Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Life and Death of a Math Camp - Part II (of 3)

I actually signed up for Mrs. Umbridge’s correspondence school, and kept sending my work in until I graduated. She was with us on our Tbilisi trip, and turned out to be very protective. She insisted on sharing a room with me and my best friend, the only two girls in the group. Like a security guard, she followed us around and checked on us every ten minutes when we were in the guys’ room. Of course, when a man actually did break into the building at night, woke me up, and asked me if he could get into my bed, Mrs. Umbridge slept like a baby through the whole thing. I had to convince the dude to leave with no outside help.

The story of Mrs. Umbridge’s rise to camp directorship escapes me. I was busy doing other things when it all happened, so all I have is pieces and parts of disconnected information from several different sides. Apparently, in ’84, Mrs. Umbridge arrived at camp, not as a visitor, but as some kind of authority figure. She also brought along a sidekick, named Vella or Veela (yes, the HP analogies continue, except this Veela was old and ugly.) Together, they tried to rule with an iron hand, which didn’t sit well with the old staff. I vaguely remember Veela patrolling the camp territory at night - yelling “Halt!” and shining her flashlight in people’s faces - which was against all tradition, as the 15- and 16-year-olds used to stay up till the wee hours of the morning. (It was, technically, against the rules, but our counselors pretended hard not to notice.) Mrs. Umbridge somehow promoted herself to director, and the old staff left, taking with them the legendary camp banner.

In ’85, the camp opened again, same location, same kids, except there weren’t any counselors left. Mrs. Umbridge hastily recruited a few future math teachers from the Pedagogical Institute, but there still wasn’t enough. A friend of mine, who was in camp with me in ’82 and ’83, came to the camp on the first day, accompanying her younger brother, who was now a student. Her intention was to help him unpack and settle in, and go home. Mrs. Umbridge offered her a counselor’s job and she was hired on the spot.

Veela was gone, but Mrs. Umbridge now had another sidekick (let’s call him, oh, Sir Happy – aw, what the heck, his name is really Sergey) – an older, balding guy who claimed to have been a student at the very first camp in 1971. I worked with the man for two summers and he was such a dazzling nobody, with no personality, no interests, no sense of humor, and, we all suspected, no brains. I am not sure what the man did for a living, or even what his job was at camp. He spent most of his time telling everybody that it was still the same camp, and nothing had changed since he had been a student there. But in reality, a lot had changed. Starting with, oh, the camp’s name. As far as I remember, you could actually get reprimanded for using the old name – Summer Mathematics School. It was now Summer Mathematics Camp. The legendary banner was replaced by a red standard with the hammer and anvil. And, of course, the rules. There wasn’t a whole lot of freethinking going around anymore. Gone was also the University atmosphere – the old staff had quit, and the new hires, like myself, were quite mediocre compared to our predecessors. Add to it the fact that half the students could still remember the old times, and the fact that Mrs. Umbridge for some reason had zero tolerance for the old camp’s traditions, and you have a recipe for disaster.

When I came to camp in ’86, I was horrified. There was nothing left of the old Summer Math School. I’d like to tell you that I was a good teacher, but, I wasn’t. I guess teaching kids wasn’t high on my list of priorities at 19. I was busy partying and searching for date-worthy guys among the staff and doing other important things such as those. The kids, however, loved me, and I have no idea why. Maybe it was because I was living proof of the old times, and, unlike Sir Happy, never failed to stress that the camp had changed dramatically. Then again, at 15, they were hardly “kids” to me. These “kids” are in their mid-thirties now. What a scary thought.

It was only for those kids’ sake that I went back in ’87. Miss Umbridge actually tried to kick me out at the last minute. We were required by her to attend a week-long psychology class in St.-Petersburg before the camp started. I was the only staff member from out of town. When I arrived, on the morning of the first class, I was met by the happy Mrs. Umbridge, who told me that the class location had been changed; it would take me an hour to get there; it would be too late for me to join the class by then, as I would never be able to catch up (it was a 7-day class, eight hours a day, and I had missed a whole hour - egads!!); and the class was an absolute prerequisite to working in camp, so, I could turn around and go back home. Then in the same breath, she announced that one of the counselors had just given notice. That made me the only remaining staff member from the University; the rest were all from the Pedagogical Institite. It did seem as though Mrs. Umbridge was trying to get rid of University students. Today, I would have given her the one-digit salute and walked out the door. But, at 20, I was different from what I am now, so I burst into tears. In a rare moment of kindness, Mrs. Umbridge gave me directions to the psych class.

New and scary changes awaited the kids in camp.

To be continued...

PS. I did find the old pictures from various years of camp yesterday, but have been having a hard time taking shots of them with my digital camera. My sleep-deprived organism just isn't up to the challenge - my hands keep shaking, and I'm cutting off parts of the pictures. I'll get K10 to do it for me tonight.

The Goldie has spoken at 10:55 AM

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