As a parent volunteer at my daughter’s high school after grad party, I had about five hours to stand around in a toque, covered in Deep Woods Off, with only a clipboard and my absolute sobriety to protect me. During that time, with a shortage of parent volunteers (totaling no more than 4-6 at any one time throughout the whole 14 hour event) and a huge group of teenagers (about 250 according to our list) determined to celebrate their high school graduation, I had some time to think about communication, leadership and success in life:
1) What works in a black bear attack, also works with managing chaotic teenagers. As dozens of teenagers converged on the outdoor party following the grad ceremony, we three parents working “the gate” (consisting of a folding table and a cattle gate that had come unhinged) we knew that we must appear bigger than we were and totally in control of the situation. Even though, none of us really understood the rules thoroughly, we all knew that we must appear to know exactly what we were doing at all times. Surveying the crowd lining up at the gate, I decided immediately that I needed to stand on my tiptoes, wave my arms around above my head to appear bigger than I am and speak loudly and with authority about the requirements to get in. Soon, we had the crowds lining up, responding politely and following our instructions. Even the larger and obviously tipsy guests responded with polite obedience. Any one of them could’ve easily pushed their way past us with ease.
2) No shoes, no shirt, no service. Nothing can incite a crowd against you as much as the perception that some people are exempt from the rules. It was repeated consistently that there would be no access without a ticket (either purchased in advance or at the gate), a waiver and absolutely abiding by the rules of our host. Cars were parked and gates locked to ensure no drinking and driving. No glass was permitted, all cars were locked in at midnight and any troublemakers were to be removed, without exception. Patrollers on horseback roamed the perimeter catching fence-jumpers. All had to follow the same rules and the students responded with respect when they saw everyone being treated equally.
3) A logical, reasoned response is always worth consideration. No matter how well you plan, there are always unanticipated situations and solutions that deserve consideration. When the hosts of the party had held gatherings on their property previously, there were a few individuals who had abused the privilege and caused havoc. This resulted in a very short list of individuals who were not permitted access. However, a calm and considered discussion held away from the entrance to the party site resulted in at least one of the individuals making some earnest promises to the host. There was a lot of humble apologizing, an admission of previous bad behaviour and a sincere desire to abide by the rules. He was granted access to the event without incident.
4) Someone has to pick up a garbage bag first and start cleaning up. The next morning, there were quite a few teenagers standing idly around and a big mess that needed to be cleaned up in order to return the horse pasture to its original state. It took only one or two individuals with a little bit of moxie and clear leadership potential to step forward, grab some garbage bags and urge their fellow partiers to do the same. Soon, there were more people than not cleaning up recyclables and garbage and the property was almost back to its pristine state an hour ahead of schedule. It was those first few young people who stepped forward, risking the ridicule of their friends, who deserve credit for doing what was right. I couldn’t help but think about the people in Vancouver who stood up to the majority of those who appeared hell-bent on destruction in the recent Stanley Cup riots. Do you do what’s right? Or do you do what is popular?
5) If it feels wrong, it probably is. There were a few problems that occurred throughout the evening and they were pretty predictable. Whenever anything went awry, there were usually warning signs. There were individuals who showed up at the event who had no business being there, but conformed to the rules as outlined. The parents working the gate knew intuitively there was something wrong, but had no specific reason to lock them out. The individuals showed really awful judgment just by showing up. Predictably, these people always seem to have someone “egging them on,” probably the type of people they need to avoid in the future. There are no accidents, just bad decisions. Trust your gut.
What holds true for the small group of parents out in the cold and dark in the middle of a prairie field with hundreds of keg-standing teens, holds true for life in general – either you show up and try to bring order (and safety) to the situation, or you don’t. I’d rather be in the group of people who show up, clipboard at the ready, trying to manage things so that no one gets hurt. My daughter, who organized the whole after-grad event with a grace and dignity worthy of someone much older, appears to have reached the same conclusion. She was one of the first to grab a garbage bag and start cleaning up. Even my older son who would’ve rather been anywhere else than at his younger sister’s grad party, stopped by and helped set up the stereo equipment. I can’t tell you how proud I am.