Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An Apology

One of the first jobs I had way back when was as a camp counselor. I started off as the guy who took in the lunch deliveries early in the morning and then delivered food to the various groups at the local Y. This gave me access to an unending supply of sandwiches and dry ice. After eating the sandwiches, I would take the dry ice and amaze the kids with the miracle of sublimation. Counselors loved when I would have the kids gather round a bin from which a spooky fog was pouring, not because they loved science but because it meant I would watch the kids for a little while and they could go to the bathroom, eat lunch, run errands or write a novel. Sometimes, I put a little dish soap and water in the bin so the sublimating dry ice made big bubbles which popped and spewed the fog.

From there I moved into being an actual counselor (junior counselor, whatever) and found that I had a knack for amusing 2 and a half to 3 year olds. My system was foolproof. At the morning's start of the camp day, I would lie down on the floor and let the children crawl on me and pummel me. I often fell asleep during this and the kids had a heckuva time. It was win/win. The worst part of the job, as I'm sure you can imagine (and assuming that the kids were toilet trained) was having to discipline some 3 year old. These were not my own children so I had the kind of emotional distance which allowed me to see their misbehavior dispassionately and see the need to correct it. Grabbing toys, hitting, yelling, not staying in the circle...stuff like that. And though I had to be that bad guy at least once a day and hated that responsibility, I usually was comfortable with the role.

One kid really pushed my buttons. He was exuberant, and funny and cute with a floppy mop of hair and huge eyes. But he was terrible. He was so ADD and ADHD (in the days before rampant diagnoses of such) that the guy who invented the alphabet asked that we not assign those letters because it made the whole alphabet look bad. He did everything you could imagine wrong - from taking what wasn't his to wandering away to fighting. All the worst 3 year old crimes. And when we punished him by placing him in a time-out (the "thinking chair") he would get right up and wander around. We had, on one occasion, to hold him down. Yes, he cried, but he didn't seem to get the message that he had lost certain privileges any other way. Everyone agreed that he was beyond what we could reasonably be expected to deal with.

One day, I was helping the little guys change for swim and this kid was dawdling. Dawdling means that everyone has to wait and the counselor has to stand around and keep everyone else from moving on while one kid discovers his own toes, yet again. So after most everyone left and I had only a kid or two waiting for him (the others having been released to a co-counselor) I started playing with towels. I twirled one and made a rat tail. If you don’t know, a rat tail is a twisted up towel that you use to sting people. You flick and pull back and the tip reaches supersonic speeds and cracks like a whip. In the wrong hands, it is a dangerous weapon. All my years as a counselor had made mine the wrong hands. I snapped it at a couple of kids playfully -- not to hurt, but just to "keep motivated." I made no contact and worked at such low speed that had it touched anyone, it would not have made any impression at all -- think of bopping someone with a rolled up sock.

Then as I went towards this kid, something happened. I let loose. Not full speed, mind you, but certainly with less care and a touch more speed. And I hit him in the eye. He started howling and I started worrying. I had nothing against this boy except that he made my life difficult and I just wanted him to want to be good. I wanted him to listen and fear negative consequences and want to make the authority figures happy. But suddenly, I was worried that I was going to be fired, sued and/or shot because I had blinded this kid. I apologized and tried to console him, as much to avoid having the camp director come in and kill me as to make him feel better. It took a few minutes and he stopped crying. I had, it seems, not blinded him but neither had I cured him of his misbehavior. We went back to our respective roles rather quickly.

I was on Facebook last night and I saw him commenting on a mutual friend's status. I wanted to say something, but "sorry for almost blinding you twenty years ago" seemed rather empty. Does he remember me? Does he remember camp at all? Does he know how horrible he was at 3 years old? I will never know. In the same way that I'll never know if any of those kids whom I watched will remember that when they were three, someone was there making sure that they didn’t put their shirts on backwards, and that they didn’t touch the dry ice.

So to that boy, I'm sorry. I hope that you didn't take any of that with you. You have graduated college with degrees I'll never get. You seem happy, well-adjusted and you seem to have both of your eyes. I was wrong and I apologize.

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