I had been teaching for nearly three weeks when the field trip fell apart. Much like flood, fire, and any other suburban disaster, the whole fiasco proved more horrible in the retelling afterwards amidst a room of anxious parents.
Teaching back-to-back classes to the middle school already had stretched my nerves thin. I had given up most attempts at sleeping, choosing instead to restlessly worry for about four or five hours and then stumble upstairs at four in the morning to wait for my morning commute. Typically – and I mean this in the corniest way possible – I thrive in the shadows of mankind, observing, taking notes and basically keeping to myself. Is that sad? Absolutely. Pathetic? No doubt. Anti-social? Hey, you’re three for three here. However, that’s me. I idolized Batman a lot as a kid.
Ergo, standing before a group of anxious overly-distracted teens felt – on good days – mildly stressful. One hour of lecture and short demonstrations tested my resolve, but another hour of lab activities to plan each day, for three classes, many of whom differed drastically in their learning styles, was a little more stressful. When offered a little freedom, the kids routinely drifted into . . . well, to cite one of my thermodynamics lessons ‘a state of extreme agitation, resulting in entropy.’
Thus, by the time they announced the field trips, I eagerly anticipated a vacation away from the classroom. At Unity, 7th and 8th graders attend a three day camping trip to either the Chesapeake or Williamsburg, VA, alternating between science and social studies each year. This year, we intended to visit Jamestown, colonial Williamsburg, and on the last day, Busch Gardens for an afternoon of roller-coasters and corn dogs.
That morning we packed the van with the necessary supplies and gear: sleeping bags, duffels, a cooler full of snacks, and a locked backpack that stored the kids’ medicine (Dyslexia, like most of life’s annoyances, typically travels with its own viral entourage including all manner of allergies, ADHD, and motion sickness.). I offered the use of the family’s fifteen-seater bus/van for the trip, partly to save the school a few bucks but mostly to save my sanity.
For some guys, driving empowers the masculine spirit, that raw bestial liquor consumed en masse by ancient hunters, explorers, and cage fighters now long since deluded in modern man by the waters of middle management, sensitivity trainers, and teen paranormal romance. Behind the wheel, man gains control over his car, his ship, his world, as well as any and all passengers traveling within; a free captain, he sails his crew along asphalt canals to . . . where? The destination is left entirely to his discretion, for just as curiosity is the heart of childhood, travel lies at the root of man’s freedom.
Now as mentioned elsewhere, I am not a typical guy: paper cuts and other serious injuries oft induce fainting spells, The Return of the King compels tears, and my dating history is on loan to the local seminary to model celibacy for new recruits. Still, driving three hours in a van full of anxious, attention-deficit boys, my nerves relaxed with the wheel tucked between my fingers. Duty may compel me to Virginia, but with the keys in my pocket, I felt secure that we could always escape if necessity or zombification so required.
With my giant motorized wet-blanket in hand, we drove from the school parking lot. The van sounded like a pet store, full of screeching laughs, barks, and yelps. After an hour or so, the constant rhythm of the road eased the volume several decibels and the boys’ heads nodded gradually falling against windows fast asleep.
Only one or two stayed alert, whispering plans for various tricks and mischief for the evening’s camp-out. We expected this, of course, and even encouraged it. Unity enforced a very unusual manner of disciple by which I mean it failed to enforce any disciple at all. Misbehavior compelled teachers to give ‘time-outs’ — no detentions or punishments — or ask the unruly child to visit the bathroom or water fountain. The inherent philosophy was that dyslexic children expressed their frustration, their anxiety through fractious behavior and hurling balls of paper across the room.
Because so many of the children had suffered years of emotional abuse, labels such as ‘failure’ and ‘stupid,’ not to mention teasing at the hands of their peers for being ‘the only kid in our class who can’t read,’ teachers were instructed to avoid overly harsh disciplinary action. These methods were commendable but more often than not isolated teachers from Dr. T and the rest of the administration. We were left to manage classroom behavior in ‘creative’ ways, rewarding good behavior with the occasional movie or ice cream party. And when that failed — for all of us had that one holy terror immune to bribery or beguiling words, intent on mocking his fellow student and teacher alike — well, we endured, trying our best to work around it.
I’ll go more into discipline in a later post — Jess’s struggles with her 4th grade should be immortalized in song — since the vast majority of the 8th and 7th grade proved awesome kids. Thus, we turned the other cheek when it came to the occasional prank or fright mask, which we knew to be stuffed away in someone’s duffel.
Now our first stop was Jamestown . . . but I won’t bore you with the details concerning the nation’s first successful colony. Trust me that we visited an Indian village, boarded a ship, walked through a colonial fort, and listened to our sweaty – it was rather humid – tour guide berate hyperactive students to keep quiet, pay attention, and basically follow zombie-like through the trees and teepees. The only bright point was when Mr. Jim, standing in the midst of the tobacco house, limp dun-colored tobacco leaves draped over rafters like wet overcoats, asked the kids about tanning:
“Ok, let’s take a step back and talk about Alice in Wonderland . . . who here knows why they called hatters mad?” Mr. Jim asked. Already tired and hungry, several of the kids pretended not to notice the question. Meanwhile, the teachers pretended to ignore our guide’s soaked polo and the odor of chicken soup, permeating through the stuffy cabin.
One of my seventh graders raised his hand.
“Mercury. They used mercury on the hats to make them shiny . . . but they’d put it in their mouths and stuff, and the mercury made them go crazy.”
“Hmm . . .,” the guide said impressed. “Very good.”
Meanwhile, I’m in the corner of the room fist-pumping like a Daft Punk DJ. For a teacher, moments like these are gold, both rare and a worthy investment. We had completed our lesson on elements and chemistry only last week, and alone knowing my various experiments, tangents, and jam sessions had succeeded proved reason enough to attend the trip.
I was teaching. And the kids were learning. Ms. Jane winked from across the smokehouse.
Now in this narrative, I have reported little about my companions on this particular venture. Some of my reticence stems from a lifetime of absent-mindedness and a more recent addiction to Skyrim but mostly my attempt to spare my fellow teachers any sort of embarrassment, particularly during that last day when everything seemed to collapse around us: the kids advancing toward the highway, the arrival of the police, and the eventual conference with the parents. Ah . . . well, all in good time. Anyway, the story becomes rather pointless without the introduction of our team.
- Ms. P: our drama teacher and unofficial leader of our expedition — in part because of her experience and rapport with the kids, but mostly because she sported a wicked British accent.
- Ms. Catherine: head of our English and writing department, and also — according to my eighth grade class, who admitted to me in least confidence — the most attractive teacher on staff.
- Ms. Jane: our math teacher and our Rock, the glue that held us all together. Jane reminded me of a grandmother and nun, but not in a bad way, more stern kindness than knuckle-breaker. Both of us long-practicing Catholics, we enjoyed debasing the current state of the Church and Baltimore’s archdiocese.
- And of course me: the newest addition to Unity’s staff, science and history teacher, driver extraordinaire and sole male teacher on this expedition.
After Jamestown, we herded everyone into the van; our kids exhausted, hungry and sweaty – Virginia feels like August in early autumn – were eager to head back to the campgrounds, to eat and swim. Now when I imagine camping, my mind skips to weekend excursions with my 4-H troop, bending plastic poles through polyester tarps, contraptions Native Americans would construct centuries ago with saplings and spears to skewer Bambi’s great-great-great-grandmother, only to sleep on the cold damp earth praying to God that the stakes you drove a half-inch into the ground five hours prior do not decide to slip loose, transforming the tarp, stake, plastic rod, Oreo cookies, and kerosene lamp into a flaming snare of delicious chocolate death. L.L. Bean is a den of lies!
Luckily, the school cared enough to invest in cabins. Not particularly large cabins, mind you; in fact, if you stand up right now, walk over to the window, and stare at your tool shed . . . yeah, give a nice long gander . . . that’s about the size of our cabins in Williamsburg. We stuffed about four people into each of those sweat boxes, adorned with one bed, two bunk-beds and little else. Oh and a small deck outside, which overlooked the dense forest that surrounded the trailer park. At any given moment, I expected Jason Voorhees to come calling for a cup of sugar and some ritual sacrifice. It did not help that most of the park appeared deserted, less empty and more abandoned due to the coming apocalypse.
Still, they had a pool. A clean one too. And a giant inflatable trampoline, upon which the kids spent hours jumping and flipping. Thus, all things considered, it wasn’t that bad.
However, as the sun disappeared below the horizon and kids finally settled down to sleep in their cabins — after several hours of shouts and pranks — my body tired and sore as it was, felt ill-at-ease. God, I ruminated, looking out the window at the stars and branches scratching against the pane; an owl hooted from the hollow of an old oak, whose shadowy fingers caressed the hull of my blue van. The stars blinked absently, interrupted only by the flurry of wings, a bat catching its midnight meal mid-flight. Amidst all this beauteous serenity, I lay in my bunk, staring at the ceiling, thinking of nothing but the internet and how camping totally sucked.