I have been sooo excited for school to start again, that I spent the first day behaving like a real housewife. I vacuumed, washed the floors, scrubbed the bathrooms, did 4 loads of laundry and left the 5th in the washer, went food shopping alone, used the bathroom without closing the door, cleaned the kitchen and did dishes, ate fudge for breakfast, planned the next 2 days’ worth of healthy home-cooked meals, and even got to wash shit off the dog’s ass first thing in the morning. It was awesome.
And then I remembered the field trips. And no – that “s” at the end of trip is not a random typo. While most schools have one field trip each year, our school apparently believes in the go big or go home theory. I graciously volunteered –as I have done since the first grade – to chaperone Ava’s field trip soon after we moved here. While on the bus, one of her little girlfriends excitedly told me that “we have 3 more trips after this one!” And I’m thinking, huh? What? Yes, she was right. FOUR field trips for this 3rd grade class, and we moved just early enough not to miss any of them.
In the week or two leading up to this field trip, Ava was so excited that we were going to visit an Amish farm. An Amish farm, really? I wondered aloud which one we’d be visiting, and felt a bit surprised that these –who I thought were private – people would be welcoming a hundred rambunctious 8- and 9-year-olds inside their sanctuary. The answer remained a mystery on the 40 minute bus ride right up until we pulled into a shopping center with a Target and a Starbucks, and there – wedged incongruously between them, was ….. THE Amish Farm. My mouth fell open.
THE Amish Farm and House is actually a tourist attraction. The property itself dates back to the 1700s, and changed hands many times (and wasn’t always Amish) until 1955 when it was transformed into an educational place to introduce and teach the curious about Amish life so they wouldn’t have to go around peering in Amish windows and traipsing through their cornfields.
The experience began with a brief “lecture” by a very nice tour guide (who was not Amish) and followed by a walk-through of the house, stopping in various rooms to hear more details of the culture and customs, and clothing. There were opportunities for the children to ask questions, and did they ever – my daughter notwithstanding. For weeks she was excited to see real Amish people and, not to be “had,” she raised her little hand and asked him where the Amish people were. The tour guide didn’t miss a beat. There might be a handful working around the “Farm,” like maybe three, including the old woman in the “schoolhouse.”
Once the tour of the house was over, each chaperone, armed with an itinerary and a map of the property, had the next 4 hours to explore with their individual group of 5 kids. I had never experienced a field trip where I was solely in charge of 5 children… I mean, of course we had a group to watch over, but no teacher ever handed me an itinerary that should really have said, “here! Good luck! Be back at the busses by 2 p.m.!” The teachers went along, but after the tour they all sat together under the picnic pavilion and we didn’t see them again until lunch. And inside my head is this tornado shouting WTF, and – I don’t want to do this! simultaneously with a newly forming stomach ulcer. Suddenly I understood the necessity of the lengthy letter that accompanies your assignment as chaperone: the rules, or dos and don’ts, of field tripping with your group including, but not limited to, no cameras and staying together!
Well thankfully I didn’t get Sarah, who apparently is above the no cameras rule and has brought her camera to every field trip and taken a magazine of photos, to the dismay of both the chaperones and the tour guides, who ranged from gently reminding to all-out threatening to remove the camera from her possession. No, I got Gabe, who apparently forgot to take his medication that day and was forever 100 yards ahead of us and made me feel like I had a toddler all over again. I’m not a good leader. I’m not firm with other people’s kids. I just watched him from the cavernous distance between us and used gentle reminders when I got within earshot that he was to stay with us.
The other boy with us went into the woodworking shop and ordered a personalized piece of wood for which he had no money once it was made. He asked me for money. I told him I didn’t have any. He spent the next 30 minutes asking everybody if he could borrow money, and eventually scored some bucks from Gabe, whose parents didn’t get the $10 maximum spending money memo. This was after our allotted gift shop time, where I watched several children pick through and blow money on knick knacks destined to end up in the trash before year’s end, Gabe and his $20 included.
The most glorious moment of that trip was getting back on the bus – that is, until I realized that Emma wasn’t carrying the coat she’d come with. Another chaperone fail – I’d lost a child’s coat. But it gets worse. Much worse. Another mom who rode in the back with me wisely chose to ride up front for the return trip, but I chose to stay back because of Ava – who sat between her two girlfriends anyway and then I made the colossal mistake of saying hello to the little girl in front of me. I remembered her name from some story Ava had told me, but unfortunately (for me) didn’t remember the story until after we’d gotten home, about the not-so-nice little girl who stole a ball from her on the playground. This little girl moved into the seat with me, and spent the next 40 minutes chewing my ear off in a dwarfish voice and, as I couldn’t hear a word she was saying, had to keep repeating herself and then every so often would poke me in the arm. Hard. I later found out that she was a special needs student who travels with an aide, at which point I wondered where the hell the aide was who was supposed to be riding with her. The headache I had after this trip cannot be described in words.
The next trip – to the high school – didn’t require chaperones but, as I have to accompany Ava for diabetes management, I went to this original play by the students – essentially about a dumb kid who becomes a pirate after he learns the proper way to enunciate “arrrr.” It was cute, albeit hokey, but entirely too long. I caught sidelong glances of the children, restless and fidgeting after the first 30 minutes.
In the spring, we visited Fair Hill Nature Center, not more than 20 minutes away. This time I got smart. I emailed Mrs. A and told her that while I had to be there, I didn’t want to take away another parent’s wish to attend the field trips, so I would just “tag along.” Best trip ever. I made a new friend, and I took a bunch of beautiful pictures. I watched the kids hike through the forest, turning stones over in search of critters, running through the field with bug catching nets. Sarah was reprimanded twice by the guide and the mom chaperone finally put the camera in her bag until we were done. I marveled at the immense trees, and trudged through the cool creek in my own pair of rubber boots while they tried to catch water bugs and salamanders, and thankfully didn’t fall in. And I rode with another mom on the bus and sat away from the chaos.
The 4th time’s a charm. Longwood Gardens – I tagged along again, this time with another mom who turned out to be a nurse in a pain management clinic and she had some stories. And she was funny. And smart too – she hooked our group up with 3 other moms, so we weren’t all on our own, but instead together for the “free time” and so looked after one another’s kids. The kids had a blast despite the serious lack of thrills – no one fell into any fountains, no one got lost, and Gabe wasn’t in our group. The moms were the best – I miss the Mom’s Club I once belonged to, back when our kids were below school age – and the sheer entertainment of the commentary and subject matter could make up another whole blog post. I was actually laughing, and didn’t go home with a headache, though I can assure you that glass of wine I had at home was still most gratifying after walking 200 miles in my brand new Vans at Longwood Gardens.
The highlight of the day was the last stop – at the gift shop whose prices could rival Barney’s. All the kids wanted Venus fly traps – thankfully not too expensive, and Ava didn’t want one. But the highlight – the chaperone’s son bought a flowering plant for a little girl in his class and I listened to mom give him the pep talk and offer to be his wing man, and then he timidly approached her with his heart in his hand and repeated the words his mom told him to use. And she accepted it with a thin blush and he rushed away from her with this amazing look of accomplishment on his small face. It was beautiful. And I tried to get a picture at just the right moment, but someone walked between us. It was none other than our resident photographer, Sarah.
And so, I leave you with some Do’s and Don’ts of field trips:
- Do ride in the front of the bus, especially if you are prone to motion sickness - the back of the bus is no place for you. Besides, no sane parent sits among the natives. Why do you think the teachers sit up front?
- Don’t sit with children, other than your own - and even then I'd give that some serious thought.
- Do tell the teacher you have anxiety issues and not to place any difficult children and/or wanderers in your group. I intend to go with this one this year... I'm not ashamed.
- Don’t forget to bring ibuprofen. You know you're going to get one - so why not head off that headache before it's too late and it interferes with your ability to enjoy that wine when you get home?
- Do hook up with other chaperones, both for tag-teaming and for sanity. Hopefully you get lucky and they're as cool as you. Or at least better at discipline.
- Don’t be a wuss. Know the rules and stand by them. No cameras? Tell the kid to put it away or you’ll carry it. Darters? Remind them to stay with you, or they’ll be walking with teacher. Never underestimate the power of a threat, or pointing out the presence of a security guard.
- Do take advantage of bathrooms. When you see them – announce a break and give them all a chance to go. Because really - after that pot of coffee you drank this morning, you'll need it more than they will.
- Do stay out of the gift shop. That way no one can blame you when the kids spend more than they have.
- Do wear comfortable shoes. There’s nothing worse than flip flops in a garden and fountain paradise, or brand new, blistering sneakers you waited until today to wear.
- Don't forget to pick up a bottle of wine after school. If the clerk gives you an eyebrow, just rub your temples and say, "4th grade field trip."
- Do volunteer to chaperone. It’s an opportunity not to be missed. Remember, they will only be this young for so long, and someday there won’t be any more field trips.