by Kathleen McDade
The first time my dad and grandfather took us fishing, only my brother caught a fish. When he pulled it out of the water, I was shocked to see Grandpa grab a piece of wood and knock the fish in the head. It bled out onto the rocks, with its eye staring at the sky.
A fish out of water is screwed. It’s not like a “fish out of water” sitcom. The fish doesn’t adapt to its new environment. It doesn’t do anything funny. It’s going to die, but it will flop around first, so if you plan to take it home and eat it, the easiest (I can’t say kindest) thing to do is to bash its brain in.
For a long time, I worked as a Girl Scout camp counselor. I started working at Camp Arrowhead right after I graduated from high school, and worked there off and on for seven years, eventually becoming the camp director. This was my natural environment, where I thrived on teaching campers to love living outdoors (even when they had to pee in a hole in the ground).
But eventually, it was time to leave. It wasn’t entirely my choice. We had a difficult summer my last year, understaffed and stressed the whole season. My immediate supervisor left before camp had finished, and I had conflicts with other Girl Scout council staff.
The next spring, I was told (off the record) that I might not be re-hired. I was devastated, partly because I was being thrown out of what I considered my home, and partly because I knew I hadn’t handled everything well the previous summer, and I felt badly about that.
However, I’d already been searching for jobs elsewhere, because my husband and I were thinking of moving to California. That same day, I was offered a job as assistant camp director at another camp.
It was a Girl Scout camp. I figured it wouldn’t be too different. I didn’t expect to be totally shut out.
The first day that the entire staff was in camp for training, we had groups of staff making the rounds of various areas to learn the routines. Each group was headed by a unit leader (these are the head counselors; there’s one for every group of campers).
I was at the dining hall when one group arrived for their orientation. A kitchen staff person was there to explain the procedures, but the unit leader started running through it herself (perhaps they’d done it that way in the past). The kitchen staffer looked uncomfortable and unsure of herself, so I spoke up. “Oh, sorry – I think Sally’s supposed to go through the procedures for you.” The unit leader looked surprised, and said, “Oh, sorry, go ahead.”
I didn’t think anything of it, but apparently after this all of the unit leaders got together and decided I was evil, because I had corrected the situation in front of the assistant unit leaders. Like, I was undermining the unit leader’s authority with that one comment.
The whole summer was like this. I couldn’t do anything right. And my mid-summer performance evaluation was like a kick in the chest. I got low marks for “being a good role model.”
That’s one thing I’d always gotten high marks and compliments for, even informally from other staff. But not here. Why? Because, feeling unappreciated and unwanted, I’d been spending my time moping around and avoiding people.
This was feedback I needed, even though it hurt. The camp director also wisely suggested that I help people with things that I was good at, and I started teaching songs and folk dances and helping out in the units more.
That got me through the rest of the summer, but I still never felt appreciated, except by a few people.
I was hired back for another summer, but for a variety of reasons things went even more poorly. At my final evaluation, the camp director gently told me that I wouldn’t be coming back next year. After a lot of struggling and gasping for oxygen, that part of my life was dead, and part of me wanted to die as well – but there was no one to bash me in the head.