It was the summer of 2010. I can’t decide if that feels like a long time ago, or just yesterday. Anyway, I was making my debut as a camp counselor.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had never been to camp as a kid. It was a whole new world to me, yet I was the adult. I was the one who was supposed to be comfortable and lead the way. It took me a while to learn how to do that.
The first day of camp is the most hectic thing you can experience. There are a million things going on. Never mind the fact that you have 15 new faces in front of you and have to memorize all of them, basically immediately.
Then you have to remember their names and link it to their face, to their parent, to the information about them on a sheet of paper. All that needs to be done within about five minutes.
Then you have to make conversation with people who weren’t even born when you started high school. And then the day starts and the chaos extrapolates.
To say I was nervous would be an understatement.
I, along with two other counselors, oversaw a group of kids aged 4-5.
There was this one girl in my group – I won’t share her name – who came up to me as we were lining up to go to our first activity. She asked if she could walk with me. Of course I said yes.
All of a sudden, she put her tiny little hand in my hand.
At first, I felt uncomfortable. I had just come off a week of training where I was taught about “good touch, bad touch” and heard horror stories of how campers stretched the truth and got counselors fired.
I was standing there thinking, we haven’t gone to our first activity yet and this little girl is holding my hand. Is this weird? What’s the protocol?
I let go of her hand because I needed to write something down. As soon as I was done and my hand was down at my side, she reached for it again.
At that point I thought, this girl just wants to feel safe. That’s my job. That’s why I’m here.
To be honest, I was more nervous than she was. She was the most confident 5-year-old I’ve ever seen. And as crazy as it is to say, I don’t think I would’ve gotten through that first day if it weren’t for her.
Every time we went to a new activity, she came to hold my hand, and we walked together.
The next day, she was moved to a different group because her mom had requested that she be with her friend.
Every day for the next month that she was at camp, she’d walk in, come straight to give me a big hug, and then go to her group. Throughout the day, she’d come over during snack time or lunch, just to say hi.
I didn’t know how I would be as a camp counselor. One of my friends at the time texted me before camp started and said, “I can’t picture you working with kids at camp, at all.” That was a shot to my confidence.
But that little girl turned it all around and made me feel like I was meant to be there, and that I could make a positive impact.
I’ll never forget her.
* * *
I went for my first driving lesson on the same day that my post “I Miss School, Already” was featured by WordPress on what was then called, Freshly Pressed. Freshly Pressed is now called Discover.
Yeah, if you’re doing the math in your head, I didn’t go for my license until after I finished university. I’ve never really mentioned that on my blog. A part of me will always be embarrassed.
Oh no, Paul, don’t be embarrassed. Some people don’t go for their license until way later in life.
I know. That doesn’t make me feel any less embarrassed, though.
Anyway, as if driving around with an instructor for the first time isn’t hard enough, I couldn’t stop shaking. And that was all because my blog post had just been featured and a bunch of likes and comments were coming in.
It was the most attention my blog had ever received and I didn’t know how to handle it. Up until that point, if I got more than 10 views in a day, I was doing cartwheels. And now I was getting hundreds and hundreds of views.
My arms were no longer in my control. They were their own creatures that day. I couldn’t calm down.
My driving instructor and I formed a quick bond. He was twice my age but it never felt that way. Over the next few years, I’d call him and ask for some lessons before going for road tests.
We’d drive around for two hours just talking about anything and everything. The radio was rarely on, but if it was, it was always country music. He loved country music.
I never felt like a student. I mean, he would direct me and point out the things I was doing wrong, or could improve on, but we were friends.
I think of myself as someone who can get along with absolutely anyone. If we have a lot in common, it’ll be easy. If we don’t have a lot in common, for some reason it’ll probably be even easier. I don’t know why, but that’s how it works with me.
We would always talk about politics. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to politics with anyone else, other than a few comments. He told me “you know who” would be President long before anyone else ever suspected it.
After politics, he’d tell stories about his life. I’d tell stories. We’d laugh. We’d talk about TV shows. We’d talk about life.
He told me that life is like a movie. There is a start and there is an end. He said that we can’t skip ahead, or we won’t know how we got there. And we can’t go back because the movie will keep moving without us. We just have to be in the present and the rest will reveal itself in time.
That was a cool conversation.
When I finally got my full license and we said goodbye to each other for the final, it was definitely bittersweet, though we didn’t admit it.
I gave him a gift card to Tim Hortons (as any good Canadian would) and his face lit up. I thanked him for everything, shook his hand, and went on my way.
I’ll never forget him.
* * *
I lived in residence in all four of my years in university. If you don’t think that sounds like fun, then I probably shouldn’t tell you that I was on the non-alcoholic floor for all four years. I had the time of my life.
I don’t drink. I don’t have anything against people who do. It’s just something I don’t do.
Being in residence for four years let me get to know the cafeteria workers, and really appreciate everything they did for us. There was one in particular who stood out.
She was a cashier in the cafeteria. I can’t recall if we met during my second or third year. It doesn’t matter.
She always had a smile on her face. And as a student who had a lot on their plate (literally and figuratively), I appreciated her smile. Everyone who went in her line appreciated her smile.
In the cafeteria, they would have a display with two freshly made cookies in a pack. Oh my goodness, I can’t tell you how good they were. Needless to say, I got two cookies almost every day.
It got to the point where this cashier started calling me, “Paul, the Cookie Monster”. I’ve never been more satisfied with a nickname in my life. I would feel guilty if I didn’t have cookies on my tray because she’d say, “No cookies today?”.
I felt like I was breaking her heart.
By my 4th year, she was basically my mom away from mom. At one point, she told me I reminded her of her son, and that she thought of me as such.
One time, she tipped me off that the following day was going to be a snow day. She told me she had received an email from the administration, telling her to stay home.
Of course, the school doesn’t tell the students that it’s a snow day until the day of.
If I was having a bad day, she would see it on my face, and give me words of encouragement. I always went to her check-out line, even if other lines were shorter. It was never about paying for my food quickly, it was about sharing a dose of happiness and positivity.
Before Christmas, she gave me and my roommate ornaments with our names on them. I look back and wonder why I never got her anything. I should have. It’s my one regret. She had given me so much more than an ornament.
On my final day, she was my first goodbye in a long day of goodbyes. She held up her line just to give me a big hug.
She is one of the true heroes of that school. She took her small role and turned it into something greater. She touched my life and thousands of others.
I’ll never forget her.
* * *
We come across so many people over the course of our lives. People we sit next to in school. People we play sports with in the summer. Bloggers. Campers. Driving instructors. Cashiers.
Every friendship we have doesn’t last forever. Some do, the majority don’t. It’s just the way it is. And at one point, that really bothered me. I felt like I was being deserted at times, when really, life was just taking us in different directions.
Some friendships don’t exist beyond an Instagram notification and we have to be fine with that. Because in a small way, I think that shows that they still care, even if they don’t say it. We just know.
Going into this post, I wasn’t sure there was a common thread between the three people I wrote about. I realize there is.
They were all people who helped me feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. People who built up my confidence and never failed to put a smile on my face. Beyond that, they taught me a lot about myself and left a lasting impression.
So if you’re reading this, and you ever find yourself in a situation where you can share your knowledge, or make someone feel comfortable, or boost someone’s confidence with a compliment, or cheer someone up by smiling, do it.
Do it. Be their light. It could mean the world to them.
And they’ll never forget you, either.
Who has made an unforgettable impact on your life?