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First Person

Life of a Chaperon Has Its Rewards

March 26, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On my first night as a junior high chaperon, the scent of socks and bad cologne made me long to run screaming into the forest. The yapping, towel-snapping and percussion of coarse sounds didn't improve my mood.

Sleep came slowly but delivered me from torment. Then, sometime between midnight and dawn, a seventh-grader woke up wailing.

Nightmares are to be expected on field trips. What I didn't count on was the camp counselor's unusual approach.

Did he grumble, "G'wanbacka sleep," and let the whole cabin do so?

No, no, of course not. This adult employee of L.A. Unified propped himself up on his elbows and, as if addressing an enthralled dinner party, launched into an epic exegesis of his own frightening dreamscape.

"Really?"

"Wow!" the boys interjected.

I clawed my bunk's vinyl mattress.

By 4, the boys were out again.

At 5, eyes began popping open. Whispers turned to giggles. Giggles became hoots, taunts, jeers. Whomp! "Hey, quit throwing shoes, butthead."

I wormed deeper into my sleeping bag.

Hours earlier, this hormone-addled tribe of the baggy pants and hedge-clipped hair had pushed me to a decision: I would yank my daughter from her new junior high magnet the moment the bus returned us to L.A.

But that was two years and five field trips ago.

In the fall, the White House lauded a new study showing that a father can do wonders for his kid's grades by participating in her academic life.

My motives weren't nearly so noble. When I volunteered to chaperon on that overnighter to LAUSD's Clear Creek camp in the San Gabriels, I had one mission. My oldest daughter had entered adolescence. I was there to spy.

What I witnessed that first evening shocked me, and as the students spilled into the mess hall the next morning for breakfast, I stewed.

Argh! The noise. Argh! The unbridled energy. The teasing and poking and braying and tragically hip posturing.

As the day went on, my view of adolescents in the 1990s festered, until, slowly, I came to a hard conclusion: These kids are better behaved than my junior high peers and I had ever been.

Since then, I've spent another weekend at Clear Creek (mercifully, the district now puts chaperons in their own rooms). I've escorted these kids to Catalina Island and, most recently, Astrocamp in Idyllwild.

Each trip follows a pattern: I mutter that I can't afford to do it, that I simply don't have time. Then I glimpse an old photo and see how fast my kids are growing.

"What the heck," I say.

Each trip follows the same scenario.

First comes the scene from Exodus, as students march groaning and whining from school bus to dorm, leaving a trail of underwear and contraband candy from the overstuffed duffels they drag behind them like injustice personified.

During Phase 2, they test their teachers' tolerance, seeing how far their new freedom will let the envelope of behavior stretch.

In Phase 3, astonishingly, they hold tomfoolery in abeyance and eagerly start to learn. (No kidding! They do!) And a great and unexpected joy of chaperoning, I've found, is that I've rediscovered the joy of learning, too.

I've played with lasers and made star charts. I've chiseled in the dirt for garnets and stroked bat rays. My old junior high never hiked the hills to study flora beside a sage-scented creek. My new one has. My old junior high never classified kelp in a seaside lab. This one did.

My most astonishing discoveries, however, have been of a different sort. Until I returned to junior high school, I had no real grasp of the fact that adolescents and their teachers belong to the human race.

What a revelation! That snotty girl with the mad-dog glare, it turns out, gets teased for her appearance. Show respect, and she melts. The tough-guy teacher confides in quiet moments, over coffee, that he is well aware of such nuance, that he's truly concerned.

One night on Catalina, we waded out into the waves. With glow sticks on our snorkels and a handful of underwater lamps, we slipped into the icy dark.

Some of the kids were afraid of that big, black unknown. So was I. But off we swam. Then our instructor told us to turn out the lamps, it was just us and the dark.

We stroked our hands through the water. A contrail of green phosphorescence exploded. We flopped onto our backs. The Milky Way appeared.

What a mix of ethnicity peered from those face masks. What an array of personalities. But out there in the dark, I knew I trusted them. And that's what my life as a chaperon has given me: peace of mind.

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