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Saturday, August 06, 2005


A Tribute To Sergeant Jen

Jen was the first counselor that I met my first summer working on summer staff. When I arrived with my parents, we were greeted by two loud and enthusiastic site managers who helped me get situated, and then we went inside the lodge where Jen was sitting at a table. She had come from Missouri or somewhere sort of distant like that, and so she had to come the night before everyone else was expected to be there. I was still dependent on my parents' for a car, so I had to be there the night before, too.

Jen was a bit on the short side, and heavier set. She had short red hair and freckles. She came from a Missouri Synod Lutheran background. They are a more conservative branch of Lutheranism that don't ordain women, don't fraternize/fellowship with other denominations, and love the ELCA so much that they don't even recognize us as a viable form of Christianity. And Jen was happy in the Missouri Synod. She was okay knowing that the most she could do in her church was Christian Education. She didn't see the need for women leaders and pastors.

Her goal in life was to graduate from her college with a degree in criminal justice, I believe, and do some sort of probation officer type work. She was employed during the school year in a facility for adolescent offenders, I believe. But she had met a good friend of mine in an online chatroom and, according to him, developed some romantic feelings for him. So on a whim she applied to work at the summer camp that she knew he would be working at, so as to be close to him. Poor Jen was barking up the wrong tree. My friend Matt was gay. But that's a whole other story.

Jen was one of those people that most others find hard to get along with. Immediately she began to rub people the wrong way, so people began to distance themselves from her and to avoid her. I try to see the value in everyone. I find that I often have a way of befriending those people that others do not. I seem to have a higher tolerance in that department than most. So I tried to be friends with Jen. But it was hard work. I often found that we would be horribly sarcastic to one another. Most of the time we were joking, although some times, I must admit, there was a lot of truth to the things I said. We worked at the same site our first week, and it was after that week that our camp director gave us the speech that we were not to use sarcasm with each other in front of the kids. Her reasoning was that they would not know if we were serious, or not. Jen and I knew that a large part of that was directed at us, and we never worked together the rest of the summer...

It was that first week of summer that she earned her nickname of Sergeant Jen. We were both assigned to junior high campers, and she tried to run her group in the manner of a drill sergeant. She didn't seem to realize that church campers did not require the same sort of discipline and motivational tactics that the adolescents she normally worked with did. This caused her campers to immediately resent and dislike her. Being junior highers, especially boys, they automatically began to ignore her. They would purposely be disruptive and obnoxious. Jen did not have the same means of discipline at camp that she did in her other job. She really didn't know how to deal with this, and so she reacted by shouting more.

Now I, on the other hand, do not yell at my campers. It takes extreme circumstances for me to get angry enough to yell at them. I went by the philosophy that they come to camp to grow in relationship with each other and with God. Not to be shouted at. So I would do anything and everything within my means to not shout (although there were many times I ended up yelling). I also have a tendency to be quite the goofball (I know you're shocked). I love to have a good time and to laugh and to make others laugh. So Sgt Jen's campers began to drift towards me. They would, at all costs, try to avoid sitting next to her in large group settings, and they'd sit next to my campers and me.

Kurt was a youth worker who had brought a group of campers out that week. He was a previous summer staff member and he and I were very similar in a lot of respects. Especially in the way we chose to deal with the campers. Jen, in a moment of great frustration, came to Kurt and vented about how her kids didn't respect her, they didn't listen to her, they didn't pay attention to her. She had done everything she could and they just would not do what they were supposed to do. She was at the end of her rope.

So what did Kurt do? The next meal time he approached me. "Hey Mark," he said. "I see that you have a pretty good relationship with Jen's campers."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Could you do me a favor? Would you mind having a talk with them, and ask them to give her a break? They could be a little better at doing what they're supposed to do."

I was taken aback. "Have you seen the way she treats them?" I asked. "I think it would be better if someone had a talk with her!!"

So Kurt agreed to talk with her, and I agreed to say something to her campers. When I tried, they argued and told me what I already knew. But I begged them to just give her a break and to not push her buttons. In the end they agreed, and the week finished out a lot better than it would have otherwise.

Now, as I said earlier, Jen and I never worked together again the rest of the summer, and I can't say that I'm disappointed about that. So I can't say for certain that she improved in the way she treated her kids, although she seemed to be doing better as the summer progressed. She did, however, keep the nickname Sergeant Jen and to this day anyone from the summer staff that was there that summer who looks at a picture and sees her face will inevitably mention Sergeant Jen.

So here's to you, Sergeant Jen. You boldly took a step of faith, coming to a camp in a different state regardless of the reason behind it. Your methods were a little unorthodox and perhaps a bit inappropriate, but your heart was in the right place. I don't know where you went after that summer or what you are doing now, but I pray that God has continued to work in your life. Perhaps some seeds were planted that summer that forever altered the way that you see and treat young teenagers, or perhaps you moved on to a job that was more suited to the gifts and abilities you possessed. Wherever you are, I hope you remember that you are a beloved child of God and that even though most of us who worked with you would have a hard time seeing how it would be possible, the Holy Spirit did indeed work through you that summer and it did touch lives and change hearts.

p.s. Don't hate me, but here is an interaction between Jen and I that is sort of typical of the way we were with each other: A group of us that stayed at camp over the weekend were getting ready to drive into the city for supper. Several of us were standing outside and Jen had pulled on her staff jacket. She looked at me and asked, "Mark, does the jacket make me look fat?" Looking at her, I got a mischevious glint in my eye and said, "No. But your face does!" Her face turned bright red and she proceeded to chase me all the way around the lodge. I ran in fear that my life might be cut horribly short. She didn't catch me. I can be quick when my life depends on it.

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