The call came just days after my girls had left for camp.
“This is not an emergency,” the voice began, cautiously. “But your girls have broken the rules. We’re thinking of sending them home.”
My husband and I stared at each other, stunned. We’d paid an unreasonable amount of money to send our twins to Jewish camp this summer and we knew the camp directors had the discretion to send kids home at any time for rule violations. But we never thought for a second that it would be our girls who were threatened with expulsion, that we’d be on the other end of the line with a sombre-voiced counsellor, trying to figure out the next steps.
I’m biased, of course, but my girls are high achievers. At 15, they have part-time jobs teaching athletics, they maintain stellar grades at school and they manage a
decent balance of social, academic and fitness activities, all things considered. Secretly, I’d congratulated myself that we’d moved past the harrowing speed bumps of adolescence and into a phase of greater maturity and insight. Then the call came, dissolving any self-congratulations instantly.
In the weeks since this incident occurred, I’ve been admonished and censured for referring directly to the violation, which is now a source of great embarrassment to them. Their misdemeanour was using needles to make permanent inscriptions on their skin.
We had debated the merits of tattoos and body piercings in the past. They knew full well that neither form of body art was permitted – at least until they were financially independent adults. So it came as a big surprise that they’d done it anyway – a flagrant violation not just of camp rules, but of our rules.
They were crying in the camp director’s office when we got the call and it sounded like the director was pacing the floor. “I’m embarrassed that you did this on my watch,” he declared as we listened on speaker phone from 400 kilometres away. “I really think we need to seriously consider having your parents come and get you.”
I shuddered. The last thing I wanted was to bring my girls home. My mood exacerbated by an untimely bout of PMS, I was furious beyond all reason, searching for a place to put my rage. I didn’t trust myself to be around them. So, after voicing my utter disappointment at their poor decision-making and agreeing with a range of punitive measures the camp planned to institute, I made the case for second chances.
Later, when I was out for dinner with a couple of my close girlfriends, the incident spilled out in a verbal flood of frustration, sorrow and self-recrimination. As parents, we believe our parenting has everything to do with how our kids turn out. When their choices are good ones, we shep nachas, but when they’re bad, we suspect, deep down, that their poor decisions are our fault.
As really good friends do, mine listened quietly and without judgment before offering some pearls of wisdom. “It’s not that bad,” they insisted. “Did you hear about so-and-so? Sent home from camp for being intimate with other campers. And everyone knows about what’s-his-name, who was expelled for smoking marijuana at camp. In the big scheme of things,” they consoled me gently, “this sin ranks relatively low on the list of possible violations.”
Over the days that followed, anger gave way to disappointment and then to gradual acceptance. Now, with a few weeks of perspective under my belt, I realize that the camp director handled the incident with great intelligence and dignity. “You’ve broken our trust,” the director told them solemnly. “It’s going to take time and a great deal of effort to rebuild.” Instead of attending the camp dance the night of their violation, my girls had a lengthy discussion with the rabbi, in which they covered the Jewish stance on body art in detail. They were asked to sign a “behaviour contract,” and for the remainder of their camp experience, they were, essentially, on probation.
The girls are back and though life is essentially back to normal, the bond of trust we shared before camp has been damaged. I’m more cautious now, more wary of the foolishness of 15-year-olds and more determined than ever to teach them the value of good decision-making in the short time we have left before they leave home to start independent journeys of their own.