Last night, I took care of our friend’s child. It was like a vacation. He went to bed so fast it was like black magic. I kind of hate our friends now. No, not really. Just a little.
I grew up taking care of other people’s kids. One summer before college, I took care of three sisters whose father had died. Their mother was a subdued court reporter. I drove them around in my old VW bug and made up stories about people we passed on the street. Silly stories. “That man just stole a case of diamonds and hid them in that styrofoam cup….” They were so eager for more, it was like it was the only game they had ever played. Those three lovely girls were by far the most well-behaved children I have ever known. I never found a way to ask about their father. I still feel like I failed them.
When you babysit, you get sized up. Does she enforce? engage? With the twins, two tasmanian devils who lived up the street, I learned that I had to let them rampage as soon as their parents shut the door. They had to work out the equivalent of about a mile sprint and eighty long jumps. During this, I just tried to prevent serious damage to the furniture. Next, I learned that the twins lied. They demanded TV constantly, insisting they had “seen it already.” So I caved. We turned on something with sharks—it wasn’t Jaws, but I don’t think it was Nature Channel. They cheered and then they watched and then they went white. All the bravado and energy drained out of them. They were shaking. Just a little. I said, “Hey, I know you guys really like this one, but how about if we take a quick popcorn break?”
My very first babysitting gig, when I was 11 years-old, was for a single mother who lived across the street. Her baby was colicky. At witching hour, around five, she would hand me a bundle of pure noise. I was so young, I had no idea that not all babies scream, full-throated and beyond comfort, for three hours at a time, every evening.
And then there was camp. My whole young life, I was at camp.
My first summer as a counselor-in-training, we had two troublemakers in our group. R. was huge for his age, a real bruiser of a 9 year-old. He was a little bit off in his own world, and angry. He hit another kid during soccer. Really wound up and slugged him. Our campers simply did not do this, at Camp Kee Tov! We ran on the mostly-true assumption that missing lanyards or capture-the-flag was a fate worse than death. Our only punishment was to keep kids out of activities. So we sent R. off to the side. And R. didn’t care. He just walked over and started kicking trees. Someone talked to his parents.
A. was his sidekick, a Hispanic kid with a foul mouth who seemed out of place at our Jewish day camp. Now, don’t get me wrong. I, as a semi-ethnic person, did not realize that I didn’t “look Jewish” until I got to college on the East coast. Berkeley was a diverse place to be a Jew. But A. didn’t fit in, and I was too naïve to know why. It may have been class more than race. He didn’t seem absent or angry like R., but they were buddies, and he seemed to stoke R.’s temper. They were not liked, by counselors or campers. And for some reason, that summer, I was the one who decided not to give up on them.
I have no idea what I actually said or did with those boys. I know I spent time with them. But I hadn’t read any books or gone to any workshops or even really given any thought to what it must be like to be a big, ostracized boy. I can remember no winning tricks I used to get R. and A. talking. Nothing.
At the end of the camp picnic, I remember A. had a big clan with him. I remember thinking they were all nice, nice people. Happy to meet me, happy to be eating chicken and coleslaw in the gathering dark.
Before I had my own child, I thought all this babysitting and camp counseling would be good preparation, like on-the-job training. But the most profound lesson of babysitting is that kids behave differently for the sitter. Somehow, R. and A. and I had a great summer. I was just so happy to be a C.I.T, to be at camp, in that last summer before adolescence really hit. I had enough joy to go around.
Right after I met both their families, R. and A. dragged me off to the side. Both boys dropped to their knees in front of me. “WILL YOU MARRY ME!” “YEAH ME TOO!”
Then they both got up and ran away, yelling.