Let's cast our minds back to 1991. I was 17. Now I'm nearly 33 and worrying about hiring the right plumber, then I was young, overweight (though about 4 stone less than I am now), and excited about having just learned to drive. I'd never played a guitar before. It was a mystery to me. Now it's still a mystery, but I somehow manage to get away with standing on stage doing it. Then I had decided to give my summer over to working in a summer camp for Jewish children, now I give my Christmases up to work at a shelter for non-Jewish homeless people (though it's not a requirement that they're not Jewish... it's just that they probably aren't).
In fact, the story which jumped to mind, probably happened in 1992. It was the same summer camp, but my second year at it. I did three years of it in total. My title was "house manager", which was a nice way to say that I was the person who ensured that the rooms were correctly set-up for the kids and that we had all the necessary equipment stored somewhere. I did that for some of the time and also spent time looking after the kids, especially when it was time to do the bi-weekly shows we ran (usually when one set of kids were preparing to leave, to be replaced by the second set).
Between 1991 and 1992, I'd lost a shed-load of weight, and people were amazed at how good I looked. I'm still amazed, but more about the amount of hair that I had. What was more amazing at the time, though, was how much energy I had. The loss of weight somehow freed me from the agonising grips of gravity (it didn't, it was an illusion). As a result, when a coach load of kids arrived, I literally jumped into the boot and started throwing luggage out. Then, when all the luggage was out, I'd grab a couple of cases, their respective owners and run across the campus to drop them all off. We didn't do all the cases this way, but on the occasion that someone had been parted with their luggage, I seemed to be motivated to use my new-found SUPERPOWERS to sort it all out.
I had a lot of fun at the camp, which was called (and this is a sign of the times back then) Excel. You couldn't call anything Excel these days for fear of legal action, but back then Microsoft Excel was not the brand name it is today (read the link for the history of Excel if you're bothered).
Often I would be called upon to sit at some sort of piano and play whatever the kids wanted to sing. Being able to muddle through a song by ear really helped. At this stage, though I'd used the money I earned in 1991 to buy a guitar, I still couldn't play more than a couple of chords. So I didn't.
There were things that were fun and things that were tiresome. Generally, I had a good time. I remember very few of the kids we looked after. The reason I started this trip down memory lane is because of a French child called Olivier. Olivier was a scrawny waif of a lad. He suffered Petit Mal, which is a mild form of epilepsy, resulting in small pauses. These rarely happened. He spoke some English, his mother being English, and had been sent to us partly as a way of seeing whether his English could be improved. He looked a bit like Woody Allen might do if he were French and a child. Coupled with his awkward looks, he was physically very poorly coordinated. He could barely walk his little bony body in a straight line, and the sight of him playing Badminton reduced us to tears of amusement. It was arms, legs, rackets and everything flying everywhere - except the shuttlecock, which was oblivious of this particular player's efforts.
Younger than many of the children, and less mature aswell, Olivier was more needy of support. He would often come to find one of us to get help with something. It wasn't too surprising. He didn't speak very good English, he didn't form friendships with the other kids and he was far from home. Undoubtedly he was a lonely young boy, missing his parents. As I remember it, he came back for a second year, so he can't have been too miserable. I reckon we must have enjoyed our support somehow. The thing is, I was a teenager, as were the other staff (or at most they were twenty-somethings). We found this child hilarious and irritating in equal measure. It sounds picky now, but his means of phrasing a question - "Hello. You can help me find Rob?", for instance, was quite ridiculous. Use of tone of voice alone to ask a question seemed wrong. Especially when, taken at face value, that line is almost either the sort of thing a royal might say to an underling, or a statement which may or may not be disproved.
After some moaning and bitching about this child's behaviour, I pointed out, quite reasonably, that perhaps it was unfair of us to criticise his English too much, given that it was his second language. Sure he had an English mother, but perhaps he didn't speak as much proper English with her as she had told us when she first booked him into the place. Rob, whom Olivier was always after, was a French teacher - a teacher of the language, more than a teacher of that nationality. As a result, Rob had spent the most time with Olivier, and Olivier obvious sought him out whenever possible, since he was the only person he could really talk to. Rob had the final say in whether we could treat Olivier as the idiot he appeared, or whether we should stand-down and accept that it must be hard to be coherent outside of your own language and context.
I'll never forget what Rob said when we were complaining about how bad Olivier's English was. "His French isn't all that good either."