If I could do it over… the mohawk incident

When I was a first year director I had a “problem counsellor” (looking back, I now realize that I was part of the problem but I couldn’t see it then), he wasn’t a bad guy or anything, just a little bit clueless… kind of a bud (see my Who Are Your Counsellors post, and check out the flower description).

We had already had a couple of run in’s and ‘serious conversations’ by the time the mohawk incident happened, so I have to admit I was already a little annoyed and impatient with him.
Here’s what happened:

I had just gotten back from a town trip and realized that something from one of my bags has spilled all over the back of the camp van, so I was furiously trying to clean it up, and I was pretty grumpy about it because it was a sweltering hot day and the last thing I wanted to do was scrub the carpeted trunk of a too hot van.
Now, if you’re not a senior staff member of a summer camp who goes on town trips, then you may not know that as soon as you get back to camp, chaos ensues. The ACD (Assistant Camp Director) is trying to fill you in on what happened while you were gone, counsellors and support staff are trying to get your attention to either ask you something they’ve been waiting on or to receive whatever supplies you picked up for them in town. And the campers are just trying to say hi, and be part of the action. If you are a staff member who does town trips, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Then imagine all of this taking place at the back of a hot van…
One of the counsellors had a lightbulb moment and jumped the queue by opening one of the side doors and leaning over the seats to talk to me, we had a brief conversation about a problem he was having with a camper and then the door on the other side opened and another counsellor popped his head in, let’s call him Mike.
Mike looked really excited and said “hey, can I ask you a question?” I told him to shoot and he said “well, you know how we’re putting on this play… well the campers are really into it and they’re really excited about it, it’s about…” and then he launched into a relatively long description of the play they were putting on, while I scrubbed, and sweated. Then he said “so I was wondering if I could shave Peter’s head into a mohawk for his part”.
I stopped scrubbing.
I looked up to see if he was joking or not, he wasn’t. So I said “no, you’re not shaving Peter’s head into a mohawk for your play, I’m not sending him home with a mohawk.” He was prepared for this and said “I figured you’d say that, so I’ll shave it into a mohawk for the play then right after, I’ll just shave the rest off” I told him (loudly, over the sound of the vacuum I was now using) “we’re not shaving any campers heads, we’re going to send them home with the same amount of hair they came here with”. He was disappointed that I wasn’t as excited about this as he was, but still wasn’t ready to give up so he asked “well, could we ask his mom?” Again I kept my head down and kept cleaning and said “Mike, I am not calling Peter’s mom to ask her if we can shave her child’s head” to which he replied “oh, no, no, no, I can call her!”
At that point I was so frustrated that I very aggressively put the vacuum attachment down (I wouldn’t say I slammed it down, but some might…) and whipped my head up to look into Mike’s now very wide, very nervous eyes.
At this point, the counsellor leaning in the other side of the van (who had thankfully stuck around to witness this exchange) interceded and said “Mike, I think the point is that no one is calling Peter’s mom, and that you are definitely not allowed to shave any part of Peter’s head”.
Poor Mike, he looked so dejected, I took a deep breath and said “Look, why don’t you use some hair gel and put his hair into a faux hawk for your play” he sighed and said “well, it’s not perfect, but I guess if that’s our only option it’ll have to do.” and with that he left.


So, if I could do it over here’s what I would do differently.

1. I would have stopped what I was doing and listened to what Mike had to say. It was unfair of me to keep cleaning, my campers are always the priority, therefore by extension my staff are the priority – basically any human or living being should take priority over a clean van! By continuing to clean I was belittling his request and not showing him that I was invested and listening.

2. I would have stayed calm. It’s easy to get frustrated when it’s been a long day and you’re hot and tired with a long to do list waiting for you but if I expect the staff to stay calm and be kind when dealing with campers, then I need to set that example by always staying calm and treating them with kindness and respect.

3. I would have taken the time to explain exactly what I meant. Had I stopped what I was doing, shown him that I was listening and stayed calm at his request I could have formed a much better and much more clear response so there wouldn’t be as many follow-up questions and confusion on his part.

4. I would have used this as a teachable moment. I have learned that everyone sees a situation through a very specific lens – in his case he was seeing it through the lens of a counsellor who wanted his play to be perfect. I could have flipped the switch on him and asked him to think like me for a moment and ask him what reservations a camp director might have about shaving a campers head. I also could have asked him to think about what kinds of reservations Peter’s mom might have about it, I’ve done this with counsellors since then and they’ve come up with some really insightful answers.
I also could have had HIM come up with another solution, rather than me telling him that the only option was to do a faux hawk, I could have helped walk him to that conclusion himself, then he would have had some ownership and felt a lot better about the outcome.

5. I would have recognized that he was just a really enthusiastic counsellor who was excited about a play he was creating with his campers. He was striving for authenticity and perfection because he was so invested in this project – what a great quality for a counsellor to have!! Looking back I now realize that he had some great qualities and I wasn’t seeing them because I was only seeing the mistakes he had made. If I had it to do over I would thank him for caring so much about his campers and congratulate him on checking with me before making any (semi) permanent “costume” decisions.

and a bonus #6.

I was 23 my first summer as a director, and parents intimidated me. I was so busy proving that I was up to the task that I was operating from a place of fear. I didn’t want to peeve anybody off so I refused to take chances.
I’m older now and I consider many camp parents my peers, they’re less scary to me now (though I’ll admit… some still intimidate me… but that has nothing to do with age, they’re just scary!) but chances are, if a counsellor asked me to today,I’d make that phone call! I’d tell them it was a long shot, but I’d have their back and support their (and the camper’s) idea. I’d preface the phone call to the parent by saying “look, this may sound crazy but Peter and his counsellor Mike are really excited about this play, and they wanted me to ask… I am 100% prepared to say absolutely not, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.”

So there you have it, that’s how I would have handled the mohawk situation today. I believe that every situation is a learning opportunity and I think that reflecting on my past decisions and mistakes without judgement or guilt is a great way of growing as a camp director.

Have you ever dealt with a situation like this? How did you handle it? Would you do something different today? Tell me about it in the comment section below.

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One thought on “If I could do it over… the mohawk incident

  1. Pingback: Quotable Camp – On Change | The Camp Nerd

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