a stupid handshake + an enthusiastic high schooler

warning: lots of word vomit, lots of feelings, lots of commas, very little organization.

i was nine years old and at day camp. we had just finished swimming and were walking back to the pine forest. my towel was wrapped around my neck and my shoes were not fully on; they were squishing, filled with water that i had failed to dry off. i was walking backwards, facing my counselor—some high school senior boy whose name i don’t remember but i do know started with a ‘m’. i was making him do the same handshake with me, over and over and over again. i was incessant.

it was the handshake crush—the turtle—does in ‘finding nemo’. the one that goes ‘fin, noggin’, dude’. i loved it. i thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. it is the most hilarious thing in the world!

i have no doubt in my mind that my counselor was annoyed with my pestering. that a part of him dreaded each and every time he saw me running towards him to do a handshake made popular by animated turtles in a kid’s movie. and yet, he did it with me. every time. with so much excitement. his motions were big and silly and his delivery of the word ‘dude’ was truly impeccable.

this counselor—whoever he was, wherever he is now—made my nine-year-old self really happy. and really confident, too. because not only did he let me be weird—he celebrated my weirdness. he encouraged it, never letting me dim away or feel embarrassed. he met my level of enthusiasm for a handshake with more enthusiasm than i’d ever been shown before. about anything. and i’m so grateful for it.

as a camper, i struggled during a lot of my resident camp years. i was a loud and goofy teenager stuck in an anxiety-driven, insecure body. i was really intimidated by a lot of the social-y aspects of camp. the meeting new people every minute of everyday—it was overwhelming. it was scary. but i kept coming back, for my counselors.

year after year, my counselors saved me.

they saved me from little things, like forgetting an outfit for theme dinner [or not wanting to wear the one my mom packed me—sorry mom]. they saved me from the really big, seemingly unconquerable things.

one night during my torchbearer year, i got a headache. a bad one. i tried hard—i really did—to avoid taking ibuprofen. to fall back asleep. but that little brat was out to get me and i was left with two choices; ask for medicine or die. well i didn’t want to die because i was fifteen and at camp tecumseh, so i did something. something bold.

i woke up my counselor in the middle of the night. 

i fully expected my counselor to be very annoyed with me. because let’s be honest, being awoken in the night as a counselor sucks. it sucks so bad. you’re fast asleep, dreaming of chipotle and air conditioning, when you feel a nudge and a whisper. and a large part of your soul melts away—forever.

when i woke her up, if she was annoyed, she did a good job of hiding it. right away, she called the nurses to bring me medicine, which—now that i’ve been a counselor too—i realize was a very brave move. while we waited for the golf cart she sat with me in front of a fan and rubbed my back.

i remember this moment so well. it wasn’t a very happy circumstance; my head was pounding and it was three in the morning. but because of my counselor it’s one of my only prominent and clear memories i have as a torchbearer. [on a very unrelated but also possibly related note, is my memory really bad?]

this oh-so-tired counselor was the definition of selfless that night. small moments oftentimes have the biggest impact.

i was a cilt. my sister was a coordinator. a lot of people knew who i was. i knew who five people were. i felt excited and confused and i was struggling to figure out who i was as a camper and who i would be as a [hopeful] future counselor. it seems petty now because my sister was such a great counselor, but i really didn’t want to be compared to her. i wanted to be my own counselor—and whether i turned out to be a good one or bad one or not one at all—i wanted that to be based upon my actions, not madeleine’s. does that make sense?

one night, i talked to a counselor about this hesitancy. she totally got it. she had been in sort of the same position and she used her experience—however similar to mine—to empathize with me. to encourage me. to make me feel important. to remind me that i was my own person. that i could do really great things like my sister. not necessarily the same things, but great things nonetheless.

it was my cilt year and i had just recently been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. i was scared and ashamed and totally unsure of how to deal with my new doctors and my new therapist and this new part of my identity.

i’m not quite sure when i told my cilt group about my mental health stuff; i think it was in a devotion? it was probably in a devotion. but telling everyone is not what i remember. it’s the response i got from a counselor.

we were in the party room, hanging out after some activity. this counselor called me over to a corner of the room and very quickly told me that she struggled with anxiety and depression too. that she’d had it for a while and that she was still learning how to live life with it. how to be happy with it. she said that—if i wanted—we could talk about it later. and then she walked away. she didn’t draw attention, she didn’t make a big deal of it. but it was a big deal.

at first, i was pretty caught off guard. this person, this counselor who i respected and looked up to so much, was telling me that she was also struggling with the thing i was most ashamed of.

our conversations after that brief moment were so important to me. and still are. they let me be scared and vulnerable and honest and angry about this thing, this thing that was consuming me. they gave me a community, a resource, a friend.

i’m not totally sure what compelled me to write this post, now, today. i don’t know why i didn’t write it years ago, why i didn’t write it during all my summers at camp—when all of these experiences were actually happening to me. or why i didn’t write it last year, or the year before, when i was trying so desperately hard to be the counselor to my campers that mine had been to me.

i think that i’m talking about this now because, to me, these moments are camp tecumseh. so as i spend my first summer away from camp, sitting in a desk, missing camp more than i thought was possible, this is the stuff i think about.

i think about the counselors who made me feel like a superstar when i only ever saw myself as an audience member. about the people who sacrificed a lot—being a counselor is hard—to spend time with me; an awkward preteen so unsure of who she was. and not only did my counselors spend time with me, but they actively and passionately helped me become a better, more confident, happier person. that is so huge.

that is like the hugest thing you can do as a person.

i miss camp tecumseh every second of every day. i selfishly want to be there, to witness all the goodness and joyfulness that is happening. but you know what? i may not be there to witness the goodness firsthand, but i know the goodness is happening. i know it. as i type this, dozens and dozens of counselors are being to hundreds and hundreds of kiddos what my counselors were to me. and they probably don’t even realize it! that’s the crazy thing. they don’t even realize how important they are. how necessary they are. how loved they are.

if you’re reading this and you’re a counselor, you are so important, your work is so necessary, and you are so loved.


a former camper, a former counselor, camp tecumseh’s biggest fan


6 thoughts on “a stupid handshake + an enthusiastic high schooler”

  1. Abby, as a (now) former camper, this is truly perfect. You hit the nail on the head and I can honestly say, you were that counselor. I had you for sky walkers my torchbearer year week 1 and you were just so great. Your spirit and energy from a 9am clinic was superb and you should be so proud of how many people you truly impacted. Thank you. -Jarrod Knapper


    1. Hey Jarrod! Thanks so much for your kind words! Thank you for being so upbeat and positive no matter what camp threw at you; you were truly an example to all the other campers. Hope you’re having a great summer!


  2. This was so awesome. I can truly say Abby that you are one of those “stick out in my memory” kinda counselors. You made a difference and made me feel so comfortable and loved and feel like it’s okay to be myself. Even when I felt so not comfortable with who I was/am you helped me. You did it. You made a difference for me and made me feel loved. So thanks for being so awesome 🙂
    -Sarah Kennedy


    1. HI SARAH! Wow this message just made my whole day, my whole week, my whole year. I miss you and your laugh and heart so much. I’m so glad we got to be together last summer – I hope this summer’s been even more fun and great!


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