Chaperoning a school field trip expedition? Beware of being fed to the lions

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 26, 2011

The harried mother is dashing between the rockets at the National Air and Space Museum, bearing all the markers of a field-trip parent: name tag, loads of other people’s junk in her arms and a certain askew quality to her entire self.

“I lost my kids. Jaaaaasoooooon!” the woman shouts between panicked breaths. Her eyes flash a look of both hunter and prey as she scans the vast area of the museum for her escaped charges and the museum guard who might catch them mid-caper.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“At least it’s an enclosed space,” she tells no one in particular.

And at least a kid didn’t yak on her. That happened to Barbara Kraft, a nurse who lives outside of Baltimore and is chaperoning a class trip from North Harford Middle School.

In case you haven’t been cut off by students’ buses or swarmed by them at a food court, field-trip season is in full bloom here in Washington.


Mike Davis plays Frisbee during a class excursion to the mall for his daughter, a fifth-grader at Holton-Arms School. Some moms and dads are undaunted by chaperone duty; others will stagger back to work feeling as if they’ve been trampled by a herd of caribou. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

School groups burst across the nation’s capital in bunches of bright green hats or fields of orange T-shirts every spring. They are a rite of passage for students and — when called upon to chaperone one — parents.

For some, it’s a special time to take off from work, bond with a child and accompany him on his journey of discovery. For others, it’s the seventh circle of parenting hell.

On a field trip, you get a sickening glimpse of your kid’s uncensored behavior when he’s goofing off for his friends. You get to meet the Mean Girl making your daughter’s life the most tragic of telenovelas. (If it’s your lucky day, Mean Girl will be assigned to your group, and you’ll repress the urge to lose her on the Metro.) And you get to demonstrate how impotent you are in the face of a tantrum and the threats commonly used in your family:

“If you don’t stop doing that right now, I’m going to tie you to the roof of the car on the way home tonight and feed you to your cat,” you growl between clenched teeth. The entire group goes silent. The teacher’s mouth remains open for a very long time as her psychoanalytical wheels turn. (This is also the time you really appreciate how underpaid our teachers are.)

There are different kinds of field trips, and it takes a while to master which ones are a horror show and which ones are tolerable. I’ve staggered back to work from many a museum, park or zoo outing feeling as if I’d been run over by a herd of caribou.

But not all parents are daunted by class trips. At Air and Space, Mike Davis is reveling in his chaperoning duties as he explains prop aerodynamics to his daughter and her plaid-jumpered friends from Holton-Arms School.

“I did Gettysburg, too. That was a big dad outing,” he says. (The teacher agrees; many dads joined that trip. The butterfly garden? Not so much.)

Lakeesha McKnight, who is accompanying a horde of kids from Lexington Park, is still learning the ropes. “I have five kids today. Wait! One, two, three, four, five. Yes, got all five,” she tells me as one machine-guns: “Spitfire! Spitfire! Spitfire!” while they head toward the planes.

“This is my first one ever, first time I could get free to go. Wait! One, two, three, four, five,” she counts her George Washington Carver Elementary 9-year-olds again. I decide to leave her alone. She doesn’t need the distraction.

My editor says she survived two class trips to Air and Space and vowed never to sign up for a third. “Always pick the theater outing,” she advises. “They’re sitting, it’s dark, they’re watching something. It’s the easiest one.”

Theater trips? They’re for wussies! I boldly signed up to join my first-grader for his overnight camping trip a couple weeks ago. A tent, lots of salamanders, ticks, kitchen duty, rain, a pond, five pairs of pants and two destroyed pairs of shoes. It was just one night.

There were more than 100 people there. Just one went all the way into the pond. Can you guess which child that might’ve been?

Yup.

On this outing, the teachers asked that we leave our electronics behind. No cellphones, no laptops, no iPads. “Does this include Tasers?” I wondered.

Over a mountain of 300 bagels and a Jacuzzi-size fruit salad at breakfast, I asked one of the teachers for her biggest complaint about parent chaperones.

Given that this was the teacher who’d fished my son out of the pond while I was busy bonding with another mom, I thought I knew her answer.

“The cellphones. We get back from a trip and we’re like, ‘Did you see such-and-such texting the whole time?’ or ‘So-and-so was on the phone how many times?’ This is time with your child,” she said, wishing parents could unplug.

(I wondered about the dad who told me he always takes a Xanax before the zoo field trip. Would that be considered unplugging?)

The dad next to me whipped his phone out. “Do you know when I got my first e-mail today? One o’clock in the morning,” the dad said.

For parents who work outside the home, the BlackBerry is the leash that allows us to go on the field trips, but it also becomes the thing that strangles us.

Then again, what if there’s an emergency?

At Air and Space, Barbara Kraft pulls out her cellphone. Maybe she is getting desperate. “I have it only for emergencies,” she say, sensing perhaps she might be on the verge of one, as her 12-year-old and his pal are still missing.

Then the hunter stops. Out of the corner of her eye, she spots the flash of Jason’s green sweat shirt and whips around to see him sauntering over.

“We were in the gift shop, Mom,” he announces. “Relax.”

What’s your worst field trip story? Tell us in the comments below.

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