I was not at all jealous of the frazzled-looking dad next to me at the airport as he tried to control and entertain three children while at the same time prevent a fourth from eating something sticky found on the floor. “Ahhh. Life without children” I thought, turning up the volume on my iPod to drown out the harried sounds of parenting. At least temporarily.
I don’t have any children of my own—I’m just entrusted with a set for seven hours a day to teach them how to read. You might think that being an elementary school teacher would be a super-sized version of the “Don’t Eat That and Get Down Before You Break Your Arm” airport scene. Sure, I do a bit of reminding kids to wash hands, tie shoes before they trip, and eat the school lunch green beans, but the majority of my day is spent looking out for their academic well-being--editing writing, facilitating experiments, building division concepts.
No--what Frazzled Airport Dad with his hands full, making repeated bathroom and water fountain stops really foreshadows is our first class field trip.
The act of leaving the protective cocoon of the school building immediately transforms me from teacher into the full-on parent of 24 children, making sure they are all clean, fed, safe, and not consuming items from the ground. Venturing out into the wide and scary world brings my focus first and foremost to survival and safety. It’s basically Maslow’s Hierarchy of Field Trip Needs—first make sure everybody arrives in one piece and with adequate access to clean-ish bathroom facilities, and we’ll worry about their mathematical reasoning, creativity, and overall self-actualization later.
On any given field trip, a team of chaperones and I endeavor to keep everyone out of the path of raindrops and oncoming subway cars, and to ensure that everyone sits in a seat on any and all moving vehicles. I physically throw myself in front of the students at intersections, holler to them to not get run over, and attempt to stave off hypothermia through extensive coat-zipping.
Seeing that everyone remains within acceptable levels of health is another joy of field trip responsibility. “We are in nature, children. It is unpredictable and possibly disease-carrying. Is anyone currently being stung by a bee?” Once we’ve all had a chance to touch the nature center’s snake, I toss miniature bottles of hand sanitizer to the chaperones and we de-germ the “family” in under a minute. I need to keep track of Jasmine’s bus-sickness pills, and need to be ready at a moment’s notice to whip out Marlon’s inhaler. We’re out of our normal environment, where the tissues are readily accessible, so I stuff my bag with Kleenex just in case.
In stark contrast to our ultra-structured school day and its exceedingly consistent lunch schedule, a large portion of a field trip is spent wondering when our next meal will come. “We’ve been waiting in this line for hours! Quick, chaperones—shove a granola bar in everyone’s mouth before the play starts so nobody starves to death during act II!” “This could be the last chance to moisten your mouth for a long time, children, so drink up!” Which brings me to the inevitably far-away and hard-to-find museum bathrooms and the occasional life-or-death sprint that every parent knows all too well.
Assuming that the chaperones and I have managed to ensure for the children freedom from hunger and freedom from gross spills on subway seats, I can then turn my attention towards a very important, adult-centered Field Trip Need—freedom from being embarrassed by your kids. I’m usually wearing a uniform shirt that matches those of the kids and holding someone’s hand. We’re clearly together. I can’t pretend to simply not know those children and therefore must make sure that nothing catastrophically humiliating comes to pass. “Don’t get us kicked out of the US Capitol!” “Do not climb on the sculptures--other museum-goers are glaring at me!”
Inevitably, though, no matter how stuffed my field trip bag is with “just-in-case” tissues, hand-sanitizer, and spare mittens, no matter how frequently we stop for bathroom breaks, something always conspires to prevent one of the Field Trip Needs from being met.
One year my class toured the D.C. mayor’s office. The mayor’s director of legislative affairs came to speak with us and took some of the kids’ questions while I mentally took stock of how the trip was going. “Everyone has recently eaten,” I thought. “There is no imminent threat of germs. Please nobody say anything to embarrass me!” Just then, Shawn raised his hand and asked this member of the mayor’s cabinet (whom we were surely keeping from important business in the nation’s capitol), “You got a tissue?”
I pulled a box of tissues from my brimming bag of emergency supplies and hurriedly passed it over to Shawn, then shrank down in my seat, hoping that the mayor’s staff would overlook the fact of my matching shirt and not mistake me for this child’s parent.
No matter how draining it might be to parent a class full of students out in the world, though, I can always return them at the end of the day to their actual parents. Tag—you’re it. You make sure they don’t break an arm or go malnourished until we next venture beyond the school’s walls. And that might just be a while.
To read more about Sarah’s students and their nose picking, love notes, and adventures in nature, visit her blog, Dead Class Pets.