Make your problems the smallest part of who you are.
- Jack Gantos
- Jack Gantos
My second year teaching I decided that the only thing potentially scarier than a day in the confines of the school building with my students was a day outside of my classroom. Despite the fact that my second year was, in retrospect, my best, I continued to avoid field trips as strategically as the earthworms I'd carefully step around in the rain. I masked worm-related paranoia beneath worm-related concern, just as I avoided potentially harrowing field trips with the selfless phrase, “No, I insist, you chaperone, the trip sounds like so much fun!” Secretly though, I knew that if my classroom management was tenuous within the confines of my classroom, it would be disasterous if my thirty sixth graders were suddenly (shudder) free. I avoided the Science Center excursion with ease – there were extra chaperones and my principal needed a warm body in a second grade classroom. The trip to Towson University was under control without me, and in all other situations I feigned valiance and offered to teach the extra sixth graders (or in some cases, even the class of second graders). I preferred a classroom filled with nose picking, illiterate seven year-olds to a day on a yellow school bus with the potential for sixth grade chaos.
When I least expected it though, it happened. The art teacher organized a trip to the Walters Art Gallery, and Brenda Payne, my sixth grade team teacher, was sick. The art teacher, who used approximately no foresight in planning the excursion, accosted me while I was diligently making my morning copies and singing Jack Johnson just loudly enough to irritate my principal.
She appeared next to me right before I hit the refrain: “Miss Hooks, I need another chaperone for our trip today. Mrs. Payne isn’t feeling well, and we need at least three adults.”
My response: “Hmm… who’s the third adult?”
“I don’t know. Sonny said his mom might come.”
Thought – isn’t this something that one should know before the day of the trip? I tried not to wince, her breath was rancid.
“If you need me, I’ll come, but I’ll need a wheelchair at the museum and someone to watch the extra sixth graders.”
She mumbled something about calling the art museum regarding the wheelchair, and told me that the bus would arrive by 10:00. Silently I thought, “You’re welcome” and I finished my copies.
The morning passed quickly and shortly before 10:00 I sauntered over to the art room. There, the field trip organizer was eating something garlic-ridden and organizing cans of paint. She didn’t look up.
I cleared my throat loudly. I didn’t want to startle her lest she drop the paint, “Are we going? Did you get confirmation from Sonny’s mother?”
She looked at her watch, stuffed more food into her mouth, and muttered something about the bus. I nodded and then opted for plan B: find my students and ask them what was going on. I left the art room and crossed the hall to Brenda Payne’s room. There, without adult supervision, thirty students were running in circles intermittently smacking each other and standing on Brenda’s no longer organized plastic, orange-colored chairs. Brenda was nowhere to be found, and I was dubious that I’d find a clear answer in her room:
I made my most threatening teacher-look and yelled, “Small children! You are acting in manner of wild beasts. You have three seconds to act civilized, or the trip is cancelled!” (They didn’t know that the bus was already waiting in the parking lot.)
Moderate silence ensued; enough silence to allow me to locate Sophie amidst the pandemonium. Sophie was my curly haired, rational, brilliant and mature favorite. I quietly asked her when we were leaving and why twenty-nine of her peers were currently unsupervised (while the art teacher organized her glazes alphabetically). Sophie, as usual, knew all the answers. Mrs. Payne was looking for me, Sonny’s mom was outside with the bus, and the art teacher had already reserved me a wheelchair. Mrs. Payne – though sick – had agreed to watch the remaining sixth graders for the rest of the day.
Grateful for Sophie, I militantly herded the small children from Mrs. Payne’s increasingly disorganized room, and lined them up in the hallway. I was very proud of Chad – he only leapt through the air to hit the emergency exit sign once en route to the bus. Their excitement level was even higher than usual. John made fun of someone’s butt, Chad (after landing firmly on his feet post-leap) hit, poked and otherwise irritated his obvious crush, and Nikki and Tiffany formed a staunch art teacher opposition. (Never mind the fact that as we approached the bus the poor woman was directly behind us.) There, outside of the school, standing in Baltimore’s 85 degree heat and smothering humidity, the art teacher finally attempted to organize the trip.
“Okay, we’re going to see some Asian art at the Walters Art Gallery today. I need three groups of ten students with each adult: one group with Miss Hooks, one group with Sonny’s mom and one group with me.” Before she even finished her statement, ten boys ran towards Sonny’s mom, and the remaining twenty girls formed a suffocating circle around me. As the art teacher patiently attempted to ameliorate the obvious discrepancy between my group of twenty and her own group of zero, Tiffany called her a witch. Tiffany’s peers apparently agreed. The art teacher, in vintage art teacher form, exuded no discernable emotion, rather instructed the "ungrateful" girls to return to the classroom. I stepped in between the scowling sixth graders and the art teacher, glared at Tiffany and followers, and slowly mouthed the word, “Apologize.” Then, after my wordless pleading and a series of muffled apologies from the eventually regrouped girls, thirty-three of us piled into the bus. We were a mere forty-five minutes late.
A brief bus ride later, I had sufficiently impressed my students by knowing all of the lyrics to rap songs on the radio, and I started to wonder why we were about to see Asian art anyway. Sarah, another freckle-faced favorite, asked me a question:
“Miss Hooks, can I push you in the wheelchair today?”
And before I could respond, a fight ensued:
“No, I’m pushing her! I’ve never pushed a wheelchair before and she already said I could!” (I had?)
Then Tiffany chimed in, “But I helped her get to her car the other day when her legs weren’t working!”
And so on.
The fight ended when I promised they could all push me, but they’d have to take turns. Two hours later, the trip culminated with minor horror on behalf of their respective pushing skills (Nikki smashed my leg into the door of the elevator and Tiffany almost knocked over a statue of Buddha). More importantly, though, there were a few revelations:
1. My students correctly answered the museum guide’s questions about Buddhism – they actually retained things I taught them.
2. My students eventually mastered the turning radius of a wheelchair, figured out how to back me safely into the elevator, and realized that, much to their collective dismay, the plush carpeted museum rooms weren't wheelchair friendly. They were equally appalled by the “pull-only” doors.
3. And I realized that field trips, even with garlic-ridden “witch-like” chaperones, poor organization and rented wheelchairs, were nothing to avoid.