cried out, Jenny stood, a shadow of her tantrum struck self minutes before. After giving Jenny a few awkward post-crying comfort pats on the head, she went to go make her bird feeder. And after I regained my composure, I followed. It wasn’t until ten minutes later though, when we were assured all was well in our kingdom, that Annie pulled me to the side. I explained about Jenny’s tough breakdown.
“What did you do to set her off?” she asked gently, not blaming me, knowing that anything could have done it; she simply wanted to know what triggered the tantrum.
“I gave her green yarn for her bird feeder. She wanted pink.” I said in pseudo horror and mock wide eyes. Luckily, Annie got the joke.
“Well now you know, my young apprentice, now you know.” Annie concluded solemnly, and with that we burst into laughter, needing desperately to find the hilarity of the moment if we were to survive the day, survive the week.
Minute catastrophes occurred every time we turned around at Franktown, and it took this laugh-at-the-disaster training to keep on going. We were taught in a way that made it possible to go get the Band-Aid for the girl with the fear of blood’s paper cut, then run the wagon the mile to the barn for water, and still be back in time all to help run snack around to all the units- smiling (and panting) all the way. It was exhausting, frustrating, and the best part of my summers ever since 2007.