Friday, April 8, 2011
I don’t know where my ten year old daughter is at this moment. She is somewhere in Washington D.C. on a class field trip. Four teacher/chaperones, who clearly give Job a run for his money when it comes to patience, are taking forty-four fifth graders on a tour of historic sites – Monticello, Congress (unless it’s closed), the Liberty Bell. They will travel over three states during eight days where the kids will be responsible for packing and unpacking their suitcases, keeping up with their belongings, personal grooming (at least enough that they don’t offend each other), making sure they get proper nutrition, all in addition to doing written assignments and keeping a photo journal. Oh, and the kicker…they can’t call, email, text or contact their parents in any way for the entire trip! I’m not sure I could do all that now, let alone at age ten.
When Nicole was in second grade, she announced that she would never, ever go on the D.C. trip. She repeated her declaration in third and fourth grade. But suddenly, when the teachers started talking about earning points to go on the trip – being allowed to go is merit based – Nicole promptly forgot her vow of several years earlier and became obsessed with not losing points so she could take the trip. I had mixed emotions about letting her go. I had been relieved when she said that she didn’t want to, but when she made an about face, I resigned myself to her going, knowing that I would be nervous and would miss her terribly. However, I also knew it would be, as parents of some older kids from our school have told me, “a life changing experience” for her. And indeed, I know now that it will be. It was amazing watching her in the days leading up to the trip. She has never been to sleep away camp, never traveled without us to visit family or friends. Yet, she was not nervous, and on the ride to the airport she was giddy, not worried or homesick. Even her goodbye as she got into the line to check her bag was more like a “goodbye I’m going to school,” rather than “goodbye, I’ll see you in a week!”
The teachers are tweeting the experience several times a day so we get to see photographs of the kids at various monuments. As a friend of mine said, it’s like playing Where’s Waldo? with the pictures, hunting each one to find your kid, making sure that they are still present and accounted for, checking to see that they have on their coat or combed their hair. It is our only way to know what’s going on during the trip. But the one thing I noticed in each photo is how happy and engaged the kids appear. And I marvel that my baby of ten is three thousand miles away from me, for the first time having experiences on her own. A mom I know with a toddler scolded us for letting Nicole go on the trip and said that she would never let her child travel on a school trip that far away at such a young age. She said that she knew her child would not be ready for it. And that may be true. However, I firmly believe that even if they aren’t exactly ready, most kids will rise to the occasion in order to have a chance to experience such a journey.
When I was 13, my French teacher aunt took me to Paris under the guise of taking several of her students on a study abroad trip. In fact, it was really just a booty call on foreign shores, with her promptly coming to our hotel room a few moments after arriving, teaching us a few survival phrases in French, informing us that we should not come to her hotel room for the next two weeks and instructing us not to tell our parents about it. And then she was gone. I was 13, alone in Paris with a hotel room, return ticket, guide book and a credit card. I was scared for about a nano second and then realized what an amazing opportunity I had. I cut a deal with the two girls I was traveling with, both older, high school juniors, but unable to speak the language as well as I could, that if they would go with me to museums during the day, I would translate for them at night when they went on the prowl hunting cute French guys. It was an arrangement that met the needs of all the travelers and resulted in hilarious results and lifelong memories. It turned out that my aunt had a boyfriend who I suspect was at the embassy and that she’d been following around the world for years and meeting in exotic locales. We had always marveled at her foreign trips and wondered how and why she went on such fascinating journeys – now I knew. But as a woman teacher in her day who’d lose her job to a married man with kids to support, I guess she thought it best not to marry and keep her relationship hidden – maybe her embassy guy was married, or maybe she just wanted to keep her job, either way, in retrospect, it was both terribly sad and horribly romantic! However, the biggest thing I learned on the trip was that I could take care of myself anywhere under any circumstance and it was a lesson that sparked a lifelong interest in travel and one that I carried with me as I traveled extensively, often alone and to unusual places during my pre-kid years. And as my aunt asked, I kept her secret and didn’t tell my father about my abandonment in Paris until I was 36. He shook his head and said, “That sounds like my sister.” I had been left alone in Paris for two weeks and I survived. So I knew that Nicole, who is way more mature than I was at that age, would do fine. I was the one who might not fare so well on this trip. I would miss her.
So Nicole is out of the house and it is very quiet now. There is no one dancing in the kitchen after dinner when she should be sitting and finishing her meal, no constant chatter repeating stories which she’s told us time and again, no bickering between sisters over what to watch on t.v. or who was longer on the Wii. Instead, there is a place at the table which goes unset, a bedroom neat and bed nicely made without clothes strewn about the room and the daily morning angst over what to wear. I thought I wouldn’t miss all those things, but I do. Nicole is missing from our home, and I miss her and the liveliness and love she brings to our life. Even though I know that within hours of her return, I might long for some of that quiet time again, I will be glad that she went on her journey, but happy to have her home.