I quietly said goodbye to a part of my life last summer — the part that had Bridget in it for the past 13 years.
She first entered my world when she was an eager little kid in my fourth-grade classroom. Tiny Bridget immediately made a huge impression on me with her intelligence, organizational skills, and take-charge demeanor, all unusually advanced for a fourth grader. Without me ever asking, she noticed her classmates who needed a little extra help and simply started helping. They loved her for it. I loved her for it too.
After fourth grade, I "moved up" with the class and had Bridget again in fifth grade. Same song, second verse. Only better.
Then, starting the summer after sixth grade, Bridget attended the camp where I'm the director. I never thought she'd like it; figured her parents probably made her go. I was dead wrong. Bridget not only liked camp, she loved it! She came again the next year, and the next, and the next.
Eventually, Bridget became a "camper worker," our junior leadership position. She was a joy to have on the island. She made everyone laugh, she worked hard, aced the canoe trips, improved her skills, and, quite frankly, made us all wonder how we had ever gotten along without her. The island had a positive aura hanging over everything just because Bridget was here.
After high school graduation, Bridget became a guide-in-training. She was ready to move up in the ranks and quickly caught on to the thinking, good judgment, and mindset that makes for great leadership with youth. She challenged herself, was receptive to feedback, and made everyone around her better by setting a great example.
Then came college, and Bridget applied for one of our guide positions, leading teens on wilderness canoe trips. She showed her smarts, her compassion, her maturity, toughness, and wit. She became known for her love of bogs and often took the most difficult trips each session. She took pride in being able to motivate her campers to do things they thought they couldn't. She taught them determination as they portaged canoes and heavy packs, and again, they loved her for it. I did too.
Last spring, Bridget graduated from college. She felt a bit of pressure to go out and find a "real" job, but she also knew this might be her last chance to spend the summer at camp, her second home. To my utter delight, she decided the real world could wait. Bridget would be here at camp one more time.
The summer quickly flew by. Bridget led the staff with her humor and insight. She made up witty songs and chants that the rest of the staff and campers loved. They willingly followed her lead as she helped to meld her fellow guides into a tight unit of loyalty, love, and passion for working with kids. The kids noticed too. On our camper evaluations, when asked if they felt safe at camp, I repeatedly saw the phrase, "Yes. Bridget was here." I guess that explained everything.
After all these years, Bridget has become a kind of superhero to me. I envy her ability to bush-crash through the woods hefting an unwieldy canoe or the heaviest of packs, and to sink into boggy ooze with utter joy. I'm in awe of her natural tendency to see beauty where others see obstacles and hopelessness. I get goosebumps whenever I think of her knack for building confidence in kids and getting teenagers to laugh at themselves when they're wet, tired, and dirty. It takes a superhero to accomplish all that.
The day she left the island, Bridget and I shared a long, hard hug. We've shared a lot over the years. I think neither of us really wanted to let go, but it was time. Time for her to move forward and continue making the world a better place. Time for the old teacher to begin again.
Sometimes people leave a sweatshirt at camp, or a pair of shoes, or a flashlight. Sometimes they leave a piece of their heart while they sneak away with a piece of mine. I know I won't be quite the same without her here. Camp won't be quite the same either. But I know in many ways it'll be better simply because "Bridget was here."
Sue Lemm is the camp director at Laketrails Base Camp on Oak Island in Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of Laketrails Base Camp, Lake of the Woods, Oak Island, Minnesota.