Note: This was originally two separate posts (Parts 1 & 2), but I have since combined the two for your reading convenience. 🙂
This past September was the first in 50 years where I did not head off to school, either as a student or a teacher. I can’t even guess how many field trips I’ve been a part of over that time period. But I can tell you which one was the worst.
It began innocently enough. A colleague flagged me down in the hallway at the end of a teaching day. Would I do her a favour? The 2 grade 5 classes were scheduled to attend an upcoming field trip that she, as their Social Studies teacher, had booked some time ago. A lovely trip, she explained, but with a rather long hike upon arrival. Alas, being approximately 11 months pregnant, she felt it would be more than she could manage at this time. Since I also taught her class and knew her students well, would I consider going in her place?
Of course I said yes. For two reasons. First of all, I like to be accommodating whenever possible. Secondly (and mostly) it’s very difficult to say no to a very pregnant woman. My knee had been acting up, which concerned me a little, but I had far less swelling there than she had in her abdomen. That pretty much sealed the deal right there, along with the fact that there was significantly less chance that I would spontaneously give birth mid-hike.
We’d be going to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, which I’d never heard of. In Social Studies, grade 5 students learned about the history of the First Nations peoples of our province, and this would give them a chance to see an actual buffalo jump. I mean, there would be no actual jumping buffaloes, but still. Pretty cool. I was guardedly optimistic.
A couple of weeks later, I boarded a yellow school bus along with 60 very excited 10 year olds. It would be a ride of little over an hour each way, which is frankly a rather long time to travel in an enclosed space with 60 near-delirious children. The only other teacher was driving the bus that day, so essentially it was me and . . . them.
Before continuing with the tale, let’s just pause for a bit to talk about the good old fashioned cheese wagon. What a marvel of engineering it is! Completely uncluttered by anything resembling modern technology, it remains frozen in time like a great dinosaur in amber. One can only assume that the team of engineers that originally designed it (in, say, 1903?) looked upon their creation and exclaimed, “Yes! Perfection! Never change it!” And for so many obvious reasons!
First of all, comfort. If these guys had been completely unconcerned about it, the seats would be just rudimentary benches constructed from two almost perpendicular sheets of steel. But no, they added several millimetres of a rare type of foam so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible. Then, the luxurious plastic outer layer, perhaps even thicker than its foam foundation, supple as rhinoceros hide. Nothing but the best for our children!
Then of course, the ride. Most vehicle makers these days endeavour to make the driving experience something akin to a day at the spa. The seats embrace and caress you, the suspension eliminates any evidence of vehicular movement whatsoever, and factors such as engine or road noise are obliterated by state of the art noise cancellation technology. The designers of the venerable school bus, however, threw all of that nonsense out the window. Instead, what they have left us with is an organic, visceral experience that ensures that no matter what you do (and you try many things, including conversation, listening to music, texting, playing games, reading, etc., etc.) you will not under any circumstances forget that you are riding in a very large, loud, slow-moving albatross of a vehicle. Think: homesteaders bouncing and lurching over untamed prairie in covered wagons (but accompanied by a convoy of Sherman tanks, to titillate the eardrums).
We could also talk about aesthetics (minimalist, evocative of the Great Depression), safety features (including prominently displayed first aid and bodily fluid cleanup kits), climate control (gigantic windows movable by only those imbued with the strength and skill of a Greek god) and entertainment systems (radio, tuned to the mandatory country music station). But we must move on with our tale, so I shall conclude this meander down memory lane with a comment on one ingenious feature that is so tragically overlooked in discussion of the brilliance of cheese wagon design: acoustics. Yes, school bus engineers were careful to ensure that exterior noise would flow unhindered into the vehicle, but they didn’t just leave it there. No! Their true genius is shown by the way in which they skillfully multiply even the smallest sounds that originate from within the bus. A meticulous search of the interior of any school bus will reveal a complete absence of any material that will in any way dampen sound. Instead, stark steel surfaces await sound waves like so many enormous radar dishes designed to receive, amplify and rebroadcast any noise at any wavelength, ranging from prepubescent squeals to proud and pungent farts.
We arrived at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park and disembarked. Here, we were met with a surprise. I shall preface this by saying that we were in the midst of an unusually warm, dry month of June, and that our destination was known to be exceptionally hot and arid even when the rest of the region wasn’t. I mean, the word dry is right there in the name. So imagine our surprise when we arrived to find the place absolutely sodden from the previous night’s deluge. How much had it rained? So much that when our bus departed the sun-drenched prairie highway and rattled onto the road that descended into the Red Deer River valley, we immediately found ourselves enveloped in a thick fog formed by the mists rising from the rapidly evaporating water that had pooled in innumerable places upon the normally parched earth. It was a little eerie, to be honest. Or maybe foreboding would be a better term.
Standard procedure calls for one teacher at the front of the pack, ostensibly leading the way. In reality, this person’s primary job is to keep the high-energy go-getters from racing ahead and unleashing untold destruction on what or whomever lies ahead. The other person in this scenario plays sweeper, ensuring that no stragglers are left behind. The pace is easy, but there is generally some stress associated with the need to relentlessly prod the habitually inert. Nonetheless, given my wonky knee, the back of the line seemed the most reasonable place for me, so almost everyone had vanished into the mists by the time I set out with my band of sluggards.
The first 100 metres or so were disarmingly pleasant. There were some mucky puddles to circumnavigate, to be sure, but the kids at the back of the line aren’t the sort to dive headlong into those—given the chance, they would be more inclined to stop, cast a line, and find out whether the fish were biting. But at this point it wasn’t too difficult to shoo them along. There was a nice, wide, level path, the fog kept away the hot sun, and everyone was in good spirits.
But then the trail began to narrow. We started out 2 or 3 abreast, but soon the tall, wet grass on either side of us began to whip at our legs even when single file. Now the only way around the many puddles that blocked our way was off the trail and through the long grass itself. Many back-of-the-line kids are of the sort that do not like to be touched by icky things like grass. Morale began to fall.
At about this same time, the fog burned off. This had several negative consequences. First of all, it allowed us to see exactly where we were, which was at the bottom of a deep wide valley. This in itself was of no concern; it was actually a very pretty landscape. However, in seeing where we were, we were also able to see how far we had to go to reach the buffalo jump. I’ve never been great with distances, but to the naked eye, it appeared to me to be roughly equivalent to the distance across the Serengeti. Now, remember who I have with me on this little excursion: these are the kids who, upon hearing of a class outing to a local park—3 blocks away from the school—ask, “Do we have to walk?”
A second concern raised by the clearing mists was the newfound exposure to the blazing sun. It wasn’t even 11 o’clock yet, and we were already feeling it. Now, being from Alberta, when we experience heat at all, it’s a dry heat. This was not that. Rather, this was humidity unlike anything any of us had ever known. We were about 12 minutes in, and bodies began to drop.
Teachers employ a variety of strategies to coax reluctant children to do things they think they cannot (or simply will not) do. I was an experienced child whisperer, but we were still very early on in our journey, and I was already struggling. As educators tasked with caring for precious young lives, the last thing we want to do is leave any child behind. But to be honest, at that moment I figured that if I had to sacrifice a half dozen or so for the good of the pack, well, so be it.
What happened next solved my problem for me. Remember I alluded to the negative impacts of the sun’s arrival? Well, can you guess the third of these? Here’s a hint: recent moisture, immediately followed by extreme heat. On the Canadian prairies, that means one thing—mosquitoes. All of a sudden, rising as if from of the depths of hell itself, millions and millions of mosquitoes.
At least now no one wanted to sit around any more.
So we slogged on. There was no real trail, per se, any longer. Just a ragged line of diminutive travellers up to their armpits in grass, weaving their way around (and often through) puddles and muck. Knee throbbing, I was able to avoid most of the worst wet spots (even the kids who had wanted to stay out of them had stopped trying by now), but I remember a particularly large muck pit that was just too big. I figured that if I launched myself just right, I could land on my other foot and spring off of it to the far side with minimal damage to my favourite leather basketball shoes. I executed the maneuver rather splendidly, but unfortunately I had not taken into account the peculiar consistency of the mud. Launch, soar, land, push off. My body did everything correctly, but my one high-top shoe stayed firmly behind in the mud. By the time I was finished retrieving it, I was every bit as muddy as the any of the 10-year-olds who accompanied me, which is saying something.
I would like to say the day got better, but it did not. It got hotter. We got more mosquito bites and bigger blisters (the result of wet, muddy footwear + soggy socks + heat). Complaining increased dramatically.
I arrived at the buffalo jump with my ragtag group, crunched a few numbers, then quickly realized that we would have about 5 minutes to gulp down some lunch before turning around for the journey back to the bus. Making that announcement was a real morale booster. What follows is a sampling of some of the discussion that ensued.
“Hey,” I enthused, “we made it, right?”
“Made it where?”
“Here! To the buffalo jump.”
“This is it? It’s a hill.”
“Uh, it’s a cliff,” I corrected.
“Uh huh. Where are the buffaloes?”
“Well, they’re dead . . .”
Mild interest. “Ooh. Where?”
“Well, there might be some bones in the dirt . . .”
“The mud you mean.”
Stink eye delivered in classic teacher style.
“So no buffaloes,” obnoxious child continues, undeterred. “Which means we came all this way to see a hill and some mud that might have bones in it?”
“But just imagine! Hundreds of buffalo stampeding over the edge of that cliff,” I pointed up for dramatic effect, “and landing here, right where we’re eating our lunch!”
“Ew. If I wanted to imagine a bunch of dead buffaloes, I could have done that from home.”
Truth be told, in my heart of hearts, I knew that the kid had a point.
The trip back to the bus was predictably gruelling, but of course we made it. Crazy how I had been so grateful to escape the wagon of doom only hours before, yet for that entire journey back, the slowly growing yellow speck in the distance was the one thing that kept hope alive within me. I had never been so grateful to clamber aboard a school bus in my life.
Of course, that was before I realized that a day in the relentless prairie sun had raised the temperature inside the great steel box to the equivalent of the surface temperature of Mercury. Or considered the collective effect of 60 sweaty, muddy bodies being added to the environment. Oh, the sweet, sweet aroma!
But at least they would be tired. After everything those poor children had been through that day, most of them would probably fall asleep, right? Unless . . . unless that other thing happened. That thing that happens sometimes with kids when they’re beyond tired, beyond exhausted even. That thing where they absolutely lose their minds. For over an hour. In a smotheringly hot, odiferously foul, acoustically cruel box of horror.
Yup, that happened.
My pregnant colleague greeted me brightly the next morning at school. “Thank you so much for taking my place yesterday,” she began. “How was the trip?”
Pause. “Great!” Warm, enthusiastic smile. “Best field trip ever!”
Sometimes, you just gotta lie.