Longest Five Hours of My Life
I have been unemployed for the better part of three of the four years the Jawa has been in grade school. As a result, I have had the pleasure of taking part in more than my share of school-related activities. I volunteer for events, coach sports teams, chaperone field trips. I'm even the guy who leads prospective incoming parents around on tours of the school. It is, on the whole, more rewarding than any 9-5 job I've had, and pays only slightly worse than some of them.
This year, I have had to scale back on my volunteering opportunities, because I now have, if not a job (job: a field of endeavor which offers a salary in return for time and effort), than a very time-consuming expensive hobby. When I heard that today's field trip needed volunteers, however, I jumped at the chance to step in.
Field trips are fun. You round up some kids, wear a name tag, ride a bus, and get to see some place you would not normally see. Best of all, volunteering for a field trip offers bonus Jawa time, during which I get to see him in his natural habitat, school.
Speaking of "habitat," today's field trip took us to the Oakland Museum of California, where we were to discuss animals and their various habitats. We met outside the classroom at school, split into our groups (mine included the Jawa, the agreeable Josh S., super-intense jock Danny, plus two girls I didn't know well, poncho-clad Camilla and Sophie, who was very small but extremely poised for her age, except around tarantulas) and then walked single file, to the bus.
When was the last time you rode on a yellow school bus? Twenty years ago? The seats have shrunk. And when was the last time a teacher counted on you to keep five kids under control? Never?
There is a very specific and peculiar feeling to chaperoning a field trip. You are not quite a teacher, and have absolutely no specific training (other than being a parent) in controlling multiple kids, but you feel that you should be able to do it. Do do otherwise is to fail. So when the assistant teacher -- ASSISTANT, not even the actual teacher -- has to scold your group for "not sitting on their bottoms," your ego takes a substantial hit.
Buses bounce. They sway from side to side. You ride high off the road, in direct line of vision with long-haul truckers, who usually will offer up a friendly wave to the 38 screaming children riding alongside. Bus windows sometimes fall open unexpectedly with a guillotine-like crash. The wind that follows is icy and strong.
I sat with the Jawa, in the back of the bus, where all the boys want to sit. Nearby, Gavi's mother, who is brilliant and unexpectedly profane, sat quietly, knitting. Every single child on the bus spoke. I imagined that if you saw our bus from a distance, it would have huge exclamation marks coming out of its windows.
We arrived at the museum and, in training for the general admission rock shows they will someday attend, every kid on the bus stood up at once and rushed the door. The teachers, both young women much smaller than me, restored order admirably.
By now our single file line had become more of an informal "Red Rover" sprawl. I considered it an accomplishment if I could manage to get 3 of my group of 5 to walk in a line for more than 10 feet. After that, one of them would suddenly remember something and stop, or peel out to the side to get a better look at a newspaper box. Somehow, we made it inside, but not before the assistant teacher called a couple of my group members out. My self-esteem was battered, but we soldiered on.
Apparently, the applicant pool for museums in the Bay Area is limited to two demographics: retirees and hippies. Today we would get time with both, starting with our first docent (a word I neither understand nor tolerate very well), whose concern for the earth was reflected in her last name: Compost. Very soothing in muted plums and browns, her graying dreadlocks swayed as she introduced our first activity: we would meet a tarantula AND a boa constricter, and be given the opportunity to actually hold the boa. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Jawa begin an attempt to compress his body into a small, dense, easily overlooked cube.
Fortunately, our children were savvy and nice enough not to point out the docent's prominent moustache. Maybe they didn't notice. I was not as fortunate. Adulthood demanded that I keep a cool head, but I am telling you here that if you are planning a career working with children, please, for your own dignity's sake, grab a tube of white out and apply liberally.
The docent was overwhelmingly nice and patient, even after it quickly became obvious that our urban children would be more comfortable making reservations for dinner than handling small forest creatures. Sadly, I was unable to appreciate any of this, because I spent the entire hour staring at the docent's facial hair. Please.
Every child in the group held the surprisingly small boa, except for one. The Jawa actually retracted his arms into his shirtsleeves for fear that Rollie Fingers would somehow think he actually wanted to hold the snake. Some of the girls actually went back for seconds, declaring the snake "cute," which was wrong. Overall, both the snake and tarantula were big hits. The kids were excited, ready for the next phase of our visit.
At this point, the tour ground to a halt. Though Gavi's mom assured me that "the docents were great," for our museum tour, our particular retiree could not connect with my rowdy group. Camilla and Sophie gave it the old college try, but the combination of Josh S.'s overwhelming and obvious boredom and the Jawa and Danny's slapstick pratfalls almost had old Barbara going Code Blue before we'd even gotten to the diorama of the chaparral.
"Boys, boys!" she shouted as Danny and Josh wandered off in search of a more interesting display. She shot a look at me that said, "What a terrible parent you must be. You have no control of these children." Barbara had obviously prepared, and obviously enjoyed walking around the museum while wearing a vest covered with small, animal-themed pins. Normally, I thought, Barbara is able to hold groups much larger than ours, perhaps groups like the ones also milling around the museum, in rapt attention. No Josh S. begging me for a stick of gum, no Jawa and Danny flopping around the floor while impersonating a crane.
I promise in my next life to have girls, as Sophie and Camilla quietly tried to support Barbara, responding to her questions and adding a few of their own. Occasionally, the Jawa would drift in from whatever fantasy land he'd been occupying, toss out a comment from one of the thousands of science and nature-themed books he reads, then return to the Laurel and Hardy homage he and Danny were accidentally performing. Josh merely wanted to go home. No, he wanted a stick of gum. Then he wanted to go home.
I would have been bored, too, had I not been busy trying to keep Danny and the Jawa under control, fending off Josh S.'s gum requests and insisting to myself that I am a good parent, though I cannot keep my child and four others under control in a museum.
Time began to drag. Barbara soldiered on bravely. She believed in her curriculum and had probably served hundreds of tours of duty with docile, interested children. I tried to form a quiet alliance with her, suggesting that the Wasp Tarantula was "easily identifiable, because it was the tarantula wearing eight-legged pants with tiny sailboats embroidered on them." She gave me a blank look. Finally, we reached the end.
Our children are urban children, but they are sheltered urban children. They are not urban children with big puffy jackets and pants around their ankles. Those children were sitting on the steps near us as we ate lunch in the cold. Our children didn't know what to make of the ancient woman digging through the trash in search of uneaten food. In the abstract, they wanted to enact legislation to help that poor woman get three squares and a roof over her head. In the concrete, they wanted to stay as far away from her as possible.
I am constantly amazed by the fact that most kid humor has the half-life of plutonium. For example:
Jawa: Hey, Josh. Want five bucks?
(the Jawa bucks his head into Josh's shoulder five times.)
Jawa: You said you wanted five bucks!
Explosive laughter from both children.
Back to the bus. By now, the children were antsy. Their strategy was to make the bus ride as annoying as possible for everyone, including each other. For his part, the Jawa engaged in a strange back-and-forth with Camilla and Sophie, throwing ever-smaller bits of our nametags at each other, then, when I'd confiscated every scrap, simply resorting to odd noises and faces. Again, the assistant teacher had to step in. My self-esteem had vanished at this point. I had learned that mine is not the only child to find me ineffectual. Other children agree.
Finally, we reached school. It was 1:40, five hours since we met in front of the classroom. As we got off the bus, the Hammer paused and remarked, "Wow, that was a long one."
I rushed up to the classroom and got my coat. When these field trips end, there is no de-brief. You get out of there as quickly as you can. As I ran to my car, I saw the Hammer again, in her Toyota Avalon, accompanied by another parent who'd been on the trip. "We're going somewhere where there's no children," she commented, and drove away, leaving me there, exhausted and beaten, in the parking lot.