I was taught a valuable lesson by a bunch of inner-city kids when I was their 20-year-old summer camp counselor. The lesson was about when and whether to take action; and when and whether to do nothing and wait. But let me tell you the story…
The job was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard and MIT. Although I was attending the U of Illinois, my friend Rich Adelstein was then involved in something called the “MIT Science Camp.” I never really found out what science had to do with it, because it wasn’t much different from any other summer camp, but for a few things having nothing to do with science. First, of course, it was at MIT, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning; a place where only the elite young minds already proficient in science were allowed to matriculate. And because of that, it was not an “outdoor” oriented summer camp, although we did do the usual things like playing baseball. But perhaps the most important distinction between this summer camp and most of those you might have heard about or attended, was the fact that it was for underprivileged kids from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were in the 12 to 15-year-old range. Some were shy, some were petty criminals, some were learning disabled, some were angry, and some were lost. But, it was thought that all of them might still benefit from the camp experience.
The counselors were all about my age, and all of them were MIT undergraduates with two exceptions: myself and a Harvard student. The kids were recommended by their schools. The project was funded by money then available as part of the “Great Society” vision of LBJ, otherwise known as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The camp itself was supervised by a psychiatrist, Dr. Warren Brody. The year was 1967.
Many of the activities of my group of six kids were done in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff was a swell fellow, smart and easy to get along with, and we worked well together. We had money for some outings with the boys (all the kids in the camp were male) and even took them on a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard and another excursion to New York City, where we watched the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. As I said, we played some baseball and also put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. It was “Twelve Angry Men.” We had just enough players, and these kids were thereby exposed to performance. A fun summer was had by all.
On the day in question Geoff had a morning dentist appointment, so I was in charge of both of our groups. Depending on the day, not all the kids would necessarily be there. I imagine on this particular day, there were probably 10 of them present.
I was walking with the kids through Building 7 when one of the older ones quickly instructed the others to run in different directions. We had come to a four-way intersection, so there were four possible flight paths down which each kid could escape. In a flash they were gone. As I stood at the intersection and looked in each direction not one was to be seen.
Remember, I was 20 years old and in charge of these lives. Their safety was my responsibility. But what was I to do? Even though I was rattled, I was still smart enough to know that any direction I chose would, at best, avail me the possibility of finding only two or three or four kids. For the life of me, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Not because I thought that was a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of any good solution.
Perhaps you’ve guessed that I had stumbled upon precisely the right course: inaction. In fact, it was the only solution. If I had started running down any one of the corridors, I’d probably still be running. But because I didn’t, the kids found that the “chase” they’d hoped for hadn’t materialized, and they weren’t having any fun. In the space of 10 minutes they were all back where they started and we proceeded on to our appointed destination.
Sometimes life is like that. If you stop chasing a thing or a person, it stops running away from you. You can drive people away in your pursuit, be it romantic or angry.
Slow down. Be patient. See if you can live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Wait, wait, wait and see… Take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can actually make things worse. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Sometimes inaction is better — much better — than action.
A lot of things in life, like those kids, are like boomerangs — they come back to you.
At least, they sometimes have for me.
The top image is called Hesitation by Alfred Garth Jones, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.