A Field Trip to Remember
In the great optimist vs. pessimist debate, you're either on the bus or off it

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, June 24, 2007

"This field trip is a mess," says the mom with high heels. We're at the zoo. The second-grade class is all sweat and glee: girls holding hands as they skip, boys tackling each other, while a snow leopard looks on lazily.

"You can't even see the animals," the high-heel mom says. "And it's so hot. And who knew there would be so much walking!"

Everyone, I think, knew. Everyone knows that when you go to the zoo, there will be a lot of walking. High heels? I don't know how to put it tactfully, so I don't put it at all. I move along. I do a head count of the five girls in my charge: Zoe, Jenny, Victoria, Morgan . . . Charlene? She's a straggler. Charlene? "Charlene!" Oh, there she is. Whew. There is nothing easy about a field trip. And, yes, it's hot out today. And even though I wore my Nikes, my legs are already tired. And, it's true -- most of the animals are either hidden or asleep in that creepy way that makes you wonder if they're dead.

This field trip might, I think, be a mess.

"Oh, my gosh, isn't this wonderful!" says the mom with the white visor. "Isn't this a perfect day?" She goes on to tell me about her trips to the zoo as a kid, how wonderful they were and how much more wonderful zoos are now. All the landscaping. All the towering shade trees. Wonderful! "If I lived closer, I would come here in the morning and just walk these trails," she says. "Can't you just imagine that? Get a season pass and have this be your walking place?"

Actually, I can. What a terrific way to start the day -- scouting for wildlife as you get your aerobic exercise in.

"You have got to be kidding me," says the high-heel mom. "There are bird droppings here."

All day long, I bounce between these two women, both on the same field trip and yet each experiencing it so differently. The high-heel mom complains about the pizza; the signage; the walruses, which are too fat to entertain; the smell of the monkey house; the price of the gift shop sunglasses that she had to buy because no one had warned her about the glare.

The visor mom is brimming with joy. She does not complain about the pizza because she thought to pack her own lunch: fresh strawberries and cantaloupe cubes and a ham sandwich. She thinks the monkeys are hilarious and treats her group of five boys to some Dippin' Dots -- because it's hot out, and hot, in her book, equals: ice cream!

I am trying to figure out where I stand on this continuum.

The educational program in the learning center is not as exciting as promised. The kids see an owl, touch a seal skin, pet a chinchilla. "Big whoop," the high-heel mom says. "We could have skipped this."

"Uh-huh," I say. Frankly, I'm getting a little miffed that her bad time is rubbing off on me.

"Did you hear what she said about polar bear fur?" the visor mom says as we exit the learning center. "Did you know that their hairs were like straws? Have you ever thought about insulation that way before?" "Nope," I say. Frankly, I'm feeling pressure to be as happy as she is.

When you are around people with strong opinions, it's hard to find your own.

Fortunately, Charlene is missing again, so I'm too busy to decide which way I'll go on any of this. "Charlene?" Oh, there she is. The problem, I think, is her camera. She lags behind because she wants to take pictures of everything: the flamingos by the pond, the sparrow snatching a lost pretzel, the woman selling bottled water.

Inevitably, at the end of the day, the high-heel mom and the visor mom find themselves next to each other, while we all stand here loading the stinky, exhausted kids onto the bus. To her credit, the high-heel mom waits until the kids are safely out of earshot to unload.

"That field trip was a mess," she says to the visor woman. "Those kids could not even see those animals. I'm starving. That pizza was cardboard." She goes on and on, while the visor woman appears to visibly deflate.

Whiners always win. It's so much easier to take the air out of a happy person than it is to pump up an unhappy one. Those of us who stand here as independent voters bear some responsibility.

"It was a terrific day," I say, finally, for the sake of zoos, for the sake of field trips, for the sake of optimism. "Those kids had the time of their lives."

There is commotion on the bus. "Charlene! Charlene!" Oh, my God, Charlene? Is she not on the bus? I saw her get on the bus! Finally, the doors open. She was on the bus, but she has insisted on getting off again, accompanied by her teacher, who has apparently surrendered. Charlene wants a picture of the bus. She stands, snaps, cherishes. I wish I knew how to thank her for this, all the proof a field trip mom needs.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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