I am, once again, teaching at the Duke summer camps in Boone, North Carolina. Last year was weird, but this year has been even stranger. I suppose that’s because I’ve been hanging around a hundred-odd thirteen-year-olds eight hours a day for six weeks, but I can’t be sure. Maybe the universe is just one odd place. Either way, these all happened this week.
On Wednesday, my TA asked if I could grab the kids from the quad where they hang out after lunch, since I’d sent him off to make copies or something. Sure, I said, and wandered over to its far end. I stood on a hill, watching them as they did their thing, i.e. gathered around the academic assistant, who is a tall, blue-haired, rather magnetic man in the habit of carrying around a boom box with electronic music. When was probably time to go, I yelled, “Wonderwarts!” (which is what we’ve taken to calling “From Wonderland to Hogwarts,” which is an unwieldy title).
All their heads perked up at once. And then, as one, they sprinted at me.
This seemed to be an independent decision. They did not confer, or at least I didn’t see it, or maybe it was telepathic. Whatever it was, they just ran at me, sprinting headlong over the well-trodden grass.
I have no experience with which to compare it, but if I had to produce one, it was very like startling a field of deer, but in reverse. Or it was like the beginning of the Hunger Games, and I was the cornucopia full of weapons and food. I only know that it was terrifying.
They came at me headlong, all knees and ankles and frightening intensity, and stopped only once they’d gathered in a clump. I stammered, “I think this is what Aragorn feels like during battle,” which is a joke you can make only at nerd camp. And they laughed and laughed in accord, their tiny lungs wheezing from exertion.
Once per semester, the staff plays a secret game amongst itself. I won’t go into specifics, since who knows whether or not TIPsters are reading this blog, but it too is terrifying. There is a lot of stalking people into the laundry room. Many cafeteria spoons die in battle. You can’t play during teaching hours, but your fear is just on hold all the while, circulating.
For once, this term, I seemed to be playing well. I had accomplished several objectives, one of which was that I had so far not, on the second day of the game, been murdered. I put this down to the fact that I was in the habit of arriving places at odd hours so that nobody could track my movements. Random motion, I felt, seemed to be the secret of this game. Heading into my classroom building that day, I was in a very congratulatory mood indeed.
And then something made me pause, and look up.
Standing in between the two doors of the building was Harrison Potter, another instructor. (Yes, that is his name.) I looked at him. He looked at me, dead-eyed. I said, “But this isn’t your building…” and then he darted out, flung a spoon at my body, and sprinted headlong toward his own classroom, all the way across campus. I died shrieking obscenities, then stomped upstairs to teach.
One student in my class somehow long-distance convinced his mother to order him a rubber horse-head mask. I don’t know what he said to her. “I need it for the school dance,” maybe. “It’s one of my school supplies. All the other kids have one.” I don’t know. Either way, mid-term, it showed up in the mail, and our lives were never the same. “Do you want me to put it on?” he asked me that first day, wide-eyed, and my TA said, “NO.” “Maybe not right now!” I said brightly, the good cop. Later I learned that on the walk to the library, the horse mask had made its appearance not once, not twice, but three times. Every time my TA had looked down then back up again, the horse mask was there, bobbling ahead of him, just staring with its rubber eyes.
This didn’t get better with time.
Two days later, equally annoyed by its recurring emergence (there was no way he could see through the thing, or breathe very well, and besides it was kind of terrifying). I told the student that if it came out again, I would take it out back and put it out of its misery. I didn’t know what I really meant, because it was a mask, but either way he neighed in agreeance. Then he said, “…But can I use it as a prop in our play?” and I said, “FINE. YES, YOU CAN USE THE MASK.”
There are more of them, is the worst part. There’s the time me and Cara and Amelia put on red-and-gold face paint and did an utterly unrehearsed act at the talent show that was just us singing “Peter, Peter Dinklage, Peter Dink-lage…” to the tune of the Game of Thrones theme song. (Horde of captive children? Utterly mystified.) There’s the time my TA decided to taunt Harrison Potter by constantly sliding plastic forks under his door with things like “You’re next” written on them. Today, there exists the distinct possibility that a child has stolen my journal.
But dear God, we’re only halfway through the summer and I’m already exhausted.*
*In the best of all possible ways.