Recently I went with Zach, my 11-year-old, on his fifth-grade field trip to the beach. Actually the trip was to the Trinity Center in Salter Path, on the Other Banks. I’ve got to say as someone who had not been to the Other Banks for a while that the OB is really just a big sand bar. You can own cool houses there if you like, but I had the clear unmistakable feeling that the sea is coming back for this little land strip, and it wasn’t going to take a tsunami to get it underwater.
I got rooked into this trip by Zach himself, and little did I know I was one of only three men to go. In the weeks leading up to it, every 5 th grade parent I ran into was thanking me profusely for going, the way one would thank someone who had volunteered to fall on his sword. Turns out I was the only male going until the day before the trip.
The three men “volunteers” rode the bus with the students, while the women chaperones (a teaming horde of tennis moms) rode in black SUVs big as Bradley tanks. The women stopped for drinks along the way, while we men shared juice boxes with the students. I never go anywhere without a dozen Frisbees and a couple of footballs, and these were the entertainment at rest stops. These items neatly divided the 5 th grade into two groups: those kids who could throw things like footballs and Frisbees, and those who could not. It worked out either way, since the poor throwers spent lots of time and energy in the weeds fetching whatever they had thrown.
We could watch movies on the bus, and, as one of the adults (at least in age), I picked through the rubbish movies kids had brought. There are lots of great children’s movies, but those films were not well represented on the bus. Since Zach and I love Invader Zim, I subjected the bus to those cartoons from Nickelodeon in a collection entitled DOOM DOOM DOOM. The boys liked the toons, but the girls hated them, so I had to go to Ella Enchanted to quiet the near female riot. That movie is based on a great book, but watching it on a busload of 5 th graders is like taking an electric screwdriver to your head.
The Trinity Center is an Episcopal retreat which offers camps on ecology and marine biology to North Carolina school kids. The setting is earthy and cool: swampy, sandy, with the ocean roaring nearby. The center hires 25-year-old biology grad students to teach ecology, and they do a great job. So for three days we were all about the zoology of the Carolina coast. The world has an astonishing amount of life, which shimmers with God’s wild spirit. It’s remarkable to me how rarely I take a moment and commune with the creation that I profess to love so often in worship.
The high and low point of the trip occurred at the same time, as they so often do in life. We were dissecting squids. It warmed my heart to see my son with a scalpel cutting up a good size squid, yelling, making gaggy faces and fake puking noises, as he identified squid parts. Eventually, each student found the ink sac, and wrote his or her name with the ink from it. Very cool. However, as soon as the squids were out of the bags and placed onto the dissecting trays, one girl began making real retching noises. She started vomiting. She threw up inside the classroom, and, being the only adult with this group, I ran to her, and helped her outside. She could not stop: outside the door, across the courtyard, and in the women’s restroom. I commandeered a mother and got her to accompany the young girl in her distress. To show I was a hip and sensitive male, I cleaned up the floor of the lab too, which now smelled like a bait shop on a sunny day.
I went in large part to keep some of the hyper moms in check. There are parents (particularly moms) who treat boys as defective girls, viewing their boisterousness and bravado as things to be avoided at all costs. One evening the group had a night program on whales and whaling; the program finished with a snack at 8:30. One of the more uptight mothers ran up to me and said, “The boys were really bad and loud on the way over here. I want you to take them back to their cabins right now and get them in bed early.” Now, this is the very thing I was there to guard against, and you don’t have to know me well to know I don’t like being told what to do. So I smiled sweetly, and said, “No, I don’t think we’ll do that.” I had already arranged with the Trinity Center for them to have the playing field lighted, so I told her we’d be playing night football, hide and seek, and Frisbee for the next two hours, until 10:30. Which we did, a wild and wonderful evening under the stars, the very kind of thing the Trinity Center encourages. The boys slept peacefully, being too tired for nefarious deeds.
One of the other men was a firefighter, whose stepson was on the trip. He was a guys’ guy, and he liked playing football with the bigger boys, ignoring his stepson. However, his son could not throw, and I noticed he was often short with the boy, always encouraging him to go and write in his journal. Zach didn’t need any football/Frisbee attention from me: I have thrown my son a thousand passes if I’ve thrown him one. So I did try and teach this boy and two others who didn’t know how to throw either a football or a Frisbee. I’m evangelical about my sports. A little kind male attention is what many of our sons needs most.
Zach’s grade has a large number of boys who have known each other well since 1 st grade. There about 15-20 young men in this constellation of friendship, boys who have gone to Sternberger, played football, soccer, and Gamecube together. Among Zach’s best school friends are a boy with the wonderful name of Rives who is a rabid UNC fan; another is Dave who mother is a post-hippy artist from California (No, her name is not Starflower.); and a set of twins, Matthew and Adam, whose mom always buys the boys different sets of shoes so that their friend can tell them apart. One of Zach’s good friends is a boy named Jack, who speaks with a hint of a lisp and a strong Philly accent. What is funny about Jack is that all the boys start talking like Jack when they are around him, like they are auditioning as extras for the HBO Sopranos.
I also brought several decks of cards I got at the dollar store. When I brought them out on the bus, poker chips appeared. A really wonderful boy named Josiah, whose parents are thoughtful Christians, spent the bus trip there and back, and his late evenings, playing poker. He already knew how to play; I didn’t teach him—I don’t even like the game, and I hate gambling in general. “So, son, did you learn a lot about nature and ecology on the field trip?” “Yes, dad, and also never to draw to an inside straight.” I was struck by how some of the kids from super conservative homes enjoyed the freedom that comes from far away field trips.
One incident sums up the entire trip for me. Don’t ask me why, but they let one of the moms stay in the boys’ dorms. Actually she was in the apartment internal to the dorm itself, but still, this was a really bad idea. [No father would have been allowed to stay in the girls’ dorm, after all.] Fortunately the mom, Claire, had a good sense of humor, and I think I know why she wanted to stay nearby, since her son looked and acted quite a bit younger than the other boys. However, the boys soon forgot that Claire was there, as they walked semi-naked to and from the showers. One night an angel-faced boy named Kyle screamed to the entire cabin on the way back from the shower, “I HAVE A REALLY BIG [rhymes with Venus]!” At that very moment, Claire was walking by. Kyle turned scarlet, and Claire said nonchalantly, “Good for you; I’m sure it will serve you well in life.” I haven’t told this story yet to Kyle’s mom, a lovely conservative Christian who is very concerned about sending her son to Kiser next year.
Life comes at you fast. Sons grow up quickly—daughters too for that matter. If we don’t stop a moment to bless them, talk to them about sex, show them the wonders of creation, teach them to throw a Frisbee and catch a football, then who will?