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The Field Trip

By: Liz Taylor

 

Enduring an entire school day became almost unthinkable to ask of someone during the stagnant weeks that stretched out like ages between Thanksgiving and Christmas break.  Not even my obsessive crush on Brandon Scott was enough fuel to keep me going until school let out for two glorious weeks. Even the teachers seemed to feel this way.  Reluctant to cover new material before an extended break, they’d rehash old lessons – going through the motions like fembots on autopilot. We’d already blazed through every educational film in the library and it was too cold to take extended recesses.  I had run out of illnesses to go home sick with – not to mention my Mother had finally started to grow suspicious of my declining health.  Just when I thought I was going to have a psychological breakdown brought on by boredom, rumors of a fieldtrip began to circulate.

The very air had become electrified by charged imaginations starved for variety and adventure warping into overdrive.  Would we be taking in a performance at the Children’s Theatre, or paying a visit to the independently funded science museum? Maybe we’d be swept away to some historical site like Andrew Jackson’s “The Hermitage” to dip candles and churn butter with historical re-enactors. All of this mystery ignited elevated hopes of any number of exotic destinations and finally one day’s itinerary gave us a glimpse into where we’d be going.

I was just beginning to drift off when Miss Haynes announced we would be splitting up into boy/girl pairs. My first impulse was to pray that I’d be paired with my love Brandon. An adventurous day paired together was just the edge I needed to win his affections.  Those dreams were quickly shattered when Miss Haynes used her infinite wisdom and good judgment to pair Brandon with his equally perfect and gorgeous girlfriend Tara.  The fact that even Miss Haynes, an unbiased adult, thought that they should be together only underscored my feelings of inadequacy.  Let’s face it; most ten-year-old boys hadn’t developed an appreciation yet for healthy curves and red hair.  I was so jolted by this announcement that I almost missed my partner assignment; much to my dismay was Kevin Howard. I was not at all pleased to find out that the man Miss Haynes found best suited to pair me with on this coming day of adventure and romance was Kevin Howard. 

I was already dealing with my own shortcomings as a sheltered red head coming from a family always seemingly in financial and emotional crisis and now I was going to be associated with Kevin’s too.  All of Kevin’s clothes were tight and slightly too short.  His Mickey Mouse underwear was always sticking up out of his pants. His hair was tight and curly and a little too long to be a short hair cut. His sweatshirts were always emblazoned with a faded emblem and the sleeves were always too short. His stone washed, tapered jeans stretched so tight around the elastic waist that I thought the snap would pop open any minute. He was skinny and everything, but the situation reeked of poverty and/or neglect.  

I was no one to judge. My clothes only fit miraculously considering two thirds of them were my cousin’s donated hand-me-downs.  Having Kevin as my chosen partner forced me to face my very own elephant in the room. I knew then with my frizzy long red hair and my awkward ten-year-old figure that the only thing that separated me from Kevin, was that my pants came up too high for my Mickey Mouse underwear to hang out. We were the weird kids.

Once we all had our partner assignments we were taken down the hall to the teacher’s lounge and were instructed to sit two pairs per table. As fate would have it, Kevin and I were placed at a table with Tara and Brandon.  As I took my seat across from the future prom court, I felt my face flush. Here we were, awkward, greasy and embarrassed at the table with my love and his girlfriend.  I tried to focus on the excitement of being in an unfamiliar room at school, although I was a bit disappointed in the ambiance. So they had thrown up a few fold out tables - where were the white linen tablecloths, the place settings, the crystal stemware?

Once Miss Haynes was able to calm everyone down, she announced that today, a special guest would be teaching us etiquette and to be quiet until she arrived. At last, education on a subject fourth graders could really absorb and value.  I couldn’t help but wonder what this special guest would be like. I imagined a rich, slightly elderly woman with her hair pulled back tightly into a clean bun. She would be tall and thin because it’s improper to overeat. A bit on the rigid side, she’d be put off by these simple children who insisted on tying their napkins around their necks instead of placing them neatly in their laps. By the end of the lesson we would be well mannered and she would appreciate our simple charm and innocence and if even for just one day, we would bring some light and joy into her dim, lonely life.

Miss Haynes startled me back to reality to inform us that the field trip that they had built up all of this anticipation around was going to be nothing more than a visit to the “Ruby Thursday’s” at Rivergate Mall. We, eighty-five ten-year-olds, were learning etiquette to go to a mediocre chain restaurant famous for it’s salad bar. 

As for our expert, we were left in the less than capable hands of our teacher’s assistant Miss Tammy. Miss Tammy’s perm was frosted and teased. Her puff painted sweatshirt hugged the overworked waistband of her pleated stonewashed jeans, the girth of which, could barely contain her. I felt it was unfair to be forced to remain at eyelevel with Tammy’s camel toe for the duration of this lesson. I was regretting my choice of a table at the front of the room.  Maybe I was too quick to judge. Perhaps Miss Tammy was the perfect person to teach us how to behave at a “Ruby Thursday’s”. By the end of the lesson, the girls would know how to get a man to buy them all the two-for-ones they could keep down and the boys would’ve learned how to scratch their balls under the table with discretion and tact.

All and all the etiquette class taught us the basics. We learned that a boy should pull out a girl’s chair for her and to stand when she leaves or comes to the table. We learned that napkins should go in our laps and to never take the same plate to the salad bar twice.

After our lesson, we learned that our real partners for the field trip would be our parents. The boys would be taking their Mothers and the girls would be taking their Fathers. I was really starting to question our teachers’ good judgment.  Who thought that this was a scenario that would make a great fieldtrip for a bunch of fourth graders to take?  First of all, they were about to dump eighty-five or so unruly prepubescent Shirley temple guzzling, chicken tender chomping, crumb dropping monsters into some poor unsuspecting server’s life. The server would be forced to endure endless refilling and cleaning for eighteen percent of five dollars per person. Not to mention, it was presumptuous to assume that everyone had a parent of the opposite sex, period - let alone a parent that would be able to afford to take off work to go to the mall and eat at “Ruby Thursdays“ with their kid’s fourth grade class.

It’s an unimaginable nightmare for any kid with a less than functional family life. In my case, I was worried that my family couldn’t afford the expense of my dad and I going on this field trip. That and my dad and I didn’t really hang out.  He worked all the time and even though his office was at home, I still felt isolated and disconnected from him. To top it off, Kevin and I had been assigned to a table together. I just wanted to play sick that day and stay home. It would be the perfect day for grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup and a Jerry Louis marathon. I wouldn’t be missing any work.

The night before the fieldtrip, I begged my Mother to let me stay home. I felt so guilty about having to spend that money so close to Christmas. It was a miracle in and of itself that we were having a Christmas at all. 

“You are going on your fieldtrip, the Lord will provide,” Momma insisted. 

“But I don’t have anything to wear,” I pleaded “ And I don’t want to go anyway.”

“Yes you do, and you will,” she insisted. “ You could open one of your Christmas presents early. It’s nothing big, but it would give you something to wear, but you’d have one less present on Christmas morning. Do you want it?”

I was hesitant. Not only did I not want to go, I didn’t want to waist opening a Christmas present for it, but it seemed to mean more to Momma than it did to me.

“Okay,” I muttered.

She jumped up pumped with adrenaline,  “I’ll go and get it for you.” She went to her closet to retrieve my gift from her hiding spot. Some hiding spot! My parents didn’t have a closet door, only a sign taped up that read   “honor system.” Torture and guilt – that was their technique.

She brought out a thin rectangular box wrapped in hunter green Christmas tree paper. It was weird opening a Christmas present this way – right out of the closet in their bedroom. I opened the package to discover a maroon button down shirt covered in paisleys. Under the shirt lay a pair of hunter green pleated dress pants.

I went to school the next day with mixed feelings about my outfit. It made me look like a total dork, but at least it was new.  No one noticed anyway. All anyone could think about was breaking free from our bricko-blocked cage for a couple of hours.  I pretended along with my classmates to engross myself in my busy work until it was time to go.  We’d been given the usual - a holiday themed word search and a crossword puzzle. I hated these. I much preferred the art projects like coloring, cutting out and pasting together a snowman, but I guess it’s too much to want to go on a field trip and work with paste all in one day.

The parents trickled in one by one congregating near their children. They pretended to engage in the crosswords and word searches to avoid being dragged in to the typical obligatory small talk. My classmates seemed suspicious of their parents’ sudden and eerie level of enthusiasm for their schoolwork.

As the room became more crowded, I began to wonder if my Dad was ever going to make it or if I’d get stood up. He wasn’t very good about getting to school in a timely fashion when we needed him. Sick days, ice storms, half days – it could‘ve been the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse and my dad would still show up two hours late and say he’d been caught up on a “conference call.” I kept eying the door as stranger after stranger walked through. Finally my eyes landed on something familiar; my dad’s mustache was out in the hall. His mustache was a trademark of comfort. When I was little he’d come tuck my sister Jenny and I in at night. We’d say our prayers, and when he’d give me a kiss, his mustache would poke my face and I’d wonder if there was anything left in it from dinner.

It was time to set out on our journey and of course Miss Haynes found it befitting to make us line up with our partners. I was beginning to wonder if I’d be stuck with Kevin for the rest of my life. I half expected to be promised to him in marriage by the end of the day.

As we climbed the stairs into our buses, I imagined what it must be like for the parents to ride the bus with us.  I wondered if they were filled with magic and nostalgia by the smell of the aged naugahyde.  I wondered if they too had to abide by bus rules. If a grown up needed to stop and go to the bathroom would the bus driver say no? For the duration of the twenty- minute trip, most of the parents seemed to be in the comfort of a hypnotic state brought on by the high-pitched, relentless chatter of an excited hoard of hungry children and the unusual opportunity to look out the window.

One would think we hadn’t all been frequenting this mall since birth, by the way most of my classmates acted as we pulled into the parking lot. The children jumped from their seats and rushed the windows to take in the majestic splendor of the southeast backside mall entrance. The adults were jolted out of their waking sleeps and once again reminded that this was not in fact a nightmare, but was actually happening.

Even though we entered the restaurant with surprising poise, the waiters still looked as though they couldn’t wait to spit in our food. It was right smack in the middle of their lunch rush and half the restaurant had been held for us. We filed in, eerily quiet and organized by our table assignments. Not only did the servers have to deal with eighty or so out of control kids who guzzled their drinks faster than they could keep them full, but they had to wrangle an equal number of unhappy adults, who were not informed ahead of time that the food had been preordered and that they could not order alcohol.  It was hard for the parents to accept that not only were they not choosing their entre, they weren’t even choosing their drink.

I had been most excited about the salad bar, but that wasn’t part of the deal. Every adult and child was served chicken tenders and a Shirley temple, no matter the diet restriction, allergy, or religious belief - that was what you were getting. The etiquette training turned out to be a real disaster. Whenever Kevin’s Mother or I would get up to “powder our nose” Kevin’s mother would tell him to sit down and I’d tell my dad to stand up.  We were sitting at a booth so no one pulled out my chair. To top it off, my chicken tenders were soggy. On the other hand, things at Brandon and Tara’s table couldn’t have been going better.  Their parents were getting along splendidly. I’m pretty sure they convinced their server to serve them booze on the sly.  I even saw Brandon giving a toast at one point.

No one was talking at our table. Kevin’s mother was very quiet except to correct Kevin. My dad talked mostly, but he kept giving the waiter a hard time about the service. Even I could see they were struggling. I mean me, a ten-year-old, could understand that the restaurant’s service model wasn’t built on the assumption that they’d have to wait on an entire fourth grade class and their parents who all arrived at exactly the same time.   

The bus ride back to school was a very quiet one. Most of the kids had post fieldtrip depression coupled with hurt feelings and disappointment. The parents who once seemed to glimmer with nostalgia now wore sour expressions probably brought on by the realization that the delicious smell of aged naugahyde was actually the sweet stench of aged vomit all along. It was the worst fieldtrip I’d ever been on. I could’ve stayed home and watched Jerry Lewis movies, but instead I was one Christmas present short.  

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