The Life and Death of a Math Camp, Part III
Sorry, no pictures! I tried all weekend, but I am apparently the worst photographer on the face of the Earth.
I am also a great procrastinator.
New and scary changes awaited the kids in camp. Mrs. Umbridge decided to try on them a 65-year-old pedagogical strategy, called “Collective System of Learning”. (I hope my teacher friends are reading this; this is a hoot.) There were two basic prerequisites to the Collective System of Learning. One, the students had to be age-diverse. This was apparently very important, as this emulates the family environment, whereas the traditional grouping by age that we see in school, is unnatural and prevents children from learning how to socialize properly. Therefore, Mrs. Umbridge postulated, we had to have kids of every age from 13 to 16 in equal proportions in each group. (Keep in mind, we are talking about gifted kids learning advanced, college-level math!)
The second component of the Collective System of Learning was that instead of the teacher teaching the students, the students were responsible for teaching each other. Not "working in groups and explaining things to each other occasionally", but teaching each other on a regular basis. The way it worked was, you get a round table and seat about a dozen students around it, along with the teacher. The teacher explains the new material to the student on his immediate right; after that, this student explains the same material to the kid on his or her immediate right; and so you go around the table in this manner. Again, keep in mind, we are talking about math geeks, most of whom couldn’t explain their way out of a paper bag with both ends open! (You should hear my son I12 when he tries to explain things. And I was the same way.)
This genius system was invented in the early years of Soviet state, and implemented in Soviet schools in the early 1920’s. Sadly, it died a natural death shortly thereafter. (Gee, I really wonder why.) And that’s how we were now supposed to teach. Not only did it have all indication of never going to work; it also meant the end of the old-University atmosphere that our camp had been so famous for.
But, as we know, to most teenagers, gifted or not, education, summer education especially, isn’t high on the priority list. Most teenagers come to camp, not for the math, but for the social aspect of it. Now imagine a group of 16-year-olds, the oldest kids in camp. For three years, they had waited to become the oldest group in camp, so everyone else could look up to them and they could “own the camp”. Now imagine having to explain to these kids that, because of the new learning structure, their group will be split into five, and they will be mixed together with the 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. Do not forget to mention that they will be sharing their bedrooms with the 13-year-olds, as well.
And that, my friends, was what I had to explain to my group that year. Needless to say, they were elated to hear the news. NOT!!!
It was downhill from there. Mrs. Umbridge stopped me in the hallways daily to tell me how much she hated me and how I was a disgrace to the camp. Sir Happy insisted on making asinine comments during staff meetings, thus provoking me to make verbal jabs, make everyone laugh, and piss him off.
At the “Miss and Mr.” contest that year, I finally won the popular vote, and competed in the finals. (Well, not really competed, as counselors are not allowed to compete against students, but you know what I mean.) Sadly, during the same contest, an incident occurred. The finalists were chosen by secret vote, boys voting for the girls, and girls voting for the boys. As we sat there counting votes, we realized that a hugely unpopular girl had made it into the finals. I suspected foul play, and asked to remove her name from the list, but my fellow counselors wouldn’t listen, and, back then, I didn’t know how to make my point. We paired the girl up with one of the finalist boys, and the finalists’ names were announced over the loudspeaker. Sure enough, it turned out to be a setup. Some brain-dead boys, who shall remain anonymous because we never found them, had decided it would be great joyous fun to vote for this girl just for the heck of it. The girl was devastated; the guy that we had paired her with was devastated even more; both withdrew themselves from the competition. Guess who got blasted by Mrs. Umbridge at the staff meeting that night for “allowing this horrible incident to happen”. Moi, of course. And I wasn’t even the one organizing the darn thing. Apparently, in Mrs. Umbridge’s opinion, since I was on stage, participating in the finals, that made me responsible for the whole thing.
One evening, I stayed late with the group of 15- and 16-year-olds, playing my guitar while they were singing along, another great tradition of our camp. In the meantime, a weary 13-year-old kid snuck into his bedroom, got into bed fully clothed, and fell asleep. He was found in this sad condition by Mrs. Umbridge, who called me a sadist and a fascist at the next staff meeting. That was one of the many occasions when I was sorely tempted to pack and leave camp, but stayed because I felt sorry for the kids.
On the last day, my group somehow ended up missing six blankets that I had no money to pay for. On the list where we all had signed for our kids’ possessions, someone had changed the number 60 into 66. Mrs. Umbridge treated me to another lecture on what a horrible counselor I was, then magically forgave the whole thing.
Call me crazy, but I signed up to go back to camp in ’88.
Sometime in the spring of ‘88, Mrs. Umbridge asked us to write to the oldest kids in our groups (the ones that were about to graduate school), and ask them if they wanted to come work in camp as junior counselors. Ninety percent of my kids said yes. I brought their replies to our next meeting.
“Mrs. Umbridge, to your question about junior counselors, six of my kids want to do it, here’s the list and here are the letters.”
Mrs. Umbridge stared at me as if I had sprouted another head.
“What junior counselors? There isn’t going to be any junior counselors.”
I sat there, wondering what I would say to the kids.
I didn’t have to wonder long.
Ten minutes later, Mrs. Umbridge told me that I wasn’t going to camp that summer.
I got up and left, and had a great summer hanging out with my boyfriend, relaxing at a resort, and catching up with old friends in my home town. And that was the last I saw of Mrs. Umbridge, God rest her soul.
It was also the last year of the camp. My friend was there, and according to her, it was a very bad year. The counselors didn’t even participate in the “Miss and Mr.” contest, because, as my friend explained to me, “our guys were all losers.” That makes me the last counselor Miss of the Summer Mathematic School. It was a good camp, and it was sad to see it go. For all I know, it could still be there, if it wasn’t for the hard work of one courageous woman who liked the Collective System of Learning way too much.
If anyone reading this has recognized the camp, and was there at any time between 1980 and 1987, can you email me please. I am trying to get in touch with my old friends.