Of all the nonsense that befell Unity over the following months, nothing frightened me more than the sight of the kids stumbling to the edge of the highway, ready to play Frogger with speeding yuppies from Kingsmill and weekend historians.
The man behind us shouting on his cell had already called the police by the time we left the deli. Ms. Jane was screaming for the kids to return when he noticed us. Ms. P and Catherine were still buying snacks on the opposite end of the plaza. Sporting a greasy comb-over and a haunting odor of Axe body spray, the man – who I will forever christen as Little Pesci – addressed me first, obviously mistaking me for the leader of educational band; although it was Ms. Jane who answered.
“Are those your children?” he asked. He had this way of saying ‘your’ like an old woman in a Pollyanna movie, as if only the children’s guardians would possibly summon a pack of middle school students from rushing headlong into traffic and playing dodgeball with a Buick. That fact that he happened to be right only proved the guy was a total prick as well as an idiot.
“They are our students,” Jane answered quickly. “We’re teachers on a field trip.”
“Your . . . students caused quite a disturbance here. One of them even attacked me,” he shouted. “I’ve already called the police.”
So the day before went pretty well. We avoided almost all forms of prosecution and harassment, which at this point in our story seems quite an accomplishment.
September in Virginia opened with several weeks of cold, windy storms which by the time of our field trip had all but vanished, evaporating into sunshine, dense humid air and temperatures that soared into the upper 90s. Regrettably, anticipating another windy wet week, I had stuffed my bag with long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and no shorts. Dang. Yet despite the mild discomfort of trekking wrapped like a baked potato through a steamy Colonial Williamsburg, the day passed pleasantly enough.
We witnessed a colonial courtroom, shopped for tricornes (three-cornered hats) in the marketplace, and listened to a lecture on Shakespearean theater in colonial America. Afterwards we left the dirt streets and returned to the camp-site to swim and cut back.
Still even with the kids distracted, I found it difficult to relax. Too often Ms. P would allow two or three of the kids to visit the convenience store unaccompanied, or to visit the pool alone. Now as mentioned prior, the campgrounds appeared practically empty; apart from a few neighbors who had rented the cabin across from us, and two or three campers that had arrived overnight, we were alone. Nevertheless, growing up with a rather over-protective mother, I developed into a paranoid, overly anxious adult with major trust issues.
As far as I was concerned, dozens of potential pedophiles and sociopaths lurked behind every tree and Porta-potty, waiting for our momentary inattention to attack and murder our kids. As such, I wasn’t letting them out of my sight.
Much could be said – and was – of my fears, flimsily constructed from the mental flotsam of Lifetime movies and James Patterson novels. Certainly the offered freedom rewarded the children with some independence and trust, valuable resources to children often labeled as irresponsible and lazy. Even more, the student’s liberty afforded the teachers an hour escape from the limitless energy of the kids to pause their lectures and collect their sanity. How summer camp volunteers survive, I could not fathom. By the night of the second day, when Ms. P furtively poured wine into my Dixie cup as the kids tended the fire, I felt the exhaustion and anxiety crack ever so slightly.
So the following day we had planned to visit Busch Gardens, the amusement park built by the American beer company. If the DMV was sponsored by such auspicious benefactors, traffic court would prove far more pleasant. Yet instead of bear pong, quarters, and other forms of alcohol-related amusement, the Busch family elected to construct their carnival around European nations, adorning each ‘land’ with flags, costumes and a bevy of roller coasters and flumes.
We played around at the campsite for most of the morning and then piling into the van, left for lunch and an afternoon of unadulterated fun (with no alcohol). Speculating that food outside the park may prove cheaper than lunch inside the park, we stopped at a shopping outlet for some burgers and sandwiches.
The outlet shared a parking lot with both a Wendy’s and a Burger King. Of course, none of the kids could decide on which greasy fast food chain they wanted – subtle differences in the lard, I suppose – so Ms. P decided to split up. Groups of three or more kids would walk to either burger place and meet back at the corner of the outlet in fifteen minutes. The teachers meanwhile – placing health above Frostys – would grab some sandwiches at a deli inside the outlet, thus leaving ten hyperactive kids to their own devices for the span of a power nap or half a sitcom.
Bad idea? Well . . . yeah. Did I feel comfortable leaving the kids alone? No. Absolutely not.
I’ve had too much experience with my siblings to blindly accept the autonomy of a child, despite what J. K. Rowlings might imagine. Still, after three weeks of teaching at Unity, much of the plans and procedures at Unity shocked me. Teachers often burned incense to motivate healthy attitudes and chase away negative auras. The head of school would recommend various classroom management strategies only to ridicule the teacher for implementing them before the whole class. Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance were outlawed, yet teachers joining hands and forming a circle around a group of children while chanting ‘You’re special!’ and ‘We love you!’ was condoned and welcomed.
It was a weird place. As the latest addition to the staff, I never really felt safe or secure there despite all the signs and efforts at support. At the end of the school day, I was alone, and any problems were mine to remedy. Heaven only know how the kids felt throughout the day.
Half a sitcom later, we were wiping tears and waiting for the local police to arrive.
Jane, Catherine and I took control of the kids while Ms. P and Little Pesci argued. The kids for their part seemed rather frightened, eyes wide with anger and fear – particularly when we admitted that we’ll have to tell their parents what happened. They were frantically telling their side of the story, interrupted here and there by Little Pesci, whose well-practiced shouts of ‘Liar!’ and ‘Nuh uh!’ competed for dominance. One of the kids only stopped crying long after we had left the parking lot.
The story, as I understand it, went something like this:
The boys had quickly eaten and returned to the corner of the shopping center. While waiting, they began laughing and joking, kicking at the stone walls of the shopping center ninja-style (most of the 8th grade were huge fans of Assassin’s Creed). During this time, Little Pesci, the owner of the shopping center arrives. Apparently, throughout the last two weeks, vandals had declared war on the shopping center: breaking windows of shops, littering, and painting the walls with malicious messages. Stuff like that.
Little Pesci drives up in his convertible and spies these ‘unattended children’ lounging outside his shopping center and essentially freaks out, believing these to be the urban terrorists attacking his pristine marketplace. He intends to accost the children and drive them from his place of business.
“What you kids doing here?” he shouts. “Where are your parents?”
One of the older eighth graders points approximately into the shopping center, calmly telling the angry little man that their teachers left to grab subs. The man of course does not believe such a blatant lie and moves to shoo them from his property.
Another eighth grader feels threatened by this older man and his constant shouting and in response raises his fists, positioning himself between the angry man and the rest of his classmates; Little Pesci interprets this as a challenge . . .
Yes, this guy really believed that this middle school student had waiting all morning by outside a Rockport outlet with his gang of twelve-year-old delinquents – in broad daylight no less – simply to kick his ass. Seriously, someone’s played way too much Street Fighter as a kid.
“This young man,” the man claimed later, gesturing at the boy. “Attacked me.” In point of fact, the young man never laid a hand on him but was preparing to retaliate should the angry old man attempt to touch him again.
After this encounter, you can guess what happened next. The man demanded the children leave or else he would call the police – which he did anyway. And with no way of contacting us, the children left the parking lot and strode toward the roadway.
The officers thankfully seemed pretty reasonable, admitting that the gentlemen over-reacted. We gathered the now fed and emotionally distraught children into the van and drove off toward Busch Gardens, cursing those responsible for the whole debacle . . . ourselves.
Busch Gardens proved a good tonic for the preceding mess. The kids enjoyed themselves and for our part, we tried our best to ensure they forgot – momentarily at least – the stupidity of the world for a while. Busch Gardens began their Halloween celebration that night, draping the whole park in spider-webs, werewolf masks, bats, ghosts, and black-robed ghouls on stilts. As darkness fell, costumed freaks hidden behind the shadows of trashcans and haystacks jumped onto the path to surprise the occasional coed.
As the kids suffered enough scares that day, we decided to leave then and return to the cabins, readying ourselves for the trip home and the eventual conference with the parents. We encouraged the kids to turn in early and withhold from any midnight pranks. Enough was enough. Yet our peace soon shattered when another police cruiser pulled up to the cabins; each flash sending waves of panic through the kids’ cabins.
Ms. P strode out to talk to the officers, while Catherine and I guarded the cabin doors should the kids grow curious and walk into gunfire. At this point, I did not know what to expect. As turns out – for once that day – the police officers were not interested in us, but the cabin across the street (or rocky cul de sac as the case may be). It seems our neighboring camper had been selling marijuana from their cabin and after assaulting his wife, the good woman had informed the police of his husband’s wanton drug-dealing.
Terrific! This is officially the best field trip ever!
After being assured that the children were safe by the local state trooper, we headed to bed, eager to sleep, wake and get the hell out of Virginia.
Returning to the school the next day, we patiently informed the parents that their children enjoyed themselves, learned a good deal about colonial life, and may or may not be scarred for life. Most seemed to take the news relatively well (i.e. no lawsuits or threats to my life); however, the whole experience marred much of my perspective on Unity, a bellwether for all the future unpleasantness that would befall the school in the next several months, including – but not limited to – lawsuits, threats, violence, theft, downsizing, mass exodus, and even corporate espionage.
Unaware of the incoming apocalypse, I dragged my body and van home and locked myself in my room, where I stumbled through the internet and sipped coffee until the dawn of the next school day.