The most poignant lesson I learned about parenting happened seven years before I became a parent.
Unlike many friends of mine who married in their 20s, adulthood was not “delivered” to me in a pink or blue receiving blanket, cooing and drooling. Instead, I became entrenched in the world of directing summer “teen tours,” which involved supervising a bus full of about 50 teenagers, as well as a group of recent college-grad counselors.
In preparation for running this “camp on a bus,” counselors and directors participated in an intensive weekend of First Aid and CPR training, exercises in group dynamics, and instruction on how to light a lantern without setting fire to the campground.
These camping trips were far from rugged. We weren’t dropped off in the middle of deserted woods with nothing but a flashlight, a sleeping roll, and a bag of trail mix. Rather, a big yellow Ryder truck (driven by an assistant director called a trucker) accompanied our bus, stocked with bulk quantities of food. At any given time, there were about 25 boxes of cereal, economy-size jars of peanut butter, and coolers filled with meats, cheeses, and fresh vegetables: “five-star camping.”
With my staff of five counselors, my trucker, my bus driver, and 48 campers, we set off to see the best of the west: the Redwood Forest, Yosemite National Park, the Golden Gate Bridge. We had three more nights of the trip to go when we arrived at Lake Tahoe.
Beautiful, pristine Lake Tahoe, where I could see snow on the tops of the mountain while sunbathing on the beach. After an exhilarating day of waterskiing, we hiked back to the campsite, sunburned, to prepare dinner: soft tacos, Spanish rice, salad, refried beans, and watermelon. After roasting marshmallows over a campfire, the counselors hustled the campers into their tents for the night, and we set up our cots in a row, the semi-circle of tents surrounding us. I lay down and looked up, the brush of fir trees and splotches of stars like a painting spread above me. I drifted off to sleep.
A few hours later, I awoke with a jolt to some rustling nearby. I looked towards the tents, sure that I would catch a teen or two sneaking out. But the six tents were zipped tight, no evidence of a breakout. I grabbed my cell phone to look at the illuminated time: 5 a.m. I shook Becky, asleep next to me, cocooned in her navy blue sleeping bag.
“Becky!” No answer. “Becky!” I whispered more urgently.
“What is it?” she asked, in a fog of sleep and confusion.
“I hear something moving over there.” I gestured in the direction of our Ryder truck. “Can you hear it?” Crinkle, crinkle, rustle, crunch. “It sounds like someone going through our trash! Becky?”
She was already snoring gently. I squinted toward the noise. Crinkle crinkle rustle crunch. A hulking figure materialized under the dim light of the lanterns we kept burning throughout the night. But now there was no question: I was looking straight at a bear.
He was tall enough to dwarf the lantern that hung at least seven feet high, and so massive that it was hard to distinguish his shape in the feeble morning light. I couldn’t imagine how someone had gotten the idea to recreate this colossal creature into a huggable stuffed toy. The last word I would use to describe him was cute.
And it was then that I remembered the big trash bag overflowing with watermelon rinds, half-eaten tacos, and scraps of guacamole sitting next to our bus. In the glow and gloat of the homestretch of my first camping trip, I’d forgotten the obvious rule of disposing trash in a closed dumpster, a practice that existed for the very reason that I was now confronting.
I hunkered down quickly, realizing that unless he needed CPR, I was not prepared for an encounter with a bear in the woods. I couldn’t remember if I was I supposed to play dead and hope that the bear wouldn’t notice me or if I should make noise to scare him away. I stared at my cell phone, wondering who I could call to get me out of this mess. I considered my dad, who would just be arriving at work in New York City, but decided that his legal expertise would not help. As I looked at the tents of sleeping campers, unaware of the several-hundred pound creature that lurked just 50 feet away, I realized that no one was going to swoop in to rescue us. As far as my campers and staff were concerned, I was the final word in bear defense.
The revelation that I was the grown-up in this situation was surprising, yet somewhat empowering. I had been feeding, entertaining, and reminding campers to shower for the past three weeks: clearly I was the adult. I waited silently, peering at the bear from my sleeping bag, willing him to go back to foraging for leaves or berries. A strange calmness settled over me, as I realized that all the bear wanted from us was our leftovers. So while I didn’t do anything specifically to save my campers, I didn’t panic either. In this situation, it was enough.
Finally, the rustling stopped as gray light crept slowly into the sky. My bear disappeared into shadows. Soon after, the campers started straggling out of their tents, faces still rumpled with sleep, though they perked up seeing the chaotic state of our campsite.
“What happened here? It’s such a mess! Did the counselors have a food fight?”
It would be seven more years until I finally received my own blue blanket full of joy and spittle. But I credit my “bear” in the woods for paving the way for lots of parenting victories, those that I actively conquer and those that I simply don’t panic about.