One For The Road

By Chris Thurber

“Did I ever tell you my President Obama story?” asked my cab driver out of the blue. Ever, I thought. I’ve been riding in your cab for 10 minutes, in total silence. Did you ever tell me? I looked up from my iPhone and contemplated accepting the invitation to talk. In the rearview mirror, I could see the side of the driver’s face. His response to my reflection was to show his completely. He caught my eye and winked.

I always enjoy my June travel, even though it pulls me away from my family and the camp where I spend July and August. The workshops I deliver to other camps help them provide a better experience for the young people they serve. If something I teach helps a staff member at some distant camp treat a child more kindly, resolve a conflict more skillfully, provide feedback more honestly, or set a good example more consistently, then I have done my job. And if, in some measure, I’ve been able to spread a bit of the Belknap Spirit, then I guess I’ve really succeeded. Surely, the camp’s founders never intended for us to keep all the good things on these particular acres.

Listen
In addition to teaching, I also learn a lot myself during my travels to different camps and summer schools just by listening. I listen to staff members praise and critique directors; to directors who praise and critique staff members. I hear about mundane matters, such as how the price of lettuce has gone up ten cents a head. And I hear about exciting projects, such as the construction of a new climbing tower. I hear about hires and fires, scandals and injustices, new rules being implemented and old rules being broken … again and again. I hear about staff members who interviewed like champs but then performed like chumps. I hear how impossible it is to create an entirely homegrown leadership. And when a full day of teaching and listening is over, I’m ready to unwind and begin my trip to the next camp.

That evening in the cab heading from LaMontagne Sailing Club to LaGuardia Airport was my time to relax. So as much as I wanted to hear the driver’s “President Obama story,” I didn’t have the energy to listen to some political rant. But something about the driver’s wink pulled me in. Most people don’t wink before they harangue you. A wink says, “I’ve got the dish; it’s yours for the taking.”

I suppose I also felt bad for my cab driver. I say “my,” but he really was only going to be mine for another 20 minutes. Being someone’s cabbie is a supremely temporary gig. So random and brief are most taxi-fare connections that we should probably say “the driver” not “my driver.” Either way, my sympathy for the driver’s bid overcame my desire to retreat into my BBC app or another game of Boggle.

Serious Stories
I smiled. “No, you never told me your President Obama story. He didn’t puke back here on the seat or something, did he?” The driver laughed. Then I laughed. Then he got serious all of a sudden and concentrated on the road. “Don’t laugh, man,” he said. “Those are the worst fares ever. I hate picking up drunk kids from parties. Make a mess of my cab. Forget to tip. Then who the heck do you think cleans it up? It ain’t the kids … and it sure as shootin’ ain’t their mommy or daddy. It’s yours truly.” Now he studied me in the rearview mirror, as if to test my comprehension, to gauge my appreciation.

I also reflected, thinking of the dozens of times I’d sat next to a student in my office at Phillips Exeter Academy while the parents were called to describe a disciplinary infraction involving alcohol. “Well,” I said, “anyone who has been drinking is lucky to have had you. You know, kinda like a designated driver. Better they call a cab than get behind the wheel inebriated, right? Who knows how many lives you’ve saved … even if it has meant cleaning up some … uh … disgusting messes.”

The driver’s face softened. “Seems practically heroic when you put it that way.” I leaned in and smiled. The driver stroked his three-day beard.

“Well?” I prodded. “What’s your President Obama story?”

“Funny you should ask,” he joked. “Well, it’s interesting. My sister’s college roommate was his girlfriend at Columbia. You know, before he met Michelle.”

“Wow,” I said. “What did the roommate tell your sister about Obama?”

“Not much, man. Not much. He was a gentleman. That’s all.”

I thought about a reply. That’s all? That’s your whole President Obama story? But I thought better of saying that out loud. The driver was obviously proud of this friend-of-a-friend-of-my-sister connection and that was that. I sat quietly, thinking maybe if there was more to tell, he’d fill the silence. He didn’t.

Destination Inspiration
I launched the Maps app on my phone to calculate the time left in our route to the airport. The driver broke the silence after a quick glance in his mirror. “I bet that thing’s showing you 25 minutes.”

I looked down. “How did you know?” He looked at me blankly and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, Buddy, I don’t need no stinkin’ GPS. I do this for a living. “If it says 25,” he continued,” “I can get you there in 21. Google hasn’t been driving a cab for 30 years, my friend. Not by a long shot.”

“OK,” I said. “Impress me.” The driver smiled and spent the next 19 minutes zipping along the south shore of Westchester County, sidestepping traffic and coming to a gentle stop in front of Marine Terminal at LaGuardia. “Wow,” I said for the second time in half an hour. “You know, you’re good at what you do.”

He took my wheelie out of the trunk. “So,” he said, standing there in the sun. “You got a story?”

“I don’t have a Barack Obama story, if that’s what you mean.”

“No, man. I mean, what do you do?”

“I’m a psychologist,” I said. “And a teacher. I work at a boarding school and a summer camp.”

“So what’s with the fancy-pants yacht club, Jackson?”

“What?”

“In LaMontagne, where I just picked you up, genius.”

“Oh, that. I was helping to train their sailing instructors.”

“That’s your job?”

“That’s part of it.”

“Like it?”

“I love it.”

“Good kids?”

“Mostly.”

“Ever wanna quit?”

“Only once.”

The driver paused, waiting. Knowing that we had arrived early—thanks to him—I chose to continue.

“Well, like you, I dislike cleaning up, um, vomit. So, in the middle of the first night of my first year as a full-fledged cabin leader, a boy named Chris Mountain woke me up because he felt sick. He was just standing next to my bunk, silhouetted in the moonlight, shaking my shoulder. Before I could walk him outside and down to the Health Center, he threw up all over me.”

“Ugh. And I thought the back seat was bad,” the driver said, wincing. “You got tagged, man.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So, um, you didn’t quit?”

“I thought about it, for a day or two. But that was 29 summers ago,” I said, smiling. “Enough said, right? Every job has its moments, but you keep going because you know that what you’re doing means something to somebody.”

I looked at my watch, a signal that I wanted to get going. I resisted the urge to preach about the benefits of summer camp while he patiently took an impression of my credit card with the side of a pencil. I added a tip and then grabbed my bag to head inside.

“You know something?” he asked. “In all my years driving a cab, you’re the first person who’s told me that I’m good at what I do.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I said.

“Believe it. Anyway, if you ever need a cab in the city, I’m your driver.”

I smiled. My driver. In a half hour, he’d gone from the driver to my driver. That was kind of cool. I looked at his ID tag, “Thanks, Ross,” I said, smiling. “That’s good to know.”

My Leader, My Counselor
I’m fairly sure that most campers transition from calling the leader in their cabin or the counselor for the group to my leader and my counselor. And that’s cool, too. If we’re doing our jobs well, then our campers will realize how dedicated their leader or their counselor is. We get them ready in the morning, care for them throughout the day, clean up their messes, show them a sporting time on land, guard their lives in the water, teach them new games, listen to what’s on their mind, put them to bed or pack them safely in busses each evening. And then we stay up late planning how to do it all again the next day, even better. Caring staff members show kids how to be parents, CEOs, teachers, coaches, and mentors.

Here’s hoping that a few of your campers will find the time this season to tell you that you’re good at what you do. Nothing nourishes your spirit more than heartfelt thanks for a job well done.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.