Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Never Ending Story


This may come as a surprise to some of you, especially those that read the screeds I post up here regularly, but I'm actually not a bad teacher.

Although, just to be clear right up front, the kids I get paid to teach these days are not actually kids.

That's because I deal mostly with students who are doing their best to get into professional school, or some reasonable facsimile thereof.

Which means that, on the whole, they are a serious and seriously driven bunch.

But please do not be fooled; my ability to teach Type 'A' personalities reasonably effectively has absolutely nothing to do with my own extremely serious and ridiculously long bouts of training at fancy-schmancy institutes of higher learning.

Quite the contrary, actually.

Because, if you really want to know, everything I ever learned about teaching I learned at summer camp.


A lot happened to me while I worked my undergraduate summers at a little gem of a place located high in the Sooke Hills on the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island.

Not the least of which was once wowing a fellow counsellor-in-training with a little bit of chivalry that involved an offer to take a long walk through a shallow pond while we both pretended we knew how to use a compass.

But that's a whole other story.

And so is the story of how I invented a bogus fitness activity called 'Fat Belly Hour' which my cabin group and I used to successfully bamboozle the camp quartermaster into forking over dozen or so bags of marshmallows that we devoured while wallowing in the shallow end of the swimming area pretending to be high-altitude beluga whales.

Which is just another way of saying that if you want to survive as a camp counsellor, suspending disbelief with a wink and a nudge is the only way to go.

Because there is nothing that kids like better than feeling that they, too, are in on the joke right from the start.

Except for one thing that is.

And that is when you manage to convince them that you are on their side.

Unfortunately, unlike pond walks and fat belly hours, that is something you can't fake and you actually have to work at.

Which brings me to that infamous early Bill Murray vehicle called 'Meatballs' which was a B-grade movie that centered around the life and times of the fictional Camp Northstar.

And fictional is a very good way of describing just about everything thing about that movie, including the ludicrous tales of the 'CIT's So Serious', the stupid intercamp rivalries, the non-stop panty raids, the bad food, and, most of all, Mr. Murray's insane antics.

But there was one bit in the movie that still rings true for me.

And that is the 'Vegas' scene.

In that vignette, counsellor Murray tracks down a kid in a diner that has just bolted down the camp road because he figures nobody likes him.

After bumming a few fries, Murray nonchalantly asks the kid if he's going to Vegas.


Because, as Murray explains:

"If you're going to Vegas, I would be up for it because I love that town."

In spite of himself, the kid laughs.

And it is in that fleeting moment that the camp counsellor begins the process of showing the kid that he is on his side.

And, of course, after that everything comes up aces; end of story.

But it is not quite the end of this particular story.......


Now, it's not always easy to remember that the survival tricks you learned as a callow, snot-nosed 22 year old at summer camp can actually come in handy when you are dealing with kids of your own.

Take last Thursday night, for instance.

It was a madhouse at our place as usual. Little E., the seven year old, was blasting the soundtrack from 'My Fair Lady' while she danced madly in front of the living room funhouse mirror. In contrast, our thirteen year old daughter E. was pretty upset.

E. had a ton of the cursed highschool homework to do and she was giving C., her mom who also just happens to be that young girl with the compass from days gone by, a pretty hard time about it.

At this point in the story it's important to let you know that since school ended earlier that afternoon C. had already dealt with swimming class, piano lessons, and a trip to the Buy-Low. Then she rushed the crew home, cooked the dinnner, did the dictee, took care of the recycling, made a bunch of calls on behalf of the school choir, and suddenly found herself face-to-face with E.'s full metal meltdown when I finally walked in the door, late - again.

On the defensive and feeling inadequate, I immediately morphed into hard-core authoritarian Dad and began laying down the law with impunity.

Which worked fantastically.

For about 3 minutes.

Then all hell broke loose.

C. had to step back in and institute a forced truce of Golanian Heights proportions that sent everyone to their neutral corners.

About three hours later E. finally managed to finish her homework.

By then Little E. was fast asleep with yet another tooth for the fairy in a tiny treasure box at her bedside.

C. was in her pajamas and she was either reading Anne-Marie Macdonald or watching that wretched E.R. on the TV - I'll be darned if I can remember which.

And when I emerged from my subterranean blues room (ie. the basement cubbyhole where I compose these screeds) E.'s bedroom light was still on.

We hadn't spoken since the blow-up and I was tempted to leave her alone until morning.

But then, luckily for both of us, my heart softened and I knocked even more softly on her door.

She was hunched over her desk pretending to read her science textbook while she listened to the Ramones on her I-Pod.

My opening gambit was to ask her what she was doing in math these days.

She had a tough time explaining it precisely, but it sounded like it might have something to do with that dastardly distributive principle of multiplication and addition.

Which brought Grade 9 rushing back to me all over again.

So I explained to E. how I almost failed Grade 9 math because I was enrolled in one of those faddish 'work at your own pace' courses that were so popular in the middle '70's. Then I told her how my Dad bailed me out by stepping in and setting some ground rules that helped me get my homework done every night for about two weeks until I started passing tests again.

And that was all it took.

Pretty soon she was telling me about her own trials and tribulations as a kid in her first year of highschool.

Then I asked her to tell me what was really bugging her.

It turned out to be quite simple actually. She had been planning to go to a movie the next night, Friday, with a bunch of her new friends, but that had fallen through for reasons that still aren't entirely clear to me. The point is, though, that, regardless the reason, E. was devastated by this teenage turn of events.

So we devised a plan. She would call up one of the new friend kids and work something out. For my part, I promised to take them to any movie at any theater, within reason, within a 30 mile radius.

And I did.

The next night Little E. and I drove her big sister and her friend Z. to Tinseltown which is multiplex on the edge of Chinatown so that they could go see that new flick about dancing penquins or some such thing.

I have no idea if there are any Vegas scenes in that movie because, as you might have already guessed, the third part of the deal was that Little E. and I could not actually got to the movie ourselves.

This much I do know - trying to explain to your seven year old, even in fictionally conspiratorial candy-coated terms, what the characters who are ranting and raving as they roam the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are really up to on a rainy Friday night in the middle of November just might be one of the most difficult tasks I've faced as a Dad so far.

But that too, like the time I took a trip to Vegas in a Motel Slant-Six to have breakfast on the Colorado Rockies, is another one of those stories that I hope will get better with the passing of time.

And if does I just might tell it to you sometime.


Just for the record: The image is of E. in a gorilla suit on Chatham Island just south of Victoria B.C. The suit and the idea were provided by our good friend G., who just happens to have been another of the counsellors at the above described summer camp. However, the 'Gorilla Of The Gulf' is an entirely different story that only E. herself knows for sure.


No comments: