Learning

Names have been changed to disguise the Worst Girl Scout Camper Ever.

Susie was angry, upset, frustrated, weepy, and homesick. That week, there was an unusually low number of campers, and I had only 8 kids in my unit. With three other counselors, I thought this would be one easy week. What I didn’t know is that Susie would be enough for a whole camp full of experienced counselors to handle.

She didn’t want to do anything, she lashed out in frustration, she cried constantly, she annoyed and antagonized her cabinmates. She talked back to me, she ignored or disobeyed camp rules, she belittled me and the other counselors and campers. Susie was the camper from hell and she intuitively knew how to push my buttons. After a couple days of this, I tried to get other counselors and the camp director involved, and she didn’t respond very well to them either. I resolved to keep trying to find someone who could talk to Susie and find the right balance between listening to her concerns and urging her towards some kind of activity.

I tried to be sympathetic. I reminded myself that everyone, including myself, got homesickness, and that once Susie found an activity she could enjoy, she would feel better and stop lashing out at anyone and everyone within a 30-mile radius. I imagined what I was like at eight, and I pictured what Susie’s home life must be like, based on our conversations. I attempted to empathize when she fought with the other kids and groused about the counselors and camp life in general.

But it wasn’t working. I hated Susie and I hated what she was doing. She was making my life miserable, and I am not a person who secretly enjoys misery. She was throwing her whole unit, including me, out of whack, and I resigned myself to not being able to help Susie, my snot-faced, grouchy pre-teen problem.

I had just given up on her when she walked past me on the trail (without a buddy, of course) and asked me to put a postcard to her mother in the mail. Normally, I’d tell the girls to do it for themselves, but I wanted to avoid a fight and I was on my way to the dining hall anyway, so I said fine. Normally, I wouldn’t read a kid’s mail (privacy and tampering with mail and all), but I was out of answers regarding Susie’s problems and wanted to know if something she wrote could give me some insight. Frankly, I also wondered what the world’s unhappiest kid would tell her mother about our camp. Even happykids complained about the lack of air conditioning, their confiscated cell phones, and their aversion to the gunk at the bottom of the lake. What would Susie’s letter say: “the disgusting gunk at the bottom of the lake is the best part of this godforsaken place”?

It said that she loved camp, although she had some issues with the quality of the food and the horseback lessons. (Susie claimed to be an accomplished rider, and she felt that walking her horse around the arena was beneath her.) She enjoyed spending time with her friends. She missed her baby brother. She said she didn’t like any of the counselors, and I remember this part word for word, “except for Amy because she is my friend.”

Susie’s story is a helpful reminder to me that when we teach, we don’t know the full story. Sure, I can diagnose a reading comprehension problem a mile away, but I have no way of knowing all of the literacy experiences that led you to choose that sentence from that source to paraphrase in that way for this particular paper. To teach is to always be confronting the unknown, to be out of patience, good humor, sympathy, and resourcefulness in the face of a Susie.

Living and working in Qatar heightens these tensions of communicating with those we cannot fully understand. As anyone who has tried to order food can tell you, just because we all speak English doesn’t mean we’re talking in the same language.

But what this experience has done for me is that it has made me more comfortable with being the one who doesn’t understand. With Susie, I pushed and pushed to make meaning of her situation, to comprehend what was going on in her mind, and to find “solutions” to her “problems.” Now, I’d have infinitely more sympathy, but not because she was homesick or because she was the spawn of Satan. I would have sympathy because I am in the same boat in many ways, facing new challenges and feeling inadequate to understand what they are, much less meet them.

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