I belong to a church where all of the work is done by volunteers. If you are an adult in a Mormon congregation, you likely have a "calling" in addition to to whatever you do professionally.
Because my work schedule for the last 14 years has ranged from random to truly insane, I have had mostly teaching callings or responsibilities I can do on the road. I could write a zillion words on the alternating feelings of guilt and glee I have felt about that situation but that is a post for another day. It's also sometimes tricky for family oriented LDS "wards" as they are called to figure out what to do with single people. I have no global solutions to that stickiness but I currently have a ward leader who is more sensitive to trying to include me than some have been in the past and it feels nice. He asked me in a meeting at Christmas what I thought I could do in a down year from an Olympics and I said that I didn't want to do something I constantly had to flake on but I was up for whatever he needed.
So that is how I found myself being asked to be an advisor for 25 high school juniors and seniors at Girl's Camp this summer. Every year for a long, long time LDS wards have been taking all their teenage girls into the woods for a week of detox from boys and makeup and technology and teaching them how to hike, light fires and have some spiritual experiences. I'm sure it will not surprise you that Girl's Camp memories account for some of the best AND worst of my 12-17 years.
When I came home from my mission 14 years ago (ouch) all I wanted to do was work with the teenage girls. I wanted them to see an example of a woman who had gone to college, served a mission and was working at a great job. I had a lot of good leaders as a kid but the teenage Katie sure would have appreciated a role model who had taken a different path than marrying early and starting a family right away. I wanted to be that leader.
I also wanted to date Mormon boys and a pretty great way to meet them was to be in one of the special "singles" congregations and even though I lived in Utah and there was a Mormon boy behind every corner, I was seduced by post Church dinners and campouts in Moab and I jumped ship from the Young Women's program. And then I left Utah and singles wards became the best shortcut to a social life and then suddenly you are 31 and they are tossing you out (which is another blog post as well) and you are back in a family ward after 10 years of never seeing a child or an old person at church. It takes some readjusting and since my own migration out of the singles ward came just as I was moving to Colorado and didn't know a soul, I definitely haven't done a great job of jumping into the family community. I have made a few good friends at church and just sort of left it at that. The chance to get to know the girls and their families a little bit seemed like a good way to finally make a contribution even if it means taking some vacation days I would likely rather use holding baby Nina or chasing nephews.
All of this long intro is to say that a few weeks ago we had a Camp Kick-off activity where the other leader and I hosted a sleepover with all the older girls who will be helping out with various camp responsibilities and setting good examples for the younger ones.
I have been apprehensive about these girls. What if a bunch of nice Mormon teenagers look at me and all they see is their worst nightmare? I'm 36 so to 16 year olds I am definitely an old maid. I was a relatively feminist youngster and I for sure thought unmarried ladies in their 30s were kind of sad. And while I have all manner of mixed feelings about being this age and this single, I do not want to look out into a sea of teenage pity when I have a really, really great life. Also, I was not popular with teenage girls when I WAS a teenage girl so there is a fear that they will just find me hopelessly uncool.
All day at work on the Friday of the sleepover I was so nervous. I want them to like me but I still want them to see me as an adult and I don't want them to feel bad for me but I do want them to see that life is so good even if it doesn't go exactly how their romantic teen brains are planning and I want to keep their attention but I want them to have time on their own and really I just want to drill it into all their little heads that the very best thing they can learn in the mountains is how to have a relationship with God and honestly everything else falls into place but I know they have to figure that out on their own. It's a lot. It's a lot to put on a sleepover. It's a lot to put on kids who don't even know me.
So we get there. And right away they are spilling out of minivans with braces and sleeping bags and long hair and cell phones and they all seem so cool and confident even though I know (and have to remind myself) that they are not. I take a deep breath and separate from the other leader even though I kind of want to be her siamese twin all night. I plop down at a table where they are filling out forms and I ask them questions. And I know I'm trying just a little bit too hard but I also know they are a little nervous because even thought it was 20 years ago I still remember what it was like. I think one advantage to never doing some of the "grownup" things everyone my age has done is I am still worrying about boys and shifting social groups and if the size of my thighs is the reason I'm not dating much. I have a lot of the same fears and problems they do so I can get myself back there quickly.
The girls have been there about 30 minutes when I discover that a dear friend of mine taught one of them in sophomore English class. She's a cute little thing who takes AP classes and does theater and is having an easy time talking to an adult. I am relieved to see that a) there are still teenagers who take AP classes and become Thespians and want to please adults and b) that my singleness and kidlessness has so far not caused her to eyes to glaze over.
I'm not completely clueless when it comes to kids so I have brought a piece of Olympic apparel as a prize for a game. The girls eat it up. The other advisor is also my age and has three little kids. She moved here after a few years in Japan and she has long hair and she's pretty and halfway through our presentation I feel like we are really killing it. We have to shush them a few times and we lose them to their screens a couple of times but for the most part, it really seems like they like us! It helps that the other leaders have introduced us as "the fun ones" which I think lets us a bit off the hook. I am a way better good cop than bad cop so I think my role is the right one.
We have dinner, we make s'mores, we do some leadership training (well, the bad cops do, the other leader and I do some yoga moves in the back and maybe I post some Facebook updates because I have to document this). I show them some photos of Ryan Lochte trying on his medals stand jacket which I believe lays to rest any concerns because I do not have a boyfriend. We manage to stay up until about 1 but the girls are so good that we don't worry when they are still laughing as we find our ways to our sleeping bags and pass out. I'm sure chasing a few little kids around all day is tiring but I cannot believe how much energy that many raging hormones can zap.
The next morning we go to the church where all the younger girls will be gathering to do some hiking and fire training in preparation for Camp. As we drive over the girl in my passenger seat, a girl with big brown eyes and a pixie cut who tells me she's headed to college on the other side of the country, asks me what we are listening to. It's a quiet folksy band and I assume she'd rather it was One Direction but she says "no I really like this-do you have any other recommendations like this?" and of course she is now my favorite.
These older girls are going to be the advisors for this activity and they are taking it seriously. They fan out and take control of various groups and call roll and give instructions. These are such good girls. We didn't have of the eye rolling, "I'm over this" variety and I am grateful. I am powerless in the face of cynicism in general and it makes me especially sad in young people. I am glad that even though we for sure have some awkward girls and some odd little ducks in some cases, they are nice. They are good. They are taking younger girls under their wings and they are trying to be examples.
I like these girls. I am not afraid of these girls.