On the occasion of my fiftieth birthday, I contemplated the unthinkable: retirement. Not that I am anywhere near ready to conclude my career, but I now know what before I refused to acknowledge: Some day there will be no more kids for me to counsel, lead, or direct. Yikes.
When I speak in schools, something I do quite a bit of, I often tackle the subject of legacy — challenging kids to think about what they want to be remembered for when they have moved on to new places and new people. What is the reputation, the legacy, they want to leave behind?
In doing so, I quote from a column written by Brian McGrory (2001) in the Boston Globe:
In ten years, twenty years, maybe sooner, maybe later, some of your teachers or the guys who hang out at the diner are going to ask, "Hey, whatever happened to Johnny or Jennifer?" Start thinking today what you want that answer to be. The town gave you a lot. Give it some pride in return. I think you'll want them to say, "I hear Johnny or Jennifer is a really great father or mother or the best electrician in town or a terrific stockbroker or someone who took wonderful care of their ailing mother." I think you'll want that answer to be that he or she turned out to be one hell of a nice human being.
Because of my job, I've had the chance to meet US presidents and a few foreign leaders and countless senators and governors and congressmen and activists who you might often see on the TV news. But the most interesting people I've met are far from the most famous. Usually, they're just the people who love what they do and do it well. Usually, they're people who aren't afraid of failure because they know that failure breeds knowledge. So find something you love, whether it might be your job or a charity or your family or a hobby, then love it well. Let it bring out the passion. Push it. Grow with it. And it is then that you will give back to the world around you, and it is then that you will best represent your community and make it proud.
I guess what's good for the goose is good for the gander. It's my turn to think about the same thing.
My conclusion came to me not in a flash of contemplative brilliance, nor at the end of some meandering introspective exercise. Simply put, it came to me in an e-mail from a camper. Fitting, I suppose.
Seeking to capture some of what he had learned at camp to share with his peers, Matt, age seventeen, compiled a list of some of my oft-repeated "rules" to live by at camp, adding his own interpretation of their efficacy elsewhere. It made me realize, as so many have long before me, that there are important life lessons even in the smallest of teachable moments.
So, without further ado, here are some words of wisdom for all the campers I'll never meet. Maybe you can pass them along for me.
Never Walk Around Alone
"Never walk around alone" is an oft-repeated "rule" of mine, particularly when our kids are off campus, in Boston, on Nantucket, or wandering around the Barnstable County Fair. Prior to departure, I always ask the 165+ members of our teen leadership program, "What do you do if you see someone walking around alone?" They respond loudly, and in unison, "Invite them to join your group!"
And I actually witness this happening right before my eyes.
Of course, there is an obvious safety reason for this rule:
"Never walk around alone" is something I couldn't agree with more. With today's society and crime rates uncomfortably rising, there is no telling what could happen.
— Jimmy, sixteen
But there's also a sociability reason. I worry about the kids who spend days before such a trip wondering who they will walk around with — or more precisely, if they'll have someone to walk around with. This rule ensures healthy socialization and reduces the chance that a kid will feel left out. I contributed to a book called, Where Should I Sit at Lunch? — The Ultimate 24/7 Guide to Surviving the High School Years (Mosatche & Unger, 2006), which reflects a similar anxiety many kids feel.
This rule is part of being a good person. Think how you would feel if you were alone.
— Alicia, seventeen
Worst case scenario: You don't talk with whoever is tagging along. Best case scenario: You talk to someone you may not have spoken to in the past, leading to a new or stronger friendship.
— Jonah, seventeen
Leave Every Place Neater Than You Found It
Often being on the road at outside venues, this rule helps to maintain good relationships with facility owners/managers, many of whom are reluctant to have large groups of kids — especially teenagers — invade their space. I am often met with a dial tone when I explain to someone that I wish to bring four busloads of kids for an afternoon. But when we are successful, we almost always blow them away with good manners and a clean establishment when we leave. Of course, this is not the kids' favorite rule. Especially when I drag them off the buses to go back inside and clean some more, a directive that is often met with resistance: "But that's not our garbage!" To which I reply, "And who will know that?"
Here's what the kids say about the lasting lesson of leaving a place cleaner than they found it:
This saying has everything to do with respect. When you disrespect a place or house, you directly disrespect the family who lives there. No one wants to be with a disrespectful person, so the easiest way to leave a good impression is to leave it cleaner than you found it.
— Johnny, seventeen
It shows some kind of class (that's what my economics teacher told us). Besides, it's what a good guest should do. That is, if you want to be invited back!
— Ladina, sixteen
Because everyone has heard this quote a million times, it is obviously very relevant. Very rarely does a person go above and beyond. When they do, it does not go unnoticed. It has a 100 percent chance of improving someone else's day.
— Daniel, nineteen
People will always be willing to offer you a place to stay or loan you something a second time if you return it to them in better shape than when you got it.
— Andy, twenty-two
Do the Right Thing Even When No One Is Watching
This is one of my favorites because I think it speaks to the issue of character. It's about you and your campers demonstrating values you profess to hold and believe in. (Plus, sometimes people are watching when we think they aren't.)
This is part of moral conscience. Are you really a good person or do you just make good impressions? If you know what's right for you, you won't have any difficulty doing it, no matter who is watching you.
During a counseling course I teach at camp, I was talking about integrity and one of the kids asked me what integrity was. Good question. I was momentarily stumped, uncertain how to define it. After a bit of thought, I replied that, for me, integrity means getting up every day and doing my best to live my life according to the values I hold, even if sometimes I fail. I believe that doing the right thing even when no one is watching fits with that goal.
As the band The Fray (2005) sing, "Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same." This may be especially the case in your role at camp.
Being a good role model is not only about how you act around campers / future role models, but how you act when they're not watching. A genuine role model makes the same decision regardless of who may be watching. It's easy to put up a "role model façade," but being a genuine role model every minute of the day is even better.
It's important to do this for yourself, as well:
Stay true to yourself. Be yourself. Because it doesn't matter if there is an audience watching, it's still you.
— Briton, seventeen
Listen to your gut. If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't!
— John, twenty
And there is common gain for the common good when we always put our best foot forward.
You should help people because you want to, not because you'll get extra credit. If you see someone who is lost, help him find his way. Today, a lot of people just walk away and only care for their own stuff. But it is really important to help one another! We can't do everything alone.
Early Is On Time
If there is one mantra for which I am best known, it is probably this one. In its full form, it is "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable." These words of wisdom, like many that have preceded them, were born of necessity related to the herding of hundreds of kids and staff on trips off campus. You and I both know it only takes one individual to be late and everyone else suffers, running the risk of missing a departing boat, a lunch reservation, or the start of a show. Of course, also like some of the other gems articulated in this article, this one has practical implications in life.
This is a motto but also a rule that will be useful forever. Following this rule always ensures you will make a good impression on people.
This is a mantra that should be applied to every facet of our daily lives. Being early is not just a good habit to get into, but also an act of common courtesy that is expected. On the other hand, lateness without a valid excuse is the equivalent of saying "I don't care."
— Jackson, seventeen
This is a great saying to live your life by. As you grow up you begin to have very important meetings with people, which would be their first impression of you. If you show up late to the first meeting, you become unreliable for life. But if you show up early, your first impression will always be good.
For competitive jobs, you always need to show up for the interview early. Simply being on time is often frowned upon, and if you end up getting a job in the corporate world, late is an eternity.
Cheer on Your Friends, They Are Family
It would be hard to understate the value of supporting your friends, regardless of what their undertakings may be. That support, in the form of being a cheerleader for those close to you, pays huge dividends to them in terms of their self-confidence and feelings of connection to their peer group. It also will likely result in a boomerang of support for you in your daily life.
I refer to my camp kids as family, believing that promoting a family atmosphere will engender the kind of mutual support and non-judgmental interactions that define summer camp.
We are each other's best friends, and the support, affection, and love we demonstrate is the glue that holds together the unique and remarkable experience that gets created each summer.
The same way you want your own family members to be successful, a true friend wants his or her friends to be successful as well.
Our group was family, [so] this one is really important to me. Take the opportunity to get close with your friends . . . it's amazing what can happen.
The camp community is unlike any other group of people a person will encounter in life. Nowhere else will you be surrounded by hundreds of people who want to see you succeed and are genuinely happy for you when you do.
— Ben, twenty
And Ben's little brother Jonah provides the exclamation point, simply saying: 'Nuff said?
Be Kind to Those Who Love You
These words of wisdom follow the prior ones quite naturally, but provide a good reminder to us all about nurturing important relationships, as they are, by definition, fragile. Most people have lost friends by being careless with words or deeds, or simply by failing to acknowledge — through words or deeds — the significance of the friendship and what they get out of the love that is sent their way. The late author Leo Buscaglia (1985) (who shares my literary agent, Nancy Stauffer Cahoon) pointed out that loving another can be a risky proposition: "To love is to risk not being loved in return," he wrote. But, he also pointed out: "Risk is the key to change, for the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing." Indeed, as Oscar Wilde (1893) said, "Who, being loved, is poor?"
What do the kids say?
Chances are you've been irritable or abrasive at one point or another and they've been there with some Sour Patch Kids and a Dane Cook standup routine.
People say you never miss something until it is gone, but this saying prevents that from ever happening. If you treat people you love with respect and the same kindness with which they treat you, you will never lose anyone.
You should always be good to those who love and care for you. You don't get many of them and they're the greatest thing in life.
— Sammy, sixteen
You will never get more support from anybody than you will from someone who loves you. It's crucial not to take advantage of this. Please, be good to those who love you.
And last but not least . . .
Always Thank the Bus Driver
This is perhaps the simplest yet most easily forgotten of my camp "rules." How often do we see people, maybe especially kids, pile off a bus, or out of a van or car, and simply run away, slam the door, or otherwise ignore the person who just safely transported them to their destination? I know from my own summertime shuttling of campers to and fro how frustrating and disappointing it can be to be treated like a chauffeur rather than someone who took time to help kids get where they want to go.
A simple "thank you" conveys not only appreciation, but more importantly, respect — whether to the bus driver or the owner of the f leet. This reminder encourages young people, regardless of their station in life, to always respect and appreciate others.
Bus drivers are people who take extra precautions and get people to where they need to go. So as riders, we can at least say thank you. It might not mean a lot to you, but it'll mean a lot to the driver.
The proverb of thanking the bus driver is not only something you should do every once in a while, but every day. While every person may not be an actual bus driver, there are many people in our lives who help us get to where we need to go. Those people are bus drivers in their own way. It is those people that we cannot live without and those people that need to be thanked for their good deeds.
— Chris, seventeen
Etiquette! This is expected. It never hurts to say thanks.
And the boy who started it all?
Thanking the bus driver, and not only the bus driver, but the ferry crew, the waiter, the lifeguards, and all of the support people necessary to run programs is important. While it is rarely noticeable, the generation of such phenomenal karma, especially with large groups, allows for great accomplishments and fun times.
Buscaglia, L. (1985). Living, loving, and learning. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Fray, The. (2005). All at once. How to save a life [CD]. Bloomington, IN: Epic Records.
McGrory, B. (2001 June 27). Moving on, forever tied. Boston Globe. p. B1
Mosatche, H. S., and Unger, K. (2006). Where should I sit at lunch? — The ultimate 24/7 guide to surviving the high school years. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Wilde, O. (1893). A woman of no importance [Play].
Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., author of the book, Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex — What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman, CEO, and director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps. Stephen's columns appear in newspapers across the country. For more information about Stephen's work, visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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