When you work at a summer camp, the everyday can be extraordinary and the ordinary can be something to look forward to. The Directors at my camp describe our jobs repeatedly as the hardest ones we’ll ever love: these are long hours, carrying a huge responsibility and undertaken in an environment from which there is no escape. I take huge pride on the days when my students or colleagues take a leap forward, but it can take a phenomenal effort to get there.
By the time you reach a day off – on your hands and knees, crawling through the treacle that is exhaustion – sometimes you want nothing more than to stay in bed and let the hours slip by. Mostly, that feels like a waste, especially when the majority of the staff will pile onto a bus and follow their dreams to the nearest big city or amusement park.
Our first day off is a strange one: this time, we hadn’t even been in the US for a week when it fell. No campers had arrived, we weren’t flopped out in a tired heap, but we were armed with enormous shopping lists. As many camps do, ours takes us to the nearest retail park and abandons us for the day, which we then spend destroying the annual sales trends for Walmart and TGI Friday’s. It’s very much like Fresher’s Week when students first arrive at university, except perhaps a little more on the primary school end of the spectrum – many staff purchase items to jazz up their bunks, such as bunting, posters or brightly coloured gaffer tape. As a horseback instructor who lives in staff accommodation, my list included items such as a travel mug, water bottle, wellies and a torch.
We’re pretty lucky: as well as Walmart (which is an experience in itself: I come from a country where supermarkets position bug spray in just one location – Walmart gives you three options – and don’t stock guns – yes, you can buy weapons and ammunition at your local supermarket), there are a variety of other shops, plus the World’s Best Cinema. For the princely sum of $6, you can see a movie and fully recline in a leather chair which puts first class aeroplane seats to shame.
This year, two of my closest friends and I – being returnees and, therefore, professionals – divided and conquered: one bought movie tickets whilst two of us headed to Starbucks for coffees. We then went straight to the cinema to see Maleficent (spoiler alert: I liked that it turns the fairytale concept of a girl needing a man to save her around; I didn’t like the clear implication that women are only satisfied with their lives when they become a mother or mother-figure, though this is perhaps unsurprising from Angelina “feed the world” Jolie).
Having revelled in the ultimate comfort of the cinema, we made our way to Walmart – most staff had been and gone already, panic-purchasing all manner of rubbish they may not use. We made the most of our experience to find the most amusing items (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cycling helmets, which we of course tried on and wore posing for a selfie) and spend our dollars wisely (I ticked off almost every item on my list, from emergency breakfast foods to coffee machine filters).
With a trolley full of purchases, we trundled to a restaurant to enjoy the simplest of pleasures for the final time in almost two weeks: eating off re-usable plates and using metal cutlery (all of our tableware at camp is disposable). We were heavily indulged by a lovely server (my American friends will be proud to know I tipped him and the barman generously) before shoehorning ourselves and our bags onto the bus to head home.
We had a final day of semi-frantic preparations the following day, prior to the arrival of the first group of campers. This year, my department has an additional member of non-bunk staff (someone who lives in staff accommodation, rather than looking after campers 24/7), who happens to be one of my best friends. We’re roommates too, and have already gained a slight reputation for co-dependence (when a mutual friend spots one of us, we are no longer asked how we are, but where the other person is) and as well as sprucing up our department, we spent our final child-free day fluffing our nest at the bunk, ensuring that we’re as comfortable as possible once we get busy.
We’ll have seven days off throughout the next 12 weeks. Some will involve brilliant adventures, others will be about nothing more than making our own choice from a menu and consuming it with “proper” cutlery and a drink which isn’t water. Happiness is being an adult with the opportunity to choose whatever will make your day.