Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"A Little Lesson That Taught Me A Lot"

One final little memory nugget before I (reluctantly) close the books on my camp stories for the season…

I don’t want to say goodbye

To the sum-mer…

I’m a Senior Counselor. Eighteen years old. I’m in charge of eleven-year old boys, “in charge” being a laughable euphemism. My campers were entirely beyond my control. The next year, they gave me six-year olds. I did considerably better with them. For one thing, when they ran away from me, I could catch them. They had shorter legs. Eleven year-olds were too fast for me. In every way imaginable.

We’re playing baseball. My cabin against a cabin of similar-aged kids. We’re up to bat. There are no dugouts. My kids assemble behind the backstop, waiting for their turn to hit.

The backstop surrounding the home plate area is made of wood, about three feet high, above which there’s mesh wire fence, wrapped around a wooden frame, rising to about ten feet. The fence is made up of interlocking diamonds of wire. The holes are big enough to stick your fingers through.

A point lying at the heart of this story.

The story being, me, trying to keep my campers – one camper in particular – from sticking their fingers through the fence. You don’t want kids sticking their fingers through the fence, because of the chance of a foul ball suddenly flying backwards and mangling those fingers to pieces.

Mangled campers’ fingers. That’s trouble for everybody.

Okay. The kids are leaning against the backstop. A number of them have their fingers through the fence. My first instruction. Calm and easy.

“Okay, guys. No sticking your fingers through the fence.”

The kids obediently remove their fingers.

A few miinutes later, I look back, and I notice that one kid – his name is Jeffrey – has his fingers snaked back through the fence.

“Jeffrey. Take your fingers away from the fence.”

Jeffrey pokily withdraws his fingers.

A few minutes later…

They’re back.

You can hear the sigh of frustration in my voice. In fact, I may have actually sighed.

“Jeffrey! Cone on! Do you want to hurt yourself?”

Once again, Jeffrey withdraws his fingers.

Moments later,

They’re back again.

Fueling my incremental boil.

“Jeffrey! How many times do I have to tell you? Take. Your fingers. Away from the fence!”

“O-kay!” whines Jeffrey, rapidly becoming a poster boy for Truculence.

I check back later…

You got it.

I have no idea what to do. I try everything in my (limited) counselorly arsenal.

“Jeffrey, are you listening to me? Or am I talking to the wall?”


“Jeffrey, I’m warning you…”


“Get away from that fence!”

Nothing works.

Whatever my approach, Jeffrey’s stumpy little fingers repeatedly insinuate their way back to the “No-no Zone.” It feels like a war. A war, which, like many wars, started out being about one thing but evolved into something else, in this case, a battle over my authority as a counselor. It was still about Jeffrey’s fingers, of course. But not just about Jeffrey’s fingers. We were long past that.

Bernie Green was our soft-spoken Unit Head. (Unusual, since most Unit Heads were of the “rah-rah” variety.) Apparently, Bernie had been quietly observing the Earl-Jeffrey hostilities from a distance. Now he decided to take action.

Here’s what he did.

Bernie casually sidled up to the backstop beside Jeffrey, and in a calm and sincerely concerned voice said to him:

“I’m worried about your safety.”

There was a long beat where nothing happened.

Then Jeffrey withdrew his fingers.

And he never put them back.

I learned a lot of lessons at camp. But none was more valuable than that one.

“I’m worried about your safety.”

That’s all it took.


JED said...

I was positive your story was going to end with Jeffery getting his fingers smashed by a ball hitting the fence. I'm glad it had a happy ending. It's a good lesson to me, too, who has a tendency to raise my voice as I am repeatedly ignored. I need to take a breath, change my perspective and find the peaceful path.

Thanks, Earl.

Brian Fies said...

Peaceful maybe. I just imagine it being said like a Mafia don: "It would be a shame if somethin' like a axcident was to happen to your fingers."