Farewell Summer 2009.

From a totalitarian continent to a totalitarian summer camp, my summers seem to be getting worse.

Last summer, I embarked on an adventure. This summer, I said to myself, I should devote more time to my college life before I embark on another adventurous tour through Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia starting late August. I lost an internship opportunity with the House of Commons because of a scheduling conflict. Among the job offers for the summer was a mentorship position with a Summer College program for highschool kids. Nothing prestigious, nothing lucrative, but it fit the grand scheme of things and I took the job.

Wow. What an adventure it had been. I was confronted with problems within and without the program, the problems so overblown that they reached such a feral state that I didn’t witness last summer in the depths of Africa. Silver lining? I am now perfectly ready to be the headmaster of a sufficiently small school.

Firstly, there was this Facebook thing; my superiors ask all mentors not to add highschoolers. Not that we were actively adding them, but we were just responding to their friend requests. (Oh, I think I need to preface it by saying I am 20, and most mentors are only two years older than our wards, most of whom are under eighteen.) I don’t care much about facebook but when we ignore them on facebook, we created this entirely necessary ‘us vs. them’ barrier. Mentors didn’t know what is happening inside our wards’ community. They might as well be organizing beer pong parties or massive Satanic rituals via facebook, but we didn’t know. We were trapped behind this information Iron Curtain of our own doing.

Not to mention, it sent a wrong signal. It is as if their friendships were not worthy. It is better to be feared than loved, said Machiavelli. In reality, it is better to be trusted than either feared or loved, and this facebook episode showed that my superiors at the college didn’t trust us, the mentors, nor the students nor our relations with one another. Okay, facebook, I can deal with, but after a few weeks, the entire dynamic of the Summer College Program changed.

As someone who went to prep/boarding school, and tackled his smoking habit by taping the pack and the lighter to the bottom of the drawers (take note: teachers were not thorough searchers), I was fully prepared to tackle any problem they (students + program) threw at me, but the program sadly wasn’t. There were allegations about students stealing, drinking, smoking pot, etc.–allegations that were entwined with rumors–a situation not unfamiliar to the highschool cafeteria atmosphere. The program reacted strongly; we (shamefully I have to add my own name to this list of perpetrators) ignored the fact that the burden of proof was upon us and that we have to presume them innocence until proven guilty.

Edmund Burke, who did have a way with his words that I don’t, said ‘it is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph’. I finally filed a strongly worded email protesting this ignorance of burden of proof and innocence until proven guilty process. I was also flared up by the curfew check policy; the university treated these highschoolers as college students but the program didn’t. [College students are exempt from curfew checks by the 1961 Supreme Court Ruling, Dixon v. Alabama.] Students’ key cards which they used to access the building were catalogued so that the program could track who was re-entering the dorm and when. For mentors, they used card access and dining halls access to guestimate how many hours we spend at the camp. For a fierce critic of Bush administration’s wiretapping policies, it was just a slap squarely on my face.

Mentors are here to protect the students from themselves or one another, but this summer, I find myself protecting–or trying and failing to protect–them from the programs (authorities) or from the other mentors. I received significant support behind the administrators’ back for my righteous standings (I couldn’t believe I am typing this to describe myself but such was the reality here) but the silent majority didn’t utter a word when the vocal minority (of administrators and other mentors) decided that curfew breakers must help the program with chores (rearranging tables, etc.). You might never guess it from this blog but taciturnity was my policy so I said just four words, “It is not legal.” The program decided to go ahead anyway, but they acknowledged my fiery two cent by calling these chores ‘community service’. Then it is legal? After all, didn’t Pol Pot renamed his killing fields ‘reeducation camps’?

I began with an African anecdote, so I will end here with another, so that the story can come full circle. I once quarreled with my girlfriend in Africa. She said in her not-so-perfect English, “You hurt my feelings”. I replied, “You know what, I have feelings, too.” How often do we forget that? How often do we forget that the other party (in this case, 300+ students in Summer College) have feelings too. Why are we treating them as sub-standard human beings (paraphrasing a mentor who called them that)? They have feelings too. We just have to stand back and listen to them. How easy was that? Why make it so hard?





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