Summertime: Should The Living Be Easy?
I’m writing in response to your June 27th column that referred to how teens and young adults spend their summer vacations. From before I was old enough for working papers until I was educated enough for a “real job,” I spent my summers in the Catskills, working as a day camp counselor and lifeguard in various bungalow colonies.
The teenage girls with these jobs live like sardines in a can, with as many as twenty packed into bunk beds in tight, narrow rooms with few windows and no air conditioners and the persistent smell of sweat and mildew. We lived on lunches from the day camp, suppers from the parents in the bungalow colony, and whatever we could make in a sandwich maker in between.
Weekends were unsupervised and mostly spent hitching rides to and from Wal-Mart where we wandered the aisles and didn’t buy much. For spending our summers this way, counselors were paid $350-$450 a month plus tips and all the after-hours babysitting we could get. (Lifeguards received slightly more. Mother’s helpers were the worst off, receiving less pay, no tips and no extra babysitting money.)
Doing this for six summers did build a bit of a savings account, but only a bit. When it came to paying for college, my savings were a drop in the bucket. Working a daily job that paid more than minimum wage contributed more. Working summer internships that paid better contributed even more. And academic scholarships for good grades and test scores paid the most.
Sometimes when I hear recent college grads sigh that they are enjoying their last summer vacation until retirement, I feel like I missed out. I haven’t had a summer vacation since I was thirteen. When I hear about teens using their summers to do constructive things, like learn a language, complete a project or volunteer for a cause, I wonder if I missed out on other growth opportunities as well.
So between the pathetic income generated and the lost opportunities, I have to wonder: does working all summer have any real benefit to a teen? And I have to answer: yes, some. Working taught me to be ambitious and to get out of that stinky bunkhouse. I plowed my counselor income into a lifeguard course, and my lifeguarding money into WSI (water safety instructor) certification. I had the chance to make a myriad of workplace errors in an environment with few real consequences. And I learned the amazing versatility of the sandwich maker. But it’s hard to say that I couldn’t have learned these lessons any other way or caught up within the first few years of professional work.
So to the teens who spend their summers working: kudos. Your work ethic will get you far in life. For the teens who don’t: enjoy it while you can. And to all the mothers judging “kids these days” – please stop. There are as many good reasons for a teen to not work as there are for them to work. Mind your own children, and let other people mind theirs.
You don’t reveal how many years back you are referring to, but conditions must have improved somewhat for counselors and lifeguards since that time. Regardless, you don’t sound too regretful about having possibly “missed out.” And I’ll bet you have some great memories to boot. Sure, not everyone is cut out for roughing it like you did, but while teens can spend their summers in a number of constructive ways, those who lazy away their vacation time are the ones who are really missing out.