Marla through the Looking Glass

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle! (Alice in Wonderland)

“Oh, good, my slime molds are here! I’ll have to find out how to feed them so we can watch them move in two weeks when there aren’t any outside when I need them. I think I need oatmeal for the slime mold. What was I just doing? Oh, taking pictures. But right now I have to go spray the millipedes or get some compost from the pile so they stay moist. They don’t really have a brain, only ganglia, so someone has to watch over them… Knock Knock. Who’s There? Canoe! Canoe Who? Canoe come out and play with me today?”

I swear, it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. Who else would talk like this, let alone get excited about slime molds?! Welcome to the inspired, sometimes wild and crazy, splendidly creative, at times ingenious, always one step short of being disorganized world of Marla Cohen: our camp director, our education coordinator, our resident crisis manager and teacher, house cleaner, chef, and whatever else has to be done to keep Stony Brook alive.

Her sense of humor is often droll and sarcastic, or just plain silly. Her dress is casual to say the least, suitable for mucking ponds or hiking the Appalachian Trail or running off to the circus, frequently accentuated by flashy wands, tie-dyed shirts, sparkling tiaras, duck calls, glasses, and a fistful of keys. She leaves a trail of paper and detritus behind her, covering any desk or open space with lesson plans, posters, coffee cups, half-eaten bagels, markers and pens. There’s literally no end to her territory or space.

With this remarkably successful camp season winding down, I find myself reflecting upon how it all works. Parents and kids praise it, send thankyou letters complete with drawings and gifts in appreciation. Campers become CITs and CITs become counselors, and counselors come back to visit even when they’ve moved on. I hear the shouts of joy, the meaningful silences, the soothing reassurances, the chatter and laughter, and behind it all is Marla Cohen.

Much like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, she believes “in as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and then somehow summons the energy to do it again the very next day. The kids love her, her staff adores her, and anyone who deals with her respects her uncanny creativity and knowledge base, as well as her unparalleled work ethic and commitment to Mass Audubon’s goals.

Her counselors’ comments say it all:

“Her teaching style is unbelievable. The stories. The facts. All the information that just spews forth from her mouth is incredible…”

“You can be struggling to communicate with kids for ten minutes and she comes by and says two simple words and they immediately understand…”

“She knows where everything is, and where and when you need it, before you do…”

“She’s extraordinarily supportive, the best boss ever. Enthusiastic and goofy… She has a jello mold for a brain. That says it all!”

“She’s so helpful. When I have difficulty thinking of things to do with the kids, she’s the first one to step forward with a ton of ideas… She spouts forth hilarious things and strange thoughts indiscriminately, and is full of surprises. Anyone who doesn’t know her would think she’s odd or strange… But she’s always thinking about the kids, making sure everyone is doing what needs to be done to make their experience a good one.”

The fact is that behind the crazy costumes, the silly knock knock jokes, the chaotic jungle of an office, and the constant muttering to herself there resides an incredibly disciplined and talented teacher who has inspired thousands of kids over the last 20 odd years. No one gives more of herself to her job. No one is more attentive to the details or cares more about the results. No one is more capable of being 3 places at once than she.

More than the Camp Director, she is the heart and soul of Stony Brook, over-seeing, developing and informing everything from our local school, scout and birthday programs, to our special events like the Fall Fair and Amphibians after Dark. She produces the curriculum, writes the skits, fashions the costumes, organizes and designs the activities and crafts behind everything we do.

Even as I write this a woman comes by with a plush, stuffed animal frog for her. “I know Marla will have a use for it,” she says. “I won it at a carnival, and the first thing I thought of was to give it to her.” She can turn trash into treasure, straw into gold. Every object has a story; every moment is a teachable one. And everyone who takes the time to know her understands this basic truth: Marla Cohen loves children, loves teaching them about the natural world and seeing their minds spring to life.

“Don, what do you think: poisonous flowers in the creamer?”

She’ll do that to you. Just when you think everything makes sense and you are about to complete a task, she’ll stand in front of your desk and say something that catches you off-guard alters reality as you’ve come to know it. There’s really no one like her. At Stony Brook we are fortunate, indeed.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
(Alice in Wonderland)