On Friday, I was a “room parent” at my son’s school. We went on a field trip to the Palmyra Nature Cove. This is how that went.
It’s nine am and I’m here in my son’s classroom. His name is Nick. Nick is incredibly excited that I’m a roommate for today’s field trip. I’m nervous because sometimes I can barely control Nick. The sheer volume of children in the room is making me delirious. It’s like there are twenty Nicks. There are two other dads going on the field trip. Both of their names are Jeff, so I feel a little left out. I’d feel better prepared if my name was Jeff. Nick has been telling all his classmates that he’s going to take them ghost-hunting. He’s referring to an app I have on my phone that uses the camera to make it look like there are ghosts in the room. A boy comes up to me and says “Are we going ghost hunting?” “Maybe later,” I say.He says “I’m not allowed to go ghost-hunting because my mom says she doesn’t trust you.”
We’re waiting for the buses to arrive. I’m in charge of Nick and his two friends Derek and Jason. A large group of kids is doing a dance move called “The Floss.” It’s this hip-shaky-arm thing that makes no visual sense. – like MC Escher doing hip-hop. One of the teachers looks really frustrated. Eventually, she shouts “Kids! Kids! Everyone has to stop flossing right now! No more flossing!”
I don’t think I’ve been on a school bus since I was in eighth grade. The school’s principal, Mr. Randal, boards the bus.
– “Kids! Can I have your attention! Listen, I know you’re excited to go to the Palmyra Nature Cove. Remember – you can talk when the bus is moving, but you have to use your inside voice because you are *inside* this school bus. But when the bus stops, you have to be quiet. Can anyone tell me why?”
– “BECAUSE SO THE BUS DOESN’T GET IN ANY ACCIDENT!”
– “Sure, okay. Also, I want everyone to be on their best behavior. You are representing the Peter Muschal School. You are all wearing your Peter Muschal t-shirts, right? I’m sending along t-shirts from another school. If anyone gets out of line, your teachers will make you wear a different school’s t-shirt.”
NICK: Can we go ghost hunting dad?
ME: We’ll see. Maybe after the nature hike. The other parents don’t trust me.
NICK: What’s on the nature hike?
ME: I don’t know. Birds, probably. Fish. Frogs. Turtles.
ME: I hope not.
NICK: You hate snakes.
ME: I do.
NICK: You’re afraid of all snakes.
ME: I don’t want to talk about it.
This bus has that school bus smell. I kind of wish one of the kids would vomit. Not because I want anyone to be sick, but I’m remembering the smell of vomit on the school bus and that minty, bleach sawdust that they put on top of it. I think experiencing that trauma is an important part of childhood development. Plus, when I was a kid, we all wanted to sit in the back of the bus because there were so many potholes on the road that the back of the bus would lurch and throw you completely out of your seat and into the aisle. Nowadays, kids wear seatbelts on the bus because they’re soft.
I’m sitting next to one of the Jeffs. He asks me how the playwright business is going. I tell him it’s outstanding and that writing plays is a financially viable skill. He tells me he does market research for a perfume company. He works in the division that puts perfume in laundry detergent and has to do a lot of data gathering. “Sometimes,” he says “I go to other people’s houses. I watch them do laundry and I sniff their dirty clothes.”
A boy turns around in his seat and says his name is Rick. But I shouldn’t call him Rick. I should call him potato. “Guess my last name,” he says. I can’t guess. “Chip!” he says. I have to admit, I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t guess that.
Because I want to document this field trip, I occasionally turn on my voice memo app and say key words into my phone so I don’t forget what happened. It’s because of this that one of the parents is staring at me funny as I look at my phone and say the words “Vomit. Sawdust. Potato Chip. Bus Accident. Someone doesn’t trust me.”
THE NATURE PRESERVE
– “Hi, guys! My name is Lucy and I’ll be your tour guide. We’re gonna go on a nature hike today. We’ll see some of the other parts of the cove. There will be some wild Turkeys. We just got some baby geese so you’ll see them with their mommy and daddy geese. Also, you’ll probably see quite a few snakes.”
– Can I go ghost hunting?
– Pay attention to the tour guide.
– I just want to see your phone for a second.
– Can I take a picture?
– Please, dad?
– I want to take a picture.
– Because you just want to see the ghost hunting app. You don’t really want to take a picture.
– Yes, I do.
– No you don’t.
– Pay attention to the tour guide.
– I want to take a picture.
– Okay. One picture. One. And then give it back. No ghost hunting.
– I’m serious.
– Here’s my phone.
– Thanks. HEY GUYS I’M GONNA GO GHOST HUNTING!
– Give me back my phone!
The tour group is walking along a forest path. Every once in a while, one of them leaps off the path into the grass and I have a tiny stroke because I’m convinced they saw a snake. Then one kid shouts “WHY ARE THERE SO MANY TURDS?” It becomes impossible to control the group once the subject of turds has been brought up. They almost don’t even care about the family of geese that Lucy points out. They are screaming like someone has dropped napalm on them. To be fair, there are an awful lot of turds. But I’ll take stepping on twenty turds over seeing one snake. Kids are so immature.
I’m walking with Jeff #2. He says, “I don’t know how these teachers do it. All these kids. I can barely handle my two. All that screaming. I get so overwhelmed and my brain shuts down and I kind of lose it. I have to, like, breathe deeply and focus so I don’t go crazy. I don’t know how these teachers do it.”
About twenty feet ahead is a flock of wild turkey. They’re amazing – tall and regal. Jeff #2 starts talking to them – not in English, but in Turkey. He can make perfect turkey sounds. One of the turkeys turns to look around at where the noise is coming from. They really are magnificent animals. A few seconds later, I realize that Jeff #2 probably learned to make turkey sounds so he could hunt them. Suddenly, I’m very hungry for turkey.
LUCY: Who wants to see a tadpole?
EVERY KID: MEEEEE!
LUCY: BACK AWAY! BACK AWAY! DO NOT CRUSH THE TADPOLE!
Haven’t seen a snake. Stepped on three turds.
I overhear Jeff #2 talking to Lucy – “One time I went camping and took my two boys on a hike. The fog got so thick I couldn’t see six inches in front of my face. I thought we were gonna be attacked by a bear. My boys wouldn’t be quiet. All that screaming. I get so overwhelmed and my brain shuts down and I kind of lose it. I have to, like, breathe deeply and focus so I don’t go crazy. I don’t know how you teachers do it.”
INSIDE THE WELCOME CENTER
– Hi, guys! Everybody gather around! We’re going to play a game! Who wants to play a game?
– I DO!!!!
– Okay. Well this is a game about bears! Who wants to be the first bear?
– Whoa! Okay! How about you, sir?
– YES! I CAN BE A BEAR! I PLAY FOOTBALL!
– I PLAY HOCKEY!
– I PLAY BASKETBALL!
– I’M A NINJA!
– Okay! You’re all gonna get a chance to be a bear. But the first bear is a special bear. You know why? Because he lost his leg in a trap and has to hop on one foot. We call him “Hoppy Bear!”
– I WANT TO BE HOPPY BEAR TOO!
– NO, I’M HOPPY BEAR!
– I WANT TO BE NINJA BEAR!
– Hold on, now! So Hoppy bear has to collect these cards. I’m gonna scatter them around the room and they have names of plants and berries on them. Each plant and berry is worth a number of points and each bear needs to collect eighty points!
– I WANT TO BE ANOTHER SPECIAL BEAR!
– Okay. You got attacked by a porcupine and the quill went in your eye! So you are “Blind Bear!”
– No. Only temporarily. Here, put on this blindfold. You also have to collect eighty points of plants and berries. The rest of you have nothing wrong with you. You just have to collect the cards. Go!
– (INSERT SEVERAL MINUTES WORTH OF RANDOM CHAOS HERE)
– Okay! Everybody stop! Now add up your cards.
– I GOT TWENTY-FIVE!
– I GOT FIVE!
– I GOT FIFTY!
– I GOT THIRTY-FIVE!
– Well, only two of you got eighty points so you are the only two allowed to live in the forest. The rest of you have to live somewhere else, including “Blind Bear” and “Hoppy Bear.” Does everyone understand why we did this? Why do you think we played this game? Anyone?
OUTSIDE IN THE PICNIC AREA
It’s lunchtime. Nick is done eating his raw broccoli and veggie straws and wants to use the ghost app on my phone. I finally give in. He and about ten kids are running around the lawn looking for ghosts. I kind of figured “What the hell?” It’s lunchtime and there are no activities. But suddenly one of the other parents shouts. “KIDS! KIDS! GET OVER HERE! AND GIVE NICK’S DAD BACK HIS PHONE!” I don’t know this parent, but I’m guessing it’s the one that doesn’t trust me.
BACK ON THE BUS
Sitting next to Jeff #2 on the way home. He says “Man. These teachers are something else, aren’t they? All that screaming. I get so overwhelmed and my brain shuts down and I kind of lose it. I have to, like, breathe deeply and focus so I don’t go crazy. I don’t know how they do it.”