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Ever try guiding 13-year-old girls going on 30?

In this excerpt from “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” Stefanie Wilder-Taylor recounts her hilarious misadventures attempting to serve as a counselor and mentor to girls between the ages of 9 and 13.
/ Source: TODAY books

Meet Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, author of “It’s Not Me, It’s You: Subjective Recollections From a Terminally Optimistic, Chronically Sarcastic and Occasionally Inebriated Woman.” In this excerpt, Wilder-Taylor recounts her hilarious misadventures attempting to serve as a counselor and mentor to girls between the ages of 9 and 13.   

Bigs and littles
When I was almost 30 years old, my friend Samantha talked me into being a camp counselor with her to a group of 13-year-old girls at a YMCA camp. Samantha was a major do-gooder, always up for getting out and volunteering for causes usually involving animals or kids or the elderly. I considered myself more of a mental do-gooder. I had good intentions but preferred community service I could do from my couch while reading magazines and eating takeout — kind of like "The Secret" but with trans fats.

But this actually sounded sort of fun to me — specifically because I had great memories of summer camp and because I’d be with the 13-year-old group, which I felt was my target demo. Hell, I was practically like a 13-year-old girl myself with my love of Gummi bears, shopping at Forever 21, and illegally downloading Britney Spears songs — except that I lived in my own apartment, had a job, and had slightly easier access to alcohol. So I quickly agreed to do it, and before I knew what happened, I was a few hundred miles from home at a camp by Big Bear Lake getting to know my young charges.

As I quickly found out, a lot had changed since I was 13. Today’s 13-year-olds were smoking pot and, as it turns out, very, very over Britney Spears. They preferred hard-core rap. And out of 12 girls, at least 10 of them had names that were some version of Kristine.

As soon as I’d hit cabin nine and laid my knapsack and boom box down on my steel bunk, the girls started sussing me out.

“Do you like rap?” an impossibly tall African-American girl named Cristal wanted to know. Are 13-year-olds supposed to be 7 feet tall? I wondered. Would it be rude to ask her if she played basketball? I thought it might be. I mean, it should be obvious she did, right? Or, at the very least, volleyball.

“Sure. I love rap.”

“Are you down with Mobb Deep?” asked Krissy, an overly smiley girl with strawberry blonde pigtails and braces. I had a bad feeling her mother sent her out on commercial auditions.

“Mobb Deep? I’m not familiar with her work but I love Tupac.”

“Mobb Deep isn’t a her. And Tupac? He’s dead.”

“That may be true but it hasn’t stopped him from putting out album after album.” The guy was more prolific from up in heaven than I’d been my entire life on earth. 

“Album? What’s an album?”

“It’s like a CD only ... hey, we’re due in the mess hall for breakfast and I hear they’re serving banana waffles,” I said in a voice that reminded me of a preschool teacher.

“I don’t eat waffles,” yelled a different Crissy from across the room. “I only like plain toast with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter zero-calorie spray. I brought my own.” If her goal weight was that of an anorexic flamingo, she’d already attained it. But I didn’t think this was the right time for a lecture on eating disorders, especially since I could’ve stood to lose a few pounds. Maybe she’d lend me some of her spray.

Despite the fact that these girls were clearly more mature than I was, I tried to make the most of my two-week session: I attempted to rock climb (getting an avulsion fracture on my ankle in the process), watched them water-ski from my perch on the dock where I iced and elevated my ankle, and made an only semiangled lanyard keychain in arts and crafts. To get on my campers’ good side, I purposely “forgot” when it was our night for cleanup duty after dinner, and pretended not to notice when they dressed in clothes that even the Bratz dolls would have deemed “too slutty.” Didn’t their parents supervise their packing? Did they have parents?

When the girls decided to run a massage booth at the camp carnival, I realized I would have to stop trying to be their best friend and become more of a role model/parental figure. While the younger kids did water-balloon throwing and face painting, my girls wanted to put out mattresses to give out back rubs. The male counselors and campers lined up in droves before I put a quick stop to it. To my amazement, the camp administration saw nothing weird about our booth. My girls may have thought I was a buzz kill, but I felt proud that already in my new leadership role I’d saved them from a life of prostitution. Clearly, handing out back rubs at 13 is a gateway to giving full body massages, which is inches away from working in a downtown massage parlor offering full release. They’d thank me later.

I decided it was time to turn their attention to the end-of-session talent competition. I busted my ass choreographing a dance number to Anita Ward’s “You Can Ring My Bell,” which they’d never heard of but thankfully liked. “It’s cool ’cause it’s so old!” said one of the girls whose name started with a K.

“Thanks, Kristen. It’s called disco.”

“It’s Kirsten, not Kristen.”

I forced them to practice over and over. I was like the Paula Abdul to their Laker Girls. And when they took their victory lap after taking first place in the talent show, I wept like a premenstrual chick watching “Titanic” and they completely ignored me like the 13-going-on-30 teenagers they were. Then they snuck out and smoked a joint behind their cabin, which I pretended not to smell. But when the bus took us all back to the YMCA building where their parents were waiting to pick them up, a few of them gave me a hug and told me I was their favorite counselor. And only one of them furtively gave me the finger. I may have been in a bit over my head, but deep down, I knew I was onto something.

So the following year when Do-gooder told me she was going to apply to be part of the Big Sister program, I was all over it. But I figured as a Big Sister I should set my sights a little younger. Maybe a newborn.

At the orientation, I sat smugly on my school chair with the little desk. I’d always suspected I was a good person, but my decision to become a Big Sister confirmed it for me. Here I was taking the time out of my busy schedule to fill out a mountain of paperwork, get interviewed, and pay 50 bucks for the organization to run a criminal background check on me and even submit my boyfriend to a background check (which I would’ve paid a hundred for). But I knew this was nothing compared to the personal rewards I would be getting back in spades. I couldn’t wait to start enriching a disadvantaged youth’s life! I wanted the personal satisfaction I was sure to get from “expanding horizons through one-on-one friendships” as the official Web site advertised.

Once I was cleared to be what they refer to as a “Big” in the program, I’d be matched to a “Little” based on location and compatibility. Sort of like for non-blood-related siblings who don’t plan on screwing. The volunteer went on to give us some tips for success on forming a relationship with your new “Little.” According to the program, Littles are pleased as punch just to have a new friend, so there is no need to do things that cost a lot of money. In fact, playing a board game, sharing a pizza with only one topping, taking a walk in the park, or just hanging out and talking were perfect activities. I didn’t quite see how if I was a Little I’d be impressed with my Big taking me for a walk in the park to chitchat for an hour. They were clearly underestimating my creativity, possibly used to dealing with amateurs, not seasoned camp counselors like myself, so I cut them some slack.

Next, we went over the ground rules: a commitment of seeing your Little at least once a week — if possible, communication with your Little’s parents and checking in with your caseworker every so often for a progress report — sounded easy enough to me. All this “business” was making me fidgety, though. I couldn’t wait to get this show on the road. I imagined getting cards and letters from my Little years after our experience, telling me what a huge positive influence I’d been on her. Maybe she’d follow in my footsteps and become a writer and dedicate her first novel to me: “To Stefanie, My Big, the person responsible for opening my eyes to all I could become in life. I couldn’t have done this without you.” Or, maybe we’d accidentally lose touch and years later I’d be contacted by a producer from “The Montel Williams Show” and told that a certain Little had been thinking about me for years and called the show to help reunite with me, her long-lost Big. I wiped away an anticipatory tear.

A few weeks later, to my great excitement, I was assigned a Little. It was on! Her name was Ashley, she was 9, and the first time I called I got her mother, Patrice, on the phone.

“Hi. Is this Patrice?”


“This is Stefanie. I’ve been assigned to be your daughter’s Big Sister. I’m really excited to —”

Ashley Lynn! Pick up the phone!” her mom yelled half into my ear, leaving a slight ringing sensation.

“Who is it?” I heard a voice from far away.

“It’s your Big Sister. Just pick up the damn phone.” A minute or two went by while I absently flipped through my mail.

“Hello?” said a slightly dour voice.

“Hi, Ashley. This is Stefanie, your new Big. How are you doing?”

“Fine, I guess.” I tried to engage her in a little small talk and found that she was not exactly forthcoming over the phone. But, hey, she was probably just shy, not used to people taking such a keen interest in her — or maybe just not really a phone person. I refused to let that dampen my enthusiasm. I’d loosen her up. I’m great at bringing people out of their shells. Especially after a couple of cocktails. I made plans to see her that coming weekend.

Ashley was cute, and with her brown hair, brown eyes, and baseball cap she sort of looked like me. “Hey, it looks like I really could be your big sister,” I said.

“Well, maybe my mother.” I chose to let that one go. She probably didn’t know what I meant. Instead, I focused on how cool she was dressed. She was decked out in a red Adidas sweatsuit and was sporting a fairly new pair of Air Jordans. I immediately complimented her on her outfit. 

“My last Big Sister got it for me. The shoes, too.”

“Oh, really?” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice.

“You had a Big Sister before me?”

“Terry. She’s real cool. She took me to Magic Mountain.” Great. There was already an ex in the picture I had to compete with. I really wasn’t in the market to become a 9-year-old’s sugar daddy.

“What happened to Terry?”

“Um, she’s pretty busy. You know, we kind of grew apart. The Big Sister I had before that was busy, too.” I couldn’t believe it. This girl was a serial Little! One thing was certain. I wouldn’t be leaving her. She needed me and I wasn’t going to let her down.

I had planned an easygoing first outing, but with Terry breathing down my neck I figured I’d better up my game. It seemed doubtful that hanging out playing Pictionary (the only board game I currently owned) was going to cut it, so after grabbing a couple of disposable cameras, I drove us straight to the Santa Monica Pier, where I handed over $15 for parking. We rode the Ferris wheel, then the roller coaster, ate soft pretzels, and I even won her a stuffed iguana after about $40 worth of tries at the Coke bottle ring toss. If there’d been a sound track under us, it would have been a perfect movie montage — especially because Ashley barely spoke the entire time. I felt myself working hard to forge a connection with her, but she answered any questions I asked with one-word responses and I’d usually have to ask the same question three times. It was like spending the day with Marlee Matlin — only Marlee would’ve offered to pay for at least a soda. On the way home, I asked her if she had fun. “It was okay. Next time could we go to Magic Mountain?”

“I have an idea,” I said, pulling into the parking lot of CVS. I wanted to get us a journal. It would be our Big Sister/Little Sister journal, and I figured we could paste photos we took together in it, color stuff, cut pictures out of magazines, and keep a record of all of our Big Sister/Little Sister outings. It would be a keepsake for her to look through later and remember that when the chips were down, she always had me in her life to lift her spirits and guide her way.

Okay, hold up, was Ashley eyeing a pack of Marlboros behind the counter? “This way, young lady.” I steered her away from the smokes and toward the Hello Kitty notebooks, purchased some markers and glitter, and then took her home, where I pasted some pictures into the journal, sprinkled the glitter, added decorative stickers, and then wrote a little paragraph about our day. Meanwhile, Ashley and Patrice watched TV the whole time, completely oblivious to the fact that I was in the same room with them. Before leaving, I told Ashley she needed to call me anytime during the week so we could arrange another outing and that she should think of two ideas for things we could do together. The caseworker had told the Bigs to let our Littles be part of the process. It was up to them to help figure out activities.

Ashley never called me. But on Thursday Patrice did.

“Hello, Stefanie? This is Ashley’s mom, Patrice. When are you picking her up?”

“Oh, hi, Patrice. I was hoping Ashley would call me herself, but how’s Saturday?”

“Well, I’m going to be home on Saturday — I need you to take her when I’ve got to be somewhere else. Can you come on Sunday? I gotta get my hair done.” I sincerely hoped Ashley’s mom knew this wasn’t a babysitting service.

“Okay, I can come on Sunday. Why don’t I pick her up around noon?”

“Can you drop her off around six? I need to get it colored, too.”

“I was actually thinking that a couple of hours would be plenty. Why don’t I plan to have her back by three?” I thought I detected her sucking her teeth in disapproval, but I chose to ignore it.

On Sunday when I arrived to get Ashley, she got into the car looking irritated. “What are we going to do?”

“What would you like to do?”

“I don’t know.” I had assumed this would be the case given Ashley’s winning personality, so I’d come up with an option.

“Okay, well, I thought we could go to my apartment and make pita pizzas and rent a movie. How does that sound?”

“I don’t like pita pizza, whatever that is. I want to go out for Chinese food.”

“Chinese food it is.” I prayed that the Pick Up Sticks near my apartment ran their lunch specials on weekends.

We sat in silence over our orange chicken (full price). I tried to ask her all kinds of questions, but she gave her usual one-word answers or ignored me completely until we were done and I was settling up the bill.

“I want to go to the mall. I need some new lip gloss. Chanel.” You’re 9, you ungrateful brat. You don’t need lip gloss; you need a better attitude.

“Do you have any money?” I asked.

“No. Don’t you?”

“Um ...” I was actually hoping the $32 I charged to my Visa for the Chinese food wouldn’t put me over my limit.

“We’re not going to the mall. How about a walk in the park?”

Terry always bought me lip gloss.”

On our way back from the mall, I dropped Ashley off at her home, where she hopped out of the car with her new lip gloss and ran into her apartment. No “You’re the greatest Big Sister ever!” No “I had fun.” Not even “Thanks.” At that point I would’ve been happy if she just waved.

Before pulling away, I reached into the Macy’s bag for the lip gloss I’d bought for myself and it was gone. That little bitch stole my lip gloss! And Red Serenade wasn’t even her color! I glanced down at the Big Sister literature I still had on my dashboard. “Volunteering is fun! Being a Big Sister is simple and rewarding. It is as easy as showing your new Little Sister how to play a favorite computer game, bake an apple pie, or reading the funnies together. We’ve learned that being someone special to a child doesn’t take much more than that. But the impact is huge — for both of you!” Ha.

The next couple of outings went about the same way. I’d suggest the park or a game of ping-pong at the local rec center and she’d look at me like I’d grown a mustache. We’d end up at an arcade or movie — where she’d need her own large popcorn, candy, and drink. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up — at this rate, I’d need a second job.

I didn’t see Ashley for two weeks. I needed the time to save up my energy and money for our next outing. During that time, she never called me, but her mom did again and again, leaving me messages.

“Ashley really wants to see you. When are you going to take her out?” Was that true? I wondered. Maybe she did want to see me. I wasn’t in the business of letting down 9-year-olds in need of my special brand of mentoring — even if they were kleptos. I figured hanging out with me was the only thing standing between her and juvie. And after all, it hadn’t been that long ago that I’d saved a certain group of 13-year-olds from a life of prostitution.

A few days later, I called back, and although Ashley was too busy to come to the phone, Patrice was kind enough to arrange for me to come get her the following weekend. This time I was determined not to clear out my bank account trying to outdo Terry. I had a lot to offer. I’d always considered myself to be pretty good company — especially if you like snarky humor. I was determined to have a breakthrough with Ashley. When she got in the car, I told her we were going to Color Me Mine. She looked at me like I had just suggested we spend the day collecting aluminum cans. It’s not like I actually wanted to go to Color Me Mine either; I had zero interest in painting a coaster shaped like a kitty cat or a miniature flower pot, but it seemed like an appropriate activity for a 9-year-old so I was sacrificing.

“I don’t want to go to Color Me Mine. I want to go see ‘Like Mike.’ Little Bow Wow’s in it.”

“Maybe next time. Today we’re going to go express ourselves. You’ll love it.” She didn’t speak the whole way there. I considered opening up a dialogue about how it’s wrong to steal lip gloss out of your Big Sister’s Macy’s bag, but I didn’t have the energy.

“I want to go home,” Ashley muttered under her breath, like a pouty toddler.

“Me, too,” I said.

“Are we at least going out to lunch first or are you going to let me starve?” I wondered what the Big Sisters Organization’s policy was on bitch slapping 9-year-olds.

At Color Me Mine, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. I would have gotten off cheaper if we’d gone to Magic Mountain. Painting a single mug was $15 and that didn’t include the charge for the kiln. Between the two of us, we weren’t going to get out for less than $40. To make matters worse, suddenly Ashley got into the gift-giving spirit.

“I want to make something for my mom’s birthday. And my cousin’s birthday’s coming up, too. Actually, two cousins ’cause they’re twins.” An hour and a half and $130 later, we were finally on our way home. I couldn’t wait to drop her off.

“That was boring,” Ashley said. “Terry never made me do stupid stuff like that.” Terry could have her.

When I got her home, her mother wasn’t there. I had called ahead and left a message, and Patrice knew what time I was dropping her off, so this was confusing to me. I tried her cell again and again but got no response.

“You can go,” Ashley said, letting herself into the apartment with her key.

“No. I can’t,” I said, following her inside, where she curled up on the couch hugging her knees to her chest and clicked on the TV. “I can’t leave a 9-year-old girl home alone.”

“My mom does it all the time.” Damn. Suddenly I felt bad. Poor thing. No wonder she was such a little deviant. We sat on the couch together in silence until her mother finally pulled up an hour and a half later.

On my way home, I called my Big Sister/Little Sister caseworker. “I have some bad news,” I said. “I won’t be able to participate in the program any longer.”

“That’s really too bad. Ashley seems to go through a lot of Bigs.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry but although I feel like I have a lot to offer, Ashley and I just aren’t connecting. Maybe you can get Terry back. She seemed to really like her.”


“Yeah, her last Big?”

“We’ve never had anyone named Terry. In fact, her last Big Sister was named Jennifer and she only lasted one day.”

Of course. Ashley had been toying with me all along. I was actually relieved. I wasn’t a bad person. I was a giver. I was $1,000 in debt to prove it! I checked the coin compartment in my car and noticed it too had been cleaned out. Make that a thousand and two dollars.

“Would you be interested in being matched with another Little?” my caseworker asked, hopefully. Not unless you give them a background check. “The thing is, my schedule is really overbooked right now. But I’ll call you if things loosen up.”

I hung up the phone, put my foot on the gas, and turned on the stereo. Screw this, I have a real live little sister. I mean, she’s in her 20s and we have little to nothing in common, but at least she has her own bank account and is sharp enough to know that Red Serenade is not her color.