I began to recognize the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome about four hours into my day touring Washington with the eighth-graders of Centreville, Mich. I was starting to identify with my captors. I was going non-native.
Which is a difficult thing for a native Washingtonian to admit. Unless your livelihood depends on tourists directly, your spot on the STT — Spectrum of Tourist Tolerance — probably falls somewhere between Grudging Acceptance and Boiling Resentment.
After all, tourists crowd our sidewalks. They gawp at our motorcades. They clog our museums and keep “Shear Madness” in business at the Kennedy Center. They don’t stand on the right.
Worst of all, tourists penetrate our self-obsessed bubble, reminding us that America is full of places that aren’t Washington, places such as Centreville, Mich., population 1,425.
I’m standing on the Metro platform at Union Station with 40 teenagers, 10 chaperones and tour director Kelly Smigiel, who works for Brightspark, the company that organized the trip.
“Terry didn’t want to do this,” Kelly says as we wait on the platform. She means ride the Metro. “But I said it was part of the experience.”
Terry is Terry Miller, the Centreville Junior High math and history teacher who since 2004 has been taking the town’s eighth-graders to Washington for their end-of-the-year trip. A large, ruddy man in khaki shorts and a yellow polo shirt, Terry looks like a fellow who understands that it’s important he return to Centreville with the same number of kids he left with.
There’s the sound of an incoming train, and the students seem to vibrate with excitement.
* * *
I’d met up with them that morning at the U.S. Capitol, repeatedly asking the various groups in line the same question — “Are you from Michigan?” (“No, we’re from Iowa”), “Are you from Michigan?” (“No, Wisconsin”) — until I found them.
It was the final day of their three-day “Passport to Adventure in Washington, D.C.” After a 12-hour bus ride from Michigan and an overnight in Gettysburg, Pa., the kids had toured the Mall and the National Archives, and had had their picture taken in front of the White House. On Day 2, they had visited Mount Vernon and Washington National Cathedral, and seen “Anything Goes” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia. On Day 3, they were set to tour the Capitol and Ford’s Theatre; eat lunch at Union Station; visit Arlington National Cemetery; eat dinner at the Pentagon City mall; explore the Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, World War II, Vietnam and Korean war memorials; survey the city from the roof of the Kennedy Center; and then paddle across the Potomac in homemade sampans while singing “Yankee Doodle.”
I’m kidding about that last one. What I mean is, these kids were busy.
“It’s go, go, go, go, go,” Terry says. “I have the schedule so packed they can’t get into any mischief.”
After our Capitol tour, I fall in with Rachel and Sarah Sirna, dark-haired 13-year-old twins who often speak in unison and have the endearing habit of holding up their right hands and pointing to various Michigan geographic features on their palms: Here is Detroit; here is Grand Rapids; here, at the very bottom near the wrist, is Centreville. ...
“The most boring town in the world,” Rachel says.
There is nothing tall in Centreville, the twins say. There is nothing big in Centreville. There are no interesting buildings in Centreville, unless you count the courthouse and the Langley Covered Bridge, the longest covered bridge in Michigan.
I share this information not to denigrate Centreville — I happen to know it produces some really great eighth-graders — but to explain why a group of tourists might dawdle, amble, loiter. Television may have put the world into our living rooms, but even seeing Washington on a 42-inch flat-screen doesn’t compare with standing in the gravitational pull of a leviathan like the U.S. Capitol and savoring the view.
* * *
Ford’s Theatre is next on our itinerary. But first a stop at Souvenir World, around the corner from Ford’s.
Though nearly every kid already sports some kind of Washington-themed article of clothing — my favorites are the five girls in matching black “FBI” T-shirts (“You guys wanna join the FBI?” I ask; “We’re in the FBI,” one deadpans) — they want more.
They want shirts that say “I [heart] D.C.” They want shirts that say “NCIS,” after the CBS crime drama that depicts a Washington totally unrecognizable to Washingtonians, being as it’s shot in California. They want shirts that look like the logo for Monster energy drink, but with a lurid green “W” for “Washington” instead of an “M” for “Monster.”
Shirts are important, not just the keepsakes tourists buy, but the ones they bring, the matching shirts that every group is issued. The Centreville kids aren’t wearing theirs today — they donned eye-watering “safety green” T’s yesterday for the mass photo — but plenty of other groups we bump up against are. There are the purple shirts of the People to People Student Ambassadors, the red shirts of the Bristol, R.I., Girl Scouts, the green shirts of the Alachua County, Fla., Safety Patrols. ...
The groups move through the city like glittering shoals of tropical fish or dots in a pointillist painting. Their attire marks them as effectively as any cattle brand, ties them together as tightly as a Crip bandanna. We’re a gang that’s come to your ’hood.
* * *
After Ford’s Theatre (short story: Lincoln was shot), we’re back on the bus and headed to Union Station. “Boys,” says Kelly into the bus’s microphone, “I want you to take your wallet out of your back pocket and put it in your front pocket. Ladies, if you’re taking your purse, I want it over one shoulder.”
Each student has been given a voucher for a meal at selected food court restaurants.
“It’s so loud,” says Rachel as we thread our way toward Pasta T’Go-Go. “I don’t like the noise.”
And yet, this is thrilling. What had always seemed to me sort of banal — an eatery of last resort — now seems, through their eyes, as exotic as a Serengeti watering hole. How many lasting Washington memories are made in marbled halls, and how many are made in mall food courts, fighting crowds, dodging pickpockets, choosing cuisine, balancing trays amid the hustle and the bustle? Believe me when I say that once you’ve done all that and then tried to find five seats together away from anyone who looks creepy, you are bonded.
Such is the deep connection I feel with the group that I keep my mouth shut after lunch as we step onto the Metro escalator. We are standing on the right. And also on the left. Like animals boarding the ark, we are standing two by two.
Reader, let me explain: There are a lot of kids to move. Single file would take double time. I’m not saying I approve, but I am saying that I understand.
“Stay with your chaperones,” Terry commands as the Red Line train slows to a stop. The doors open, and we are aboard. For most of the students, this is the first subway they’ve ever ridden. For some, it’s the first train. They are excited. They are loud. They are going “Whooooa” as the car takes a curve. Some — giddy from the novelty — are hanging from the bars.
Somehow a stray woman has wandered into this messy, multi-celled organism. I recognize the look on her face. It’s one I’ve had: Irritable Tourist Syndrome.
I pick my way through the teenagers toward her. She is D.C. resident Cheryl Collins. She confesses that she was annoyed at first. “But I was just reflecting that I do like seeing the school groups come. Washington’s a great place to live.”
She has lived here six years. Where’s she from originally? “Wisconsin.”
When we change lines at Metro Center, some kids are already announcing that the subway ride is their favorite part of the entire trip. A little cheer goes up when our Blue Line train emerges from the tunnel and we find ourselves in the sun on the other side of the river.
“Where you all from?” asks a man with an American flag pin on the lapel of his suit coat.
“Centreville, Michigan,” the kids chorus.
“Centreville? Is that in the Upper Peninsula?”
* * *
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. At Arlington National Cemetery, Dottie Foster of the Guide Service of Washington joins the group.
Three students change out of shorts and T-shirts into formal clothes to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns after the changing of the guard. “Why do they need a guard?” wonders one of them, Johnny Eicher. “Is it like someone’s going to steal it?”
After dinner we start our march through the monuments, pausing to don flimsy plastic ponchos after the heavens open.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Rachel and Sarah mention that their mother had a cousin who died in the war, and Terry helps them find Panel 23W, Line 60, where the name Gregory R. Vogler is engraved in the black granite. The kids are as somber as I’ve seen them as we shuffle past.
At the Korean War memorial, Dottie asks, “Why were we in Korea?”
“We don’t mind our own business?” someone offers.
At the Lincoln Memorial, Megan Stafford slips on the wet steps and takes a tumble, which makes her briefly famous.
By the time we reach the FDR Memorial, it’s getting dark — or what passes for dark in a big city. A boy named Chevrolet Schrader turns to me and says: “I’m not used to the light. We live in the country. It gets pitch black.”
I ask Ed Sheteron, one of the chaperones, why they bother to come all this way every year. “It gives them something to strive for,” he says. “It’s like when my older son come four years ago. He wanted to come so bad, he paid for his own way. He didn’t want to put his dad and mom in the burden of raising extra money. He took his Christmas money and his birthday money, he shoveled driveways. But he earned every little penny of it.”
* * *
At the final stop of the day, I feel I must bring up the issue that has put me amongst them. We’re on the roof of the Kennedy Center, the monuments all twinkly down below.
We Washingtonians, I say, have a love/hate relationship with tourists. We love that you love our city. We love that you spend your money here. But sometimes we’re irritated by your presence, like, for example, when you swarm onto the Metro.
“I sensed that,” says Zach Mathews, a 14-year-old from Nottawa, Mich.
Says his classmate Logan Edson: “I could see it in their eyes: ‘Oh, great. Tourists.’ ”
Kaitlin Happel starts to fume, and I’m suddenly sorry I brought it up. “It’s not just their town,” she says. “It’s a public place. I mean anybody’s allowed here. Like Megan just can’t walk up and say ‘Well, Centreville is my town. Nobody can come here unless I say so.’ ”
“Centreville’s not my town,” interrupts Megan, the Lincoln Memorial steps-tumbler. “I was born in Grand Rapids.”
“For example!” says Kaitlin, irritated. “The fact that we get the opportunity to come here and learn stuff, they shouldn’t be like that, saying, ‘They can’t come because we’re sick of them.’ Because they go places. Don’t you think other people there complain? They got to look at it from both sides. It’s not just their town that’s being toured by people. They’re touring other places.”
At a little after 10 p.m., driver Larry Harman pulls his empty bus in front of the Kennedy Center and opens the door. He has one eye on the rearview mirror, since he’s not sure he’s allowed to stop here. This is going to be like a Marine helicopter dust-off.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” Terry is shouting. “Single file! Single file!”
The bus swallows 40 middle-schoolers, 10 chaperones and tour director Kelly Smigiel, leaving Dottie and me waving on the curb. There’s a “thwomp” as the door closes, then the hiss of brakes being released as the bus pulls away.
During their three days here, the kids have learned something about our city. So have I. A Washington without tourists might seem like an upgrade — but it just wouldn’t be Washington.
John Kelly is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.