The Screaming Match

Even though I spend most of my time plugging mindlessly along the rails of our family routine and reacting rather than thinking, I do occasionally engage with other sentient beings. During those times, I try to keep two higher ideals in mind:
  • Even assholes deserve a chance to have their say.
  • The greater good is more important than my pride.
I am not always successful.

Jennyalice, DoubleTrouble, and I recently signed up our boys for 1:1 aide-slots at a summer camp for special needs kids. According to my veteran friends, the sign-up process has become more of an endurance contest, more like Hands on a Hard Body, each time. That process needs to change, or someone's going to get hurt.

Last time, which was my initiation, our friend Betty went to the camp office at 6 PM, and signed our four names on a posted list. She called to let us know that though the list had only been up for an hour, we were applicants fifteen through eighteen. DoubleTrouble, Jennyalice, and I arrived to stand vigil -- to represent -- at 3 AM. Things got prickly as dawn approached, with parents who'd arrived after the 5 PM list posting complaining about said list loudly and not without basis to anyone who would listen. It was a tense and not particularly pleasant experience. When the office opened at 8 AM, we were all ushered in, by number. My friends and I got the last 1:1 slots, and left by the side door so as to avoid mob-style retribution.

DoubleTrouble let us know in that she wasn't taking any chances with this latest session -- she was going to go down to the office herself at 5 PM. But Jennyalice and I had a conflict -- we had scheduled a Can I Sit With You? Live! event months ago. We decided that our only option was to go straight from the event to the vigil, and join DoubleTrouble there.

At 5 PM on the day the vigil began, and as Jennyalice and I were scrambling in our respective homes to juggle in-the-moment needs of our broods with the last ninety minutes of CISWY event and vigil prep time, DoubleTrouble called to say that she was at the camp office, that THERE WAS NO LIST, that people had to line up physically, and that she was already #5 in line. Freeeek.

Thankfully Jennyalice's partner Descartes, in characteristic jump-on-grenade mode, volunteered to be the placeholder for the two of us until we could arrive, and secured slot #10. For which I will be forever grateful, as my own partner was stuck at work forty miles away.

After our wonderful, wonderful Can I Sit WIth You? event, Jennyalice and I headed south to join the endurance contest. I wasn't feeling optimistic, given the nasty vibe lingering from our previous sign-up experience, so imagine my surprise when DoubleTrouble and some other folks greeted us with beers and pizza and chatty, foxhole-style comradeship. Even as the night wore on and temperatures plunged towards 40°F, things stayed cheery. Several people -- who had expected a list rather than an in-person marathon and so did not bring cold-weather gear -- headed for the relative warmth of their cars, while the rest of us said we'd hold their places.

Then 5 AM came, and with it a most intense woman.

We let her know that she was number twenty-one in line. She freaked. And I get why she would freak, seeing as the camp office staffers had told her less than 18 hours beforehand that she did not need to wait out all night, that she should come in the morning and get in line, and that they would take applicants based on their place in line.

But she wouldn't shut up. And she was extremely loud and unpleasant to those of us who were there, perseverating on how she didn't care that it was near-freezing and that she didn't care if people had been waiting since 2 PM, that anyone who was not in line RIGHT NOW was not in line as far as she was concerned, and she wouldn't respect their position when they returned.

A couple of us tried to explain to her how things had been up until her arrival, how circumstances were adverse, how people were caught by surprise, how we were trying to take care of each other. She wouldn't listen and said she didn't care. Loudly and repeatedly.

Finally one of us told her, rather firmly, that she needed to be quiet, now. She responded that her kid didn't get a spot at camp last time even though she waited all night and that she was going to get her kid a spot this time. I felt for her, even under my growing layer of irritation.

And then she told us that her kid deserved to go to camp, because her kid was just as autistic as everyone else's kids.

That is where I, to my discredit, lost most of my sympathy for her. When she let loose with that crack -- which was almost certainly based in ignorance and panic -- she was standing next to a parent with two non-autistic kids. Two wheelchair-bound non-autistic kids.

I started to fear for the brawl she was going to touch off if someone didn't shut her down.

The group that had stayed in front of the office all night was a relatively calm group. The group that would return from their cars momentarily contained some parents who might not be so tolerant. Some of whom had three kids, some of whom had two, and many of whom were a whole lot bigger than me or her. What if they had tempers? Tempers that would likely not be helped by a freezing night without much sleep?

I started thinking of Jimmy Carter, and his handling of the Iran Hostage Crisis. In a recent radio interview, he stated that while his almost exclusively diplomatic approach was unpopular and cost him a second term as president, we did not go to war against Iran, there were no rivers of blood, and all of the hostages eventually returned home. He said he could live with that resolution.

I am not a diplomat. I wish I had Mr. Carter's diplomatic skills, but I don't. But I knew something had to be done. So, when the woman revved up for her next complaint cycle, I told her that she needed to be quiet and respect the people who were here before her. She didn't want to hear that, and got louder and angrier, and wouldn't let me finish a single sentence without yelling over me. Finally, I shrieked,
"You need to SHUT UP RIGHT NOW because a bunch of really big, really angry parents who have been freezing their asses off since last night are going to show up soon and THEY ARE GOING TO HANG YOU FROM YOUR FUCKING ANKLES IF YOU DON'T SHUT THE FUCK UP!"
She spit back, "I'd like to see you try!"

Then DoubleTrouble came over and soothed my huffing and puffing form back into my sleeping bag cocoon.

And the woman? She mostly shut up. By which I mean she talked pleasantly and ceaselessly to the people behind her, without another argumentative word about anyone's place in line.

So, mission accomplished. By me being an asshole. Which I regret. But nobody got hurt, and guess what? I'm pretty sure that everyone in line got their kids a spot at camp.

I hope that woman has the support she and her child deserve, and need. I wish I could put on a wig so she wouldn't recognize me and meet her again, and encourage her to join SEPTAR or a similar support network. I wish I'd had the skills to help her understand that no one liked our gordian knot scenario, but we were dealing with it as positively as we could.

My biggest hope is that the camp changes its sign-up procedures for the next session. The current model is not tenable, especially for single parents. My friends and I are going to write to the directors and suggest a lottery, but if anyone else has a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

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  1. Sign up list on first come first serve basis or as you suggested a lottery system sounds like great suggestions. hope the camp people will listen.

  2. Anonymous8:43 PM

    What this really illustrates is the need for more camp opportunities for special ed kids.


  3. a) more camp opportunities for SpeEd kids esp. those requiring 1:1 aides

    b) poll the parents -- what would be perceived as most equitable?

    Remind parents that (say) a single parent would have a hard time doing the wait-in-line thing, or a parent working the night shift would lose out on the current system?

    Pure lottery?

    Weighted lottery (if your kid had camp last year, you are disadvantaged relative to someone who applied, but did not get into camp last year)

    Some other system

  4. Anonymous7:23 PM

    Wow, you're really hard on yourself. I don't think you were an asshole at all, Squid. Not at all. There are times when stronger words or louder voices are needed, and standing up to a bully can be one of those times. All of you did everything in your power to first soothe her, explain the situation, and so on. While I understand her frustration too, it does NOT give her the right to endlessly harass and bully others.

    Anger has a bad rep, but there're times it's an appropriate response to let someone know they're going too far. She needed a smackdown. We all have at some time or another. I, for one, am glad you stood up to her.

  5. @ginjoint, I hear what you're saying. But that doesn't make me feel any better about the way I ended up treating her. We never know what's going on in a stranger's life, and if a stranger is desperate enough to lose a night's sleep so that their kid can get a 1:1 slot at camp, the chance that their family's circumstances are more challenging than mine are very, very high.

    @all: More camps for 1:1 kids, absolutely. Jennyalice and I have a pastoral vision of a commune/camp up in Western Sonoma county, in which all our kids are always welcome. And we'll have ponies!

  6. Just sounds like a shitty situation all the way around. I'd like to say the anger should be directed at the idiots who think it's reasonable to expect parents stretched to the limit to endure sleep deprivation and freezing temperatures (and being aways from families who need them) just for a shot at camp, but I'm willing to entertain the idea that those people are doing the best they can with limited resources also. More availability, for sure (I wish such a thing existed down here in SoCal), but also some mode of distributing slots that is fair and doesn't require superhuman effort, endurance tests, and time-limited travel just to get in the game. Imagine who gets left out just because they can't leave their kid(s) to go vie for a spot on the list or in line. Random lottery throught regional center?


Respectful disagreement encouraged.