Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Field Trip Deluxe

“Class I have a surprise for you today. We’re going on a field trip to Watchung Reservation and the Trailside Museum.” Score!! I was in 4th grade and beside myself with euphoria.—one day rescued from the humdrum education called school! Watchung Reservation was only about a half-hour drive from my school, but it was if the teacher had announced the adventure of a lifetime. We were going to be riding in a bus with our friends, out walking in the woods, looking at those cool floursecent rocks in the museum, Life was good!

And truth be told, between that trip somewhere around 1960 and an extraordinary summer in Europe singing with the Antioch Chorus in my last year of college, I can’t remember much else. Perhaps a walk to the local library. Maybe a high school music class trip to New York to see the opera Carmen. Ah, one backpacking trip to the Adirondacks my sophomore year in college with a select group from my “Man and Nature” class. But that was about it.

And here I am in Leon, Nicaragua with thirty-one eighth graders for ten days (some of whom had been with me for 10 days last summer in Salzburg). It’s their annual Spanish immersion trip, one that has been custom at school since the early ‘90’s, but usually in Mexico. Suddenly Mexico was too dangerous and they had to switch to a safe place—Nicaragua.

Huh? For anyone who remembers the Reagan years, “Nicaragua” and “school field trip” were two things that never went together. It is heartening how these once war-torn places— Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador and more—have become tourist destinations. As I imagine Baghdad might be ten years from now or Rwanda or Kabul. But discouraging how the ravaging goes on. Just as the grasses grow back and the healing begins in one place, the devestation and destruction goes on in another. Arrgh! Humans!

But I’ll save that for another blog. Meanwhile, do these kids have any idea of how damn lucky they are? Multiply Watchung Reservation times 5000 and you might get close to the magnitude of this extraordinary opportunity to practice their Spanish, see a bit of the world, expand their cultural outlook—and all of this side-by-side with the kids they’ve shared a life with, some for eleven years, at school! Get on a plane together! Eat meals outdoors with thunder and lightning illuminating the distant volcanos and lizards on the walls! Bargain at the market together! Get a tour of the Cathedral!! Okay, if you’re in 8th grade, I know that last one didn’t deserve exclamation points. But tomorrow’s swimming does!!!

And I’m lucky too. Not only because I’m excused from a routine at school that, truth be told, reached the end of its cycle last week and would mostly be wheel-spinning to the end of the calendar, not just because my way is paid and my salary left intact, not just that  I’m back in the hot, tropical weather I actually like but so rarely enjoy improving my own Spanish and learning something about this fascinating country and not only because it puts me within one country of my 60-country goal before I turn 61, but also because I get to see this whole experience through the eyes of these kids.

Now the flip side of this luck is that I’m on 24/7 for 10 days straight with 31 budding adolescents, spending just about every minute of my day in their company and responsible for their well-being and monitoring their group etiquette and comportment and reminding them to actually try to speak in Spanish and rejecting their request to buy cool slingshots at the marketplace. We met at the airport around 10:30 last night, flew out around 1:30 in the morning, switched planes in El Salvador at 5:30 am, got on another plane and arrived in Managuas, stepping out in the stifling heat with our San Francisco sweatshirts on. Then got on the bus for 3 hours, had a meal, met our families, got the downtown Cathedral tour, checked out the open air market, went to another restaurant where 5 big macho boys (ours) were screaming at the sight of a large flying beetle. Over 36 hours together with a total of 3 hours sleep and a reasonably sane person might ask, “Did you say you were lucky to do this?!”

Well, check in with me at the end of the time, but the beginning was a sheer delight and it indeed is fascinating to listen to the kids react to what they see and hear and smell and taste and think, get a reality check on the “romance of other cultures” our school often portrays and hear how kids actually perceive it. Too early for any conclusions and I suspect the sense of shared humanity we aim for will rise to the top, but it won’t just happen because we want it to. They are being pushed out of their comfort zone, wrestling with a second language, dealing with non-San Francisco heat and humidity, encountering real bugs and lizards and a few aggressive beggar children and the story will unfold differently with each of them at their own pace.

And so I turn to some much-needed sleep in my room with Little Mermaid stickers on the wall, a fan on my face and a big bug flying around the room. Dang! I should have bought that slingshot!!

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