I assumed upon my arrival in rural, southern France to teach ESL to children at an English immersion camp, that there’d be some sense of magic surrounding French students. I thought that because they weren’t American students they might refresh the novelty and enchantment I found in the classroom when I first began teaching—I wasn’t dismayed teaching American students by any means, but I needed, after years of doing many of the same things in my classes, to revitalize my relationship with students and my approaches to teaching. I thought going to France might be a way to find what I was looking for, but instead of just enchanting students I found an enchanting experience—living across the ocean as someone other than my everyday self.
Though I’m now in my sixth year of teaching college students, children, French or not, seemed like an entirely different battle, and one I didn’t feel prepared to fight. These children were aged six to fourteen, outside my usual range, and I was terrified approaching day one that with them I’d be too bumbling, or too easy, perhaps even too mean. The idea of working with children, with myself in the lead, has always been a scary one—not because children themselves are scary, but because I’ve always been nervous about my own performance in front of them.
The students, about thirty to sixty at a time, came to camp for full immersion in the English language. They attended two hours of English class a day in addition to games, sports, activities, and free time, also all in English. They stayed for a week (during the spring) or two (during the summer), and at the end of the session received camp diplomas in a graduation ceremony held on Fridays, complete with caps, handshakes and hugs from every counselor, and Morsure’s “L’irremediable (’84)” playing on a loop. A final detail is that we all lived together: In the spring we were in a school three stories high, classrooms on the first floor and dormitories on the second and third. In the summer, we inhabited communal tents.
Some of us were hired as ESL counselors, and the rest to lead daily games and activities—hired to be typical camp counselors, essentially. For more than one reason I was glad to have been hired to teach rather than be in charge of songs or games of Capture the Flag or, the most frightening option of all, devise skits to perform in front of the campers, in service of teaching them funny lessons about American culture or history, accurate or not.
I was uncomfortable with these responsibilities because I knew I wasn’t a camp-counselor-at-heart. Many of the people with whom I worked had been doing this for years, and there were games and skits they knew like the backs of their hands. It wasn’t that I’d feel as if I was stepping on their toes were I to take the lead but, as an ESL counselor, that I felt I had no right to.
The skits were fun, but I’m not a very good actor. I was essentially a character actor at camp, my range limited to playing only one part really well: The Dweeb. I had total confidence in showing off that I knew how to be socially awkward and unsuccessful, maybe because it was the part closest to my actual self, which made me less nervous to play the part in front of children. I can be goofy and lame, which is to say honest, and the audience being one of trustful children instead of skeptical adults made it easier for me to consciously make an ass of myself.
I could perform all right in other, more mimey roles. In one particular skit I played George Washington, on his search for the National Bird of America. In the skit he finds “Turkey,” whom he comes to love dearly and keeps around as his animal companion. One night, however, Turkey is killed in a building fire (written in our little script as “something happens”), which upsets Washington greatly. That is, until he discovers the pleasant smell of cooked Turkey. He decides to eat Turkey, and this is how we get Thanksgiving!
In another skit I played Benjamin Franklin, trying to channel the wonder of electricity. I fly a kite during a storm and get struck by lightning. I try again, and get struck again. On my third try I get the kite to hold the lightning in place, pull my iPhone from my pocket, and tie it to the kite in order to charge it. I’ve harnessed a miracle.
I could play roles like these not only because they were far from serious, but because I had no lines, and performing was easier when I didn’t have to act even more through my speech. Instead our camp director would narrate the story in English and make sure the children could follow along, and in turn I’d search myself for silly expressions and gestures—like when I pretend to weep during Turkey’s death or get overly excited about my iPhone charging—that communicated the idea(s) of the skit clearly, and that attempted to elicit responses from the children. I aimed to be laughed at, hoping a dweeb or a mourning George Washington could teach a lesson even outside of the ESL classroom.
The icing on the pedagogical cake was that I was always in character at camp, and so were the campers. When they arrived we’d run them through “Ellis Island,” giving them passports and letting them choose new “American” names to go by while at camp. Similarly, the staff also chose pseudonyms to live under—the counselors I worked with included Lady, Baby B, Scuba, Liberty, Crabby, and Ness (my camp crush)—with the idea behind the pseudonyms being to avoid letting campers become too attached to us or give them the ability to find us on social media, and vice versa; overall we avoided sharing personal details within our camper-counselor relationships. And campers’ names grew from inside jokes between counselors—some campers’ names I can recall easily, for example, include Friend Zone, Beauty School Dropout, The ’90s, Outfit Repeater, Green Arrow, Lizzie McGuire, Miranda, Ron Swanson, and 8 Papayas.
I took an easy route and chose Léon, which is just my middle name (with an added accent), and it was a name I chose in part because I thought it would be easy for French children to call out. For months I lived as Léon, being sure never to utter my real name to anyone on the chance that a camper was within earshot. Even when out on the town I introduced myself as Léon, making a habit never to break character.
As a character himself, though, I wasn’t sure who Léon was or could be, or whether he appeared any differently to the world than Micah did. What I wondered about most was how the children saw him, and if, because they encountered a familiar name, they felt a proximity they didn’t feel with other counselors (say, Scuba or Ness). Was I somehow cheating our system—because we weren’t allowed to speak French around campers—by making myself more nominally approachable to the children at camp? Without even thinking about it, had I made myself the easy one?
Teaching already closely resembled the theatre for me, but the resemblance was more intense at camp because I lived by another name. While there’s a certain degree of performance when I go by Mr. McCrary in a college classroom, my ESL students were likely accustomed to using “Monsieur” and “Madame” when getting a teacher’s attention, rather than operating on a first-name (or pseudonymic) basis. In the same vein, I had to get used to calling on students while treating names like Obama, Outfit Repeater, Sunshine, or Mouse as if they were everyday and ordinary.
Though my students likely didn’t dwell on this particular classroom visage, I could see that in small ways they were also getting into character. Many of them were away from home for the first time and were shy, or would perhaps act out, while I assumed many others would act just the same at camp as they did at home and in their normal classrooms. My guess was that the class clown at camp was still the class clown at school, as was the nerd, the flirt, the chatterbox, the bully. Their overall personae didn’t change much just because they were at camp, I bet, but compounding new names with a new environment probably got them to try and figure out how to assume the name itself. Many of the names children chose on Ellis Island Day became apt, and I wondered whether they chose their names based on an inherent understanding, or in order to create that understanding.
This was no different for me as their teacher, or as a general counselor to the rest of the campers. Because I was in a new environment, and because I’d chosen a name I didn’t usually go by, I had to make a decision about how to encounter this environment with this new identity. Where did name and geography meet? Would the relationship between name and place be a seamless one, or would it take some work for me to live in France under a French name? Did it matter that this was all happening in France, or would my performance have been similar (or the same) in Country X?
Having chosen Léon did make some things easier for me, I’m guessing because as a name it was already a part of who I am, but it also made me consider maintaining consistency between who Léon was to French children and who he was to the adults, who came from places like the United States, Canada, Australia, Spain, Germany, and Scotland. And if camp was a performance then it was a show that lasted twenty-four hours a day, not like your average summer stock, so it was impossible to break form with the people who’d be around, quite possibly, for an entire summer’s stay.
The overall immersion model did seem successful, then—not only were the children asked to work in a different linguistic mode for the duration of camp, but they were asked to live in character, to an extent, and so were the counselors. I feared this mode: I was afraid of what my camp self might show me about the persona I assumed the other nine or ten months out of the year, when I’m consistently performing as a “serious” academic at a university. I knew that this person, Micah, was reserved, was studious, was likable but was no one’s best friend, and was narrowly focused when it came to his aims and desires. I knew that he avoided—pathologically—people, places, and feelings he’d call “complicated.”
Léon couldn’t afford any of this. He couldn’t afford avoidance, or quietness, or the same fear of failure in front of and around children that Micah harbored. Because of this, Léon had to be inherently different—maybe not autobiographically or historically different, but he’d need to take different performative measures in order to keep from breaking the seams. The question wasn’t about whether Léon and Micah had to be drastically different personae, but about what Micah had to do in order to make Léon work.
While in the spring the children came to camp together as a whole class with their teachers in tow, in the summer they were on their own, with camp staff taking on more supervisory roles involving language instruction, health, and discipline. Things were different for me in the spring, because I knew that when the children had an issue or problem they were likely to run to their teacher; in the summer they could run to anyone, however, and I crossed my fingers in hopes that if they ran to me they’d chosen the right adult.
For instance, we took a hike one day that summer, and near the end of the hike circled back to our campsite. Along with two campers, Bonnie and Bubble Gum, I was at the very back of the line, at the edge of a wide-open hay field as we tried to make our way to a dirt path leading back to the campsite. Bonnie had injured her hip somehow, somewhere along our walk, and the three of us moved slowly as she limped.
I decided to get help when we reached a kitchen at the edge of our campsite. There was a chef, Quentin, who sometimes made our meals and with whom we’d become familiar—in French I asked Quentin if he might be able to lend us an ice pack for one of the girls. When I gave the pack to Bonnie, Bubble Gum, fish-eyed, pointed at me and said “Ah! You know French!” (To be very clear, my French exists at the survival level: I’m not nervous being left to navigate Paris alone, but talking drunkenly about politics with a stranger in a bar requires switching back and forth in a kind of “Franglais.”)
“It was an emergency!” I told Bubble Gum. “Our secret?” She and Bonnie both smiled and nodded in agreement, and the three of us walked back to camp and, when we arrived, I directed Bonnie to Curry, our resident health and sanitary assistant.
I know that I shouldn’t have been afraid or nervous, but moments like these made me question my willingness to either follow or break from decorum. I wondered whether my breaking the rules would’ve upset anyone with more authority than myself. Did I, as my own superiors at camp usually feared, possibly start a game of Telephone that begins with a child whispering “Trust me—the counselors can speak French”?
This circling-back of rumors, be they good or bad, is natural for children and usually nerve-racking for me. I tended to imagine the worst: being fired, or a parent finding out we spoke French when we shouldn’t have, and the jig being up with our scene at camp falling apart, the magicians’ secrets exposed. I constantly questioned my fitness for the job, and always wondered how I could become more fit.
I combated worry with comedy. With so many of the children at camp, and in my ESL classes, I found myself demonstrating what I needed to teach through silly faces and gestures, through “ESL Hands” that often felt like sign language, and through games that might involve myself looking like a total fool. The children joined in on this, finding themselves not only able but willing to sing in class at the top of their lungs or walk around the classroom going “Bawk, bawk!”
To my surprise it was through silliness that I found myself able to open up, which became, I think, the beginning of who Léon was supposed to be as a camp counselor. I learned that the key to my comfort with the campers (and possibly the key to their trust in me) was a slight role reversal: I never spoke to them as if they were children, and instead played the part of the Dunce in order to get them to laugh or show their support for me.
Sometimes there were moments in class, for instance, when I’d write a task on the board and ask my students to complete it, and they’d respond with a “Mais non! C’est pas possible!” and in turn I would tell them “You can do it!” These moments accidentally became bilingual exchanges with my English responses, or moments when I purposely spoke with as many cognates as possible. Sometimes, they’d mimic the moments at lunch or dinner where I’d “let” students teach me some French and respond as if I was having a difficult time. “Bone jurr” I’d say, or “Gem apple,” and the children laughed in snorts and coached me ever so kindly on how to turn “Gem apple” into “Je m’appelle.”
This worked the same outside of the classroom as it did within, and I found enjoyment being the idiot, pretending to know no French or having to explain things in class with a shoddy understanding of French language and culture. Perhaps this involved telling the children, on our pirate-themed day, that a swashbuckler was “someone who goes like this a lot” while batting my eyelashes and the kids would say “Oh la la.” Or, when the children thought I was dating another counselor because we’d previously played a couple in a skit, I’d make a gesture with my hands that they responded to by saying “You are cassé!” and that was how I’d learn the word for “broken up.” Either way I’d found my in, discovering that the best way to establish my character as Léon was to let the children create his foolish façade one little game at a time.
With the other counselors I began camp anxiously and shyly, but after a month I so felt I had the hang of things that I became quite the opposite of shy, gaining the confidence to direct newcomer-counselors in a task, or, in my most extreme confidence, lead camp songs or cheers. Especially in the switch from spring to summer, I gained solid ground in my role.
I most tangibly felt this shift in my personal relationships with other counselors. At first I wasn’t revealing until drunk, and even then there were things about myself that I could hold back, regardless of how much Cabernet sat in my stomach. But once I became less afraid of myself with the children I became less afraid of myself with the counselors, too, and swinging back and forth between seriousness and silliness seemed not only like a part of my job description, but a natural part of my camp character.
When I noticed this swing in the other counselors, I found that it drew me closer to them. I stopped imagining what things might be like for them throughout the other seasons, when their roles might be to sit behind a desk taking lecture notes, or stand in front of a classroom of small children. Seeing the counselors at their silliest let me ignore the possible weight of their lives; in the same way, it let me prevent sharing the heavier details of my own.
The only area where this didn’t work was romance.
Although I arrived at camp with no expectation of “summer love,” I knew it was on the minds of almost everyone there, both adult and child alike. The children quickly found their crushes, flirting or passing notes at lunch, and maybe even making it official. The adults had to be much more secretive, especially if sex was possible, and we inevitably added our own gossip circle to the ones we paid attention to with the children.
Even without arriving with amorous expectations (or hope) I had to acknowledge to myself that, aside from a few unsuccessful flings, I’d been alone for a while, and certainly wasn’t opposed to romance heading my way. I had to be careful there, though, because as exciting as it might’ve been to meet someone abroad and heat things up, I knew that I was more interested in something grounding—in something that, even if fleeting, I wouldn’t commit to only for the sake of my literal skin.
I also had to be careful because it was camp, and watching myself and the other counselors be good with children effortlessly highlighted our potential for partnership. I already get crushes easily enough, but a crush at camp might’ve been propelled by the mere sight of watching another adult get into character, and I’d lose my level-headedness while bearing witness to the laughter and comfort caused by another counselor’s own willingness to play.
This much, I expected from myself. But what I didn’t expect was for a crush to come out of something else, like teamwork or a simple stroke of luck (or both). And I certainly didn’t expect for anyone to just be special, or to arrive at that point where, like in a movie, I could say “I’ve met someone.”
The children paid as much attention to all of this as I did, and this was especially evident as we built up to a weekly camp event called Boom, which was essentially a middle-school dance in which we were joyful chaperones, replete with button-up shirts, pretty dresses, dancing along to French and American hits. What was funny about Boom was that it was many of the kids’ first dance, and we’d sometimes be the ones orchestrating their first-ever slow dances or speeding up the path from note-passing to waltzing.
The observant, clever children did this with us as well. While I always enjoyed Boom because it was a chance to dance badly in front of the children, to get them to laugh and sing along and dance themselves whether they were six or fourteen, it was also when they showed off what they noticed about us. This gave me endless delight.
During the afternoon, hours before Boom, we split the children into groups and put them through a rotation where we taught them dances to different songs. These songs played at Boom, among many others, and when they played we were all expected to join in on one big dance number. One such dance was to a traditional Scottish song, choreographed by Ness. I’d been talking with another counselor when the song began to play, but I immediately looked for Ness on the dance floor, to see if she’d taken the lead on the dance she taught earlier in the day.
There she stood in a flowing orange and yellow dress, her wavy brunette hair let down in a way I didn’t often see during the day. She was alone, and when she saw me she reached out and took my hands, teaching me the dance while the music played. It was simple enough, involving a few taps of the foot and some swinging around by locking arms, but the real fun was in getting to dance with the choreographer herself, and in not switching partners when everyone else did so.
At another Boom when we danced together, a fast pop song ended and a slow song began to play. We kept dancing closely, and as we talked and danced two campers, teenage boys named Bro and Obama, came up to us and began teasing. Bro and Obama circled us like little Cupid vultures, making hearts with their hands and puppy faces and saying “Love!” I blushed, though I dared not look at Ness to see if she was blushing, too.
By the end of the summer session Ness and I were likely closer than any other two counselors, though just as friends. We reached a point where our hugs lasted longer than normal, and we kissed each other’s cheeks whenever we said goodnight.
On my last night at camp before leaving we took a nighttime hike around a lake, when reality finally began to pierce through the costumed living we had at camp. “What kind of real life do you have to go back to after this?” Ness asked me during our walk, and it stung that not only did the question have an answer, but that a long and charming walk around a lake could be punctuated by the thought that I’d return to another life, a somehow more authentic life than the one I’d been living with her.
We reached the large hay field where we’d hiked with the campers before, and we looked up at the stars. We looked for the Big Dipper, which I told her I liked to find every night. Then we watched lightning strike in the distance—a thunderstorm was eventually headed our way, but we sat and watched for a while as the clouds and wind inched toward us, talked about our teaching and geographic aspirations, and I watched Ness geek out over our nature find.
Given more time, a month or even a few weeks, I wonder what might or could have happened with us. I wonder whether I’d remain Léon to her and whether she’d remain Ness to me, or if because of our closeness we’d begin to use our real names in intimacy. And I wonder if, just because we’d inhabited our camp selves, we found a glimmer in each other that we wouldn’t have seen in the fall or winter. Without a doubt I was taken by the Ness I got to know, but couldn’t help but wonder whether Ness, like Léon, was something put forward as a way to navigate an alienness.
A co-counselor recently wrote on Facebook that our job has taught her that “you can know someone for only a week, or not learn their real name for months, but still feel like you’ve known them for years.” In wholehearted agreement, her status makes me consider the luck I have in being in a place like this: of being in a place where people can see you act ridiculously in effort to make children laugh, where people know how you look when your face is half-covered by Nutella, where they know exactly how you look in drag and exactly how your singing voice sounds. Something that has connected us all here, I’ve come to see, is that in some ways we’re all the same kind of person. We’re all the type to hop on a plane or a train and go to another country for a job like this—and because of this there’s an inherent language we share: A language that helps form the identities we forge when we take on our roles as counselors.
There were things I learned to do and say as Léon, like have an egg be broken over my head or perform in front of the crowd a lip dub of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” that I don’t see myself doing at any other place or time. They were things that had me worried I’d discover that Léon was a more likable person than Micah, since the lengths I was willing to go in order to incite fun at camp sometimes took me by total surprise. And they’re things that, to acknowledge a cliché, I didn’t know I had in me.
My worry was always settled at graduation, where I saw the summit of our performance at camp. As the campers sat in neat rows after making their caps in ESL class, we counselors stood in a line facing them, getting ready to read their camp names from their diplomas and move them down a line of hugs, handshakes, and silly dances. For the littlest camper, we picked them up and handed them off to the next counselor down the line.
At graduation, many of the children cried. Their week or two at camp was over, and they approached the line of counselors with streaming tears and possibly some runny make-up. “If they’re crying,” my director, T-Rex, once told me, “it means we did our job right.”
It was hard to assess a job done well until the end when, especially after the ceremony was over, the campers ran around to different counselors asking us to sign their diplomas, caps, and arms. Here they also began to cry with each other, promising that they’ll call or write or, if they live close enough, that they’ll visit each other soon. A few of the counselors cried, too, and it was this image exactly that made me think the line between our reality and our performance was blurry.
As the campers waited around to leave, scurrying to get their autographs, they wrote and asked for little messages like “Je t’aime!” and “Have a great summer!” Just underneath the writer, either camper or counselor, signed with a little heart, a butterfly, or a star, followed by their camp name. And whenever we signed it wasn’t like we signed away our reality, but maybe that we wrote ourselves into a new one: A reality filled, more than anything, with the allure of being enveloped by an enchanting role.
Micah McCrary’s essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. His book manuscript, Island in the City, was a finalist in the Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2015 Essay Collection Competition and a semifinalist in Ohio State University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize Competition.