To those who inspire children, they are always watching.
It took me almost five weeks of being a summer camp counselor to realize that I was actually having a real impact on the kids around camp. Five weeks. There were only two weeks left at camp before I recognized that my kids were learning from me all the time— both when I knew they were there, and when I didn’t.
That moment of realization was one of those that make you perk up in your seat and sit with better posture. It makes you want to dart your eyes back and forth to check if somebody is actually looking at you. For me, the moment I’m describing came on a typical, sunny Sunday morning.
I was sitting on a bench right outside my cabin enjoying the sunlight and all the relaxed attitude that Sunday mornings always bring to camp. The mornings are mostly free-time for everybody until we go to chapel— our all-camp gathering for inspiring words of the week. The other counselors were scattered about the quad playing chess, kan-jam, and reading amongst the boys.
A bit of commotion brought me out of my book onto a disagreement that had developed
between two campers on the basketball court. The two were in a light argument. Clearly, whatever that disagreement was, the two didn’t look like they were going to fight about it or lose a friend over it. It seemed appropriate to just let them resolve it themselves but keep an eye on the situation regardless.
The disagreement had dwindled after a minute or so, and one of the boys threw out his final ditch effort to convince the other that he was right. In an awful (but noteworthy) attempt at a thick, deep-Boston, street-hoodlum accent, one of the boys put his hands on his hips, puffed up his chest and squared up to the other. All he said was “Oh yeah? And who are you?”
Where had I heard that before? Was it in a movie? Did I know somebody from the streets of Boston who had said that to me? Was that just a popular thing to say?
It was me. I did that all the time.
It wasn’t an aggressive thing to say or do, it’s just a funny mannerism that I probably picked up from someone else. The disagreement was forgotten shortly after that— both of the boys laughed it off and kept playing.
I couldn’t forget, though, that the boy repeated exactly what I said and how I said it. Not only that, but he probably said it in a situation where I would be likely to say it. He mimicked me, he copied me… he acted like me. I can call it whatever I want, but that boy learned it from me— and I knew it.
Our Chapel Talk on that same Sunday morning described almost exactly the scenario that I had just witnessed. Our focus that week was to be more intentional with the way we treat others. The concept behind it was founded on the principle that we all ought to set the best example always, and that we are all role models whether we know it or not.
A boy read a poem during that chapel talk that beautifully articulated the way that I was feeling. He described character and the way it relates to being a role model.
A careful man I want to be — a little fellow follows me.
I do not dare to go astray,
For fear he’ll go the self-same way.
I cannot once escape his eyes.
Whatever he sees me do he tries.
Like me he says he’s going to be —
That little chap who follows me…
He knows that I am big and fine —
And believes in every word of mine.
The base in me he must not see —
That little chap who follows me…
But after all it’s easier,
That brighter road to climb,
With little hands behind me —
To push me all the time.
And I reckon I’m a better man
Than what I used to be…
Because I have this lad at home
Who thinks the world of me.
Needless to say, that day changed me. I feel like I developed stage one of a fatherly awareness—that I am always responsible for the example I set. In little ways, I started to consider a child’s perspective on everything I do, everywhere I go, and with everyone I interact with. I didn’t become the best counselor in the world right then and there, but I did become a better man because of it.
As a big brother, I’ve intuitively asked myself “is one of my little siblings watching me?” before doing something around them. Because of that, I was much more intentional with my decisions and actions and how they might affect them. When I became a camp counselor, I asked myself a similar question: “Are there kids around that might see how I handle this?”
But now I don’t even ask myself if there is a little chap watching me— because I know there is.