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Out in the World

The lasting impact and incomparable joy of the chaperoned field trip

August 19, 2007|Susan Straight | Novelist Susan Straight's most recent book is "The Friskative Dog," published in March by Knopf.

My future husband spoke his first sentence to me through an intermediary in the back of the school bus during our freshman-year field trip. The bus had carried us from Riverside to various Los Angeles County museums and then to the Los Angeles Zoo, where legend holds that our boys were so obnoxious that the insulted primates actually threw stuff at them from their enclosure. We were on our way home, and the noise level was astonishing. It was 1975. Guys were singing Marvin Gaye and Kool & the Gang. "Ask her what her name is," my future husband said from his seat in the very back where he was ensconced with his friends, tapping the shoulder of the student behind me. I was in the third-to-last row with my best friend.

Thirty-two years later, my now ex-husband volunteered to be the brave parent chaperone on our oldest daughter's French Honor Society field trip to the Getty. Teachers are always thrilled to have Mr. Sims. He is 6 feet, 4 inches, 300 pounds and works in a correctional institution. He's a man of few words, but they are potent ("I said no getting up."), and he never minds field trips as long as he has a great sack lunch. We have gone on every field trip our three daughters have taken, a few together--the kindergarten trip to the Orange County Fairgrounds to see a farm, the tide-pool trip to Crystal Cove, the planetariums and museums and California missions. I also remember the singing freedom and exhilaration we felt on our own field trips--the bus ride where we sat next to people we might not have met before, the chance to see my classmates let loose. I don't remember the parents who chaperoned those trips. I remember them as the wah-wah voices from the "Peanuts" cartoons.

Now I am that voice.

"Let's go, guys. Stop lagging. Hey--pick up that juice box. I know you see the trash can. Don't give her a flat tire again. No. You heard me."

Mr. Sims and I don't mind. We take a day off work. He tells me he doesn't mind the bus, and I know I don't mind seeing the mission again, or the museum, because really, I never forgot the La Brea Tar Pits and neither did he.

And the lunch. He admits to me every year that if I pack a really good meatloaf sandwich with mustard, homemade cookies and the ever-necessary chips, he can tolerate anything while looking forward to food that tastes so much better than on an ordinary day because you can't reach for it early, and you're starving after herding short people.

On one field trip to the beach, I sat with a group of fourth-grade girls at a picnic table, and across from me was a child I didn't know well. Her sandwich was green. The bologna was covered with mold, and the bread crust had gone to powder. She was stoic, taking two small bites. I put my chips on a napkin, and suddenly we heard the sea gulls. I said, "Be careful. Sometimes the sea gulls are so hungry they'll just snatch a lunch." She looked at me. We threw the sandwich, surreptitiously so as not to start a competition, to a swooping gull, and I gave her half of mine.

In 15 years of field trips, I have seen every bathroom and courtyard, with children who have nosebleeds, nausea, headaches, cuts, allergies or just a general inability to be quiet. I've missed a lot of paintings and furniture and lizards and planets, but that's OK. I've never lost a kid.

But I was lost once. Some year of elementary school I can't specify, we went to Olvera Street and then Chinatown and were told to be back at the bus near the ornate gate at the designated time. I became so entranced by the spicy smells and intense colors and silky tassels that I was oblivious to the hour. When I ran up to the full bus, every face was angry, students and teachers and driver; I sat ostracized, alone in a seat. Stevie Wonder's song "My Cherie Amour" was playing on the radio. The opening bars still make my face hot.

Now I am the parent at the back of the line, watching the heads of the children I have known since kindergarten, some of them 18 this year. They move differently on a field trip, bouncing and dancing and shouting to each other, taking a chance on talking to that girl or boy, waiting for their opportunity to shake some water on the beloved one or to stand with mouths open in front of a painting or animal, to be out in the world.

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