Field trips sure have changed since I was a student at Orange Hunt Elementary School in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Such change is to be expected, but I didn’t fully appreciate its magnitude until yesterday, when I accompanied my nephew Timothy’s fourth grade class to Jamestown and Yorktown. Students of Revolutionary War history know that these two towns played crucial roles not just in Virginia’s history, but in the struggle for American independence.
I played a far less significant role on the trip yesterday. I don’t know quite how to describe what I did, but I’m certain I wasn’t a chaperone.
My non-chaperone status came about because the bus had only so many extra seats, and my name had not been picked in a recent drawing of the many adults who had volunteered to go. Losing this lottery made me as sad as not getting selected for audit by the IRS.
Fresh cause for despair arrived when my nephew informed me that I could still go on the trip if I just drove by myself. He really wanted me to go, he said. My boss, an otherwise wonderful person, cleared the last remaining obstacle to my attendance by refusing to claim that he needed me at work that day.
I agreed to go. And when it comes right down to it, I love being a Rent-A-‘Rent.
I had mixed feelings about not riding with the kids, however. On the one hand, I would get 320 miles’ worth of fourth grader-free peace and quiet.
On the other, my window of time to embarrass my nephew was being shrunk dramatically, and I could no longer justify bringing a flask on the trip.
I arrived at the school at 6:45 yesterday morning and found several other parents who also intended to drive. Since various individual constraints made carpooling impossible, we decided just to follow the buses, like a bunch of environmentally irresponsible groupies.
Speaking of the buses, these were not the regulation yellow Fairfax County buses that took me on field trips as a kid. These were proper motorcoaches, the kind you’d expect to ride to Atlantic City in your sunset years to play nickel slots and see Wayne Newton perform live, or possibly posthumously, at the Golden Nugget.
The buses had bathrooms, air conditioning, and a DVD player.
When I was a kid, climate control entailed lowering your window– if you had the strength to squeeze together the ancient metal latches at the top of it—there were no bathrooms, and onboard entertainment consisted of singing “99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall.” (I’m pretty sure we picked that up from our chaperones.)
Timothy’s class was very excited about getting to watch Frozen on the trip but disappointed to learn that the in-bus bathroom was to be used “only for emergencies.”
“You mean we can’t go in and look around?” one kid asked, as if he’d been deprived of a chance to see the Taj Mahal, rather than a rolling Port-A-Potty.
The caravan set off and arrived in Jamestown a little more than three hours later. Because the bus I drove did not have a restroom, I had an urgent need to find the facilities. (My desire to embarrass my nephew did not include the willingness to go down in grade school folklore as the aunt who wet her pants.) I also had to buy a ticket, because groupies handle their own logistics.
Jamestown was absolutely teeming with grade schoolers, so I made sure I knew where Timothy’s class had congregated before I went to run my two little errands. Since a horde of fourth graders was bound to move as fast as nails grow, I figured I had plenty of time. It never occurred to me to ask what their plans were.
I misfigured. I returned to the spot to find that Timothy’s class had departed. To make matters worse, no bystanders had any idea where they’d gone. A staff member told me the class would might be at one of three sites—the “Indian village,” the colonial settlement, or the ship replicas—or anywhere in between.
I’d been at Jamestown for all of ten minutes and somehow had managed to lose my nephew already. I almost impressed myself with my speed, knowing it would take your average sitcom character at least 15 minutes to pull off a mishap like that.
I contemplated my options. I could join up with the group of parents and students standing a few feet away from me. They seemed nice.
But then my thoughts returned to my nephew, whom I’d like to leave a legacy that consists of something more than abandonment issues. I strode off, armed with a strong sense of purpose and a weak sense of direction.
A few moments later, I spotted rectangular wigwams and a large, shirtless, profoundly potbellied man, naked but for two fur flaps that hung at his waist like a pair of cocktail napkins on a clothesline. I’d landed at either the Indian village or Myrtle Beach.
I didn’t spot Timothy’s class there so I followed a path to the next site: the settlement. I was canvassing the area in search of my lost nephew when a musket fired directly behind me, nearly causing me to lose control of my bowels.
I beat a hasty retreat and was making my way to the ships when I heard a familiar voice yell, “Aunt Wheat! Where did you GO?”
I acted nonchalant and blamed it on the burdens we non-chaperones have to bear.
After that, things went more smoothly. Timothy’s class behaved well and mainly paid attention to the tour guides. In fact, a bunch of the kids raised their hands to answer when the guide stood in front of the replica of a house and asked, “Does anyone know what wattle and daub is?”
“A colonial law firm,” I said, before I could stop myself. Several kids gave me strange looks before some smarty-pants started nattering on about a primitive construction process.
The guide had timed our arrival in the settlement area to coincide with the musket demonstration. I was able to enjoy it the second time, freed from the fear that I was being shot at by a colonial sniper.
After lunch we made the trip to Yorktown. Fatigue was beginning to set in, but the kids were all ears when our guide began to talk about herbs and medicines used by the colonists. She held up a stalk of dried tobacco and told the kids its purpose was “upward and downward purging.”
She explained that eating a small amount of dried tobacco would have caused the patient throw up. Believing that she’d given the kids the kind of hint that would encourage deductive reasoning, she then asked them how the colonists might have used the tobacco for a “downward purge.”
Hands shot up and she called on a kid at random.
“They stuck it up their butts?” he ventured.
Even the guide couldn’t keep an entirely straight face.
After the kids watched a cooking demonstration, scraped at a drying animal hide, crawled around inside an infantry tent, and watched another musket demo, it was time to go to the gift shop.
This experience convinced me that the patriots missed the boat by not outfitting their arsenal with a gift shop packed with rambunctious fourth graders. Ten minutes in there would have brought the whole British Empire to its knees.
Despite being a groupie, I was allowed to drive Timothy home, and we left a little bit before 5. Torrential rain slowed us down so I didn’t get back to my own house until 8:30 p.m.
I was ready to go to bed by 8:31, proving that at least one part of field trips hasn’t changed a bit.