Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A-B-C, Easy as...

After suffering through 10 weeks of studying for, and then taking, the New York and New Jersey Bar exams, I spent the last two weeks of the summer at the upstate sleepaway camp where I used to run the music and theatre programs before my career path shifted away from education toward the law. I had originally intended to stay only until the outset of the camp's annual "color war," but the directors asked me to stay on and help with the music for the culminating "sing" event.

[For those of you unfamiliar with the whole summer-camp thing, "color war" is an event that just about every camp ends the summer with. The entire camp is split into two teams pitted against each other in ostentatious and melodramatic competition for several days until one of them wins, at which point everyone hugs, sings the camp song and realizes just how pointless the whole thing was.]

This camp has a huge population, so when for example one age group is scheduled to play basketball or soccer against itself, there are too many kids in the group to have only one game. What we (and presumably every other camp) have traditionally done is had an "A" and a "B" team (and in some cases a "C" team) divided according to athletic ability. The best athletes play on the "A" team, the next-best on the "B" team, and those who can't walk in a straight line without tripping over themselves end up on the "C" team. It's really no different from the varsity/JV concept in scholastic athletics. It makes a lot of sense and works very well for all concerned.

Well, I suppose it was inevitable that one day the parents of the camp's less-than-stellar athletes would take angry and vocal exception to this perfectly reasonable idea and arm-twist the camp into plumbing new and profound depths of sheer abject stupidity in order to placate their fragile and well-moneyed egos.

You can probably guess what happened: The camp decided to abolish the athletic-merit-based A-B-C hierarchy and instead divide the A, B and C teams in an egalitarian fashion. In other words, instead of making a varsity, a JV and a taxi squad, the teams were supposed to make three roughly-even teams from among all the children in that division and then pit them randomly against each other. (There was an initial exception to this for hockey, because of the unavoidable issue of who could skate and who couldn't.) I won't go into all the details of how this idea was implemented in color war, except to mention that by the end of the first day it had created so much confusion and proven to be such a failure that it was essentially reversed as quickly as it had arisen, at least for the older kids. Whether they intend to try this again next year I have no idea. Suffice it to say that I didn't hear anyone at camp defending or promoting it.

Anyone who has ever been involved in athletics, at least as a player or coach, knows that the best competition occurs when everyone on the field is of comparable skill and ability. In a training or practice environment, it is certainly helpful for the lesser athlete to work side-by-side with highly skilled coaches and teammates, but in game competition, it does substantially more harm than good; to the game, to the lesser athlete himself, and to his teammates. Neither does the skilled athlete benefit from playing with (or against) lesser players. In short, this sort of arrangement does not help anyone in any real sense. The only benefit is to the lesser player's self-esteem, and it's a negative benefit because it's designed more to avoid "feeling bad" than to accomplish anything positive.

I guess the only thing that surprises me about all this is that it took this many years for the idea to creep into color war (it's been in camp for years; we played dozens and dozens of inter-camp tournaments each summer just to make sure every kid made at least one team). I really wish I could understand just what these parents think they're accomplishing by complaining to the camp directorship about their kids' lack of athletic prowess, and demanding that the camp make things difficult and counter-intuitive for everyone else in order to accommodate their insecurity. They're certainly not doing their kids any favors.

I was a terrible athlete as a child; I never made an "A" team at camp. I went sailing and raced go-karts and built contraptions at the wood shop and wrote skits and songs. And I hated color war (we called it "Olympics" at my camp). Pretending I was an "A" athlete would not have changed that. I became a better athlete in high school, when I was through with camp. Would I have done that if I had been led to believe that I was already an athlete? No way.

I understand that camp is not school, and it's certainly not real life. These people spend an awful lot of money to send their kids to camp for 7 weeks and can obviously therefore be very demanding. It's just that the educator in me often emerges and objects when I see these anti-educational ideas come out, in a place which I believe should at least attempt to provide some semblance of an educational experience.