A Letter To Summer Camp Counsellors / Staff:
What is your job? Really, when it get down to the basics, what are you charged with doing? Many of you might say, 'ensuring the kids have a good time,' and you'd be right, that's one aspect of your job, but it's not the primary, basic, part of the job of Camp Counsellor. The first priority of your job is to keep the children in your care safe. Everything else comes from that. I know this because I was once, in my youth, a camp counsellor.
Yes, safety is the primary goal. But you need to define safety quite broadly. Safe from harm, obviously. Safe from being bullied or excluded by others, much less obviously. And, you have a responsibility to keep members of the public safe when you take the kids out for a field trip somewhere, anywhere.
I can hear those questions rising in your minds. Let me give you an example. I went somewhere yesterday, one of Toronto's big tourist attractions, because I was taking friends there. When we arrived there were thousands upon thousands of children everywhere. They were all wearing matching coloured tee shirts announcing that they were part of a camp. I thought, upon seeing the tee shirts, that I'll be OK because the kids were in small groups and those groups were under supervision.
Here's two things that happened:
I was looking at a display monitor that had a touch screen that allowed me to access more information. Suddenly there appeared on the other side of a screen, a boy about 8. He stood there, and simply stared at me. His eyes running up and down my body taking it all in. It's incredibly invasive, these kind of full body scans. His camp counsellor was standing about six inches away from him, looking at another display. Clearly the counsellor forgot that he wasn't there to see the display he was there to supervise children. I finally said, kindly, "Please go look at something else, you are making me uncomfortable." He didn't move. But the counsellor did. He came and took him by the hand and guided him away. A glance of annoyance thrown my way was the CC's only interaction with me at all.
Like I was supposed to let the kid do what he was doing. Like I was supposed to stop being a visitor and become an exhibit. Like, because he was a kid, I should let him do it.
Later, that same day, Joe and I were near ready for lunch. We were leaving a room into which a tsunami of children were crashing in. There were a group of 5 girls, maybe 10, who landed right in front of my wheelchair and right behind them was their CC. The girls, as if I could neither see them or hear them, began laughing at me because of my 'big fat belly'. I let this go on for a second, waiting for intervention, I looked to the CC who didn't even notice it. I don't know where she was but she wasn't at work. I have something I use, rarely, only in emergencies: my mother's look. My mother could stop a raging stampede of buffalo with her look. I pulled it out dusted it off and gave them the look. They stopped. "I can see you, you know," I said, calmly but firmly, "I can hear you, too. What I see and hear are rude young women. You know better than to laugh at people. You are just mean bullies and I have no respect for people who hurt other people. Get out of my way."
My statement, not loud, not angry, just firm, caught the ear of the CC who was shocked. The girls were completely silent, and a little upset, as the opened a space between them to let me through. I left, told Joe that I was weary of being there, and we headed out.
The subject of bullying and social violence is not a new one. Camp Counsellors probably work hard, or I hope they do, that kids don't bully kids in their programs. But when they are taking these kids into public, in a diverse city like Toronto, they need to be aware that there are people with differences and with disabilities that walk the street - in full daylight. Those same people with differences and with disabilities might even actually go to museums and galleries and tourist places. That being the case, isn't it the job of the camp to have policies about the safety of the public when the children are in public places? Isn't it the job of the camp counsellors to prepare the kids for what to do when they see someone who is different? Can't they be taught the skills for knowing what to do when they encourage human diversity?
And should that teaching fail, isn't it the job of the Camp Counsellor to be alert to the behaviour of those in their charge? Shouldn't they be ready to intervene? Isn't that their job? The safety of the kids, the safety of others who share space with those kids?
Well, I tell you, it's not my job to intervene. I'll tell you too, it's hard to intervene when you are being targeted by anyone. Being openly stared at, or openly mocked, isn't easier to deal with because the kids are between 8 and 10 - everyone says that kids don't understand but I know they do. So, I restrain my annoyance and even anger, and use the calm voice I've developed over the years. But it's work. A lot of work. And I don't believe in this instance that it's my work to do. It's yours, Camp Counsellors.
So do it.