“Cabin Porch Masturbation Will Get You Sent Home Early, and Other Lessons I Hope Jacob Learned at Camp,” by Eli Chanoff

May 8th, 2019 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Twelve is a hard age. At twelve you might equally make trouble by stealing a second helping of sugary cereal from the Shabbat morning breakfast buffet or by masturbating in your sleeping bag as your unsuspecting camp counselor leads a guided meditation. Jacob, the worst 12 year old I’ve ever known, showed me this during a three-week session at Camp Watahooga. “Hey bud, it’s not fair if you get more lucky charms when no one else does,” I told Jacob in the morning, and then later, “hey Bud, like we said before, you need to go to the all-gender single-use bathroom if you want to masturbate”–all this in the course of one terribly unrestful shabbat.

When I’m feeling charitable I can appreciate that Jacob was new to camp, and unsure of his place in the world. He was trying on different personalities, Lucky Charms Thief and Cabin Masturbator being only two of many. As a counselor at Camp Watahooga it was my role to make sure every camper knew that I would accept him no matter what, to make sure that, regardless of where he started, he would end the session with more currency in his self-esteem piggy bank. I could tell immediately that Jacob’s piggy bank was near empty, and I truly sympathized with the kid. Like I say, twelve is a hard age. But as each of his different personalities arose, I had to qualify my constant affirmation. “We’ll accept you no matter what,” in Jacob’s case, had a permanent addendum: “except if you’re like that.”

Now, this is a real pre-teen, who attended a real summer camp where I really worked, so I’m using the name “Jacob”, which is fake. But it’s a Jewish summer camp, and a plurality of my campers over three years on staff have been named Jacob, frequently with last names like Rosen-Katz or Klein-Grossman. If I were to build the average Camp Tawenda camper’s name, it would be something like Jacob Goldman-Greenberg, so that’s how I’ll refer to my camper.

Jacob GG was hard to figure out. He was quiet for the first couple of days, and my co-counselor–a sweet but oblivious Israeli named Daniel whose recently concluded military service consisted of “if I told you then I’d have to kill you, haha”–helped me brainstorm ideas to help Jacob come out of his shell. Daniel suggested that we let him start a game of telephone, a game Daniel had recently learned and fallen in love with. One child comes up with a word or phrase, and whispers it in the ear of his neighbor. The neighbor is not allowed to ask for  repeat, and whispers a likely incorrect version in the ear of his own neighbor. This continues until the last person announces the butchered phrase aloud, to much hilarity.

After explaining the rules, and instructing that in Hebrew telephone is pelephone, Daniel feigned a moment of thought before asking Jacob to start us off.

Jacob hesitated, unsure whether to scoff with the campers who felt the game too juvenile or to revel in the jealousy of the campers who were upset at not getting to choose the starting word. After a moment he smirked at me, as I was sitting next to him, and whispered in my ear the letters KYS. “What does that mean?”, I said, and he again brought a cupped, clammy hand to my ear and spittled, “it means ‘kill yourself’, like in video games”. This was day two of camp, not even 30 hours since the kids had gotten off the bus. Many in the bunk still didn’t know Jacob’s name. Perhaps it was me who was out of step with the zeitgeist in suggesting that Jacob start the game with something more innocuous. Perhaps the whole session would have unfolded differently if I had leaned over the eager child next to me, mustered the courage of a preteen with an X-box, and repeated the acronym. But I couldn’t. I made him pick a new word. And from that moment on Jacob hated me. I am not a vindictive person. I was the adult in this situation, the caretaker of twelve boys. But I’ll admit that I came to hate Jacob too.

This was only the first of many games Jacob ruined. We had to end a quiet game of Categories when he blurted out “PORNSTARS” and rattled off a list of names, the length of which went from kind of funny to pretty creepy to downright unsettling. This revealed not only his social ineptitude, but also a complete misunderstanding of how Categories is played.

He twice refused to acknowledge when he got out in a game of Gaga Ball, a Camp Watahooga classic, which made everyone ambivalent about his eventual win. It was behavior totally unlike what I was used to seeing during my summers.

This was my eleventh summer at Camp Watahooga, and my third year as a counselor. I had fully swallowed the kool-ade, had filled my 1.5 liter nalgene and played hydration/team bonding games with it. When I was Jacob’s age I was convinced that camp was the happiest place on earth. I proudly referred to myself as a Watahooga Man, put my arms around my bunkmates and swayed to songs like “Friends, Friends, Friends” and “Lean on Me”, and looked to my own counselors as superheroes: as combinations of best friend, older brother, and Sandy Koufax. I was entirely uncynical, and ill-equipped to handle a camper who wasn’t into our friendship circles, wholesome traditions, and hippie-dippie-Judaism.

Much like the list of pornstars, Jacob’s presence in the bunk went from funny to creepy to unsettling. He fell into a friend group with Yonatan and Aaron, two good-natured trouble makers, who would have had a successful session of not for Jacob. Jacob was simultaneously a leader and a tractable follower. He had no moral compass of his own, and unwittingly set a precedent among his friends for distasteful jokes and pranks. They realized that he didn’t know what crossed a line and what did not, and they compelled him to get in more and more trouble. At Aaron’s behest, Jacob put his dirty underwear on the face of a sleeping camper, losing sleeping-on-the-porch privileges for the entire bunk. Yonatan dared him to push a random camper into the pool, and the two of them got kicked out of free swim. The rest of the bunk’s animosity towards Jacob grew with every incident, and along with it grew Jacob’s willingness to piss them all off.

After several attempts to sway Jacob’s behavior with one-on-one conversations, Daniel and I struggled to lead a nighttime bunk unity discussion in which everyone already agreed with us except for Jacob, who was in just his boxers, reclining on his elbows, his testicles visible to half of the circle and his eyes rolling perpetually. Even Aaron and Yonatan were fed up, if amused. Jacob didn’t seem to realize that, when the campers went around to share one way they thought the bunk could improve, every single person directed their ideas at him.

“I think we need to follow instructions better,” said David, “like when the counselors tell us to do something, we should do it, instead of whining and making the whole bunk late to every activity.” Jacob sat oblivious, with his mouth agape, eyes unfocused, feet banging rhythmically on the wooden cabin floor.

“Um, maybe we should be less inappropriate at night time, so that we won’t get in trouble,” added Joshua, referring to the recent masturbation incident. All eyes were on Jacob, who had, at this point, dropped all pretense of engagement. He was lying on his back now, limbs starfished and encroaching on his neighbor’s personal space, his testicles fully hanging out of his rumpled underwear.

“Jacob, would you please sit up and adjust your underwear?” I told him, at which request he groaned audibly, flopped over onto his stomach, groaned again, pushed up onto his hands and knees, made a vacant, open mouthed face at me, before settling into a slouching seat.

“I really think, during discussions like this, we need to listen to each other, and take it seriously,” said Moishe.

Onto the downright unsettling. He called Shin a fat, stupid Asian. He called Lucas a faggot. The girls bunk who sat next to us in the dining hall complained that he would ogle them during meals. During our day on the ropes course, when Jacob had slowed us down at every turn, one of his bunkmates, Max, shouted through tears, “Jacob you have ruined this entire session! You’ve ruined my favorite place on earth!” Jacob stayed calm, looked Max dead in the eye, and told him to say it again. I walked over, fearing violence, and heard Max repeat himself, this time in a defeated tone. Jacob continued staring, and responded slowly, with emphasis on each syllable. “I. Don’t. Care”.

He received stern talkings to from his counselors, and then the unit supervisors, and then the camp directors. We put him on several written behavioral contracts, which he signed, promising not to masturbate in front of people or use offensive language, and to listen to his counselors. These were futile attempts. We tried taking away his free time, withholding him from activities, calling his parents, rewarding him for good behavior. Nothing seemed to have an effect on him. Eventually we had to send him home.

This is sad under any circumstances, but for me it was heartbreaking. I was a third year counselor, eleventh year Watahoogan–I was what they called a “lifer”. Camp had even flown me out to attend the national Cornerstone Camp Counselor Conference in Pennsylvania, where I learned advanced group-bonding and lanyard-starting techniques. The camp directors had given me this bunk because they knew we would have some tough campers. I felt that I had failed. And, more than that, it was a reminder that Camp Watahooga, the place I grew up in, swore by, and unconditionally loved, was fallible. I had to accept that it just didn’t work for everyone. After deciding that Jacob would go home the next day I returned to the cabin uncertain of the decision. Talking to Jacob reassured me.

We had a nighttime ritual at camp. The campers would get their toothbrushes after our last activity, brush their teeth and get into their pyjamas, and then join the circle for a debrief of the day. Jacob had his own ritual. He would immediately get in bed every evening. It was a nightly power struggle, wherein I would plead with him to find his buried toothbrush, and he would flop around in his sleeping bag, muttering hateful phrases at me under his breath, hoping I would forget my mission and leave him alone. On this, his final night at camp, when staff had already decided to send him home early but he wouldn’t find out until the next morning, I found myself arguing with him for the last time.

“Jacob, you have to go brush your teeth,” I said.

He sat up, momentarily appearing to acquiesce. Then he looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Eli, you can brush my asshole.”

I smiled and got in bed. Jacob went to sleep with dirty teeth.

I return to Camp Watahooga this summer with the lessons of Jacob under my belt. I know to pick my battles, to set clear expectations early on, and to compartmentalize what’s going on in the bunk away from what’s going on with me. I know too that, no matter how hard it was for me to be Jacob’s counselor, being Jacob–full time and for no pay–must be much harder. And I return to Camp with a new manta, one that reminds me that I can only ever do so much: you can brush the asshole all you want; it’s still going to stink.

————

Eli Chanoff is a recent Oberlin College grad and aspiring writer living on an Ashram in southern Spain. He is currently seeking a release from the constraints of ego. Derail his progress by following him on Twitter: @echan419.

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