When I was a kid in the Detroit public schools we took exactly 3 field trips a year. The first was to Greenfield Village, a “historic” site designed to reinforce the myth and legend of Henry Ford (who, by the way, invented interchangeable parts, NOT the automobile.) We learned that Ford believed in a living wage so that his workers could buy the product they built. The message was clear: Henry Ford brought prosperity and modernization — he put the motor in Motor City. At home I learned that Ford was a world class anti-Semite.
The second field trip was to Solidarity House, UAW headquarters. And the third was to eat our bag lunches in in the atrium of The Detroit Institute of Arts, surrounded by the murals of Diego Rivera, which were paid for by Edsel Ford and which featured a Marxist celebration of the glory of labor. As confusing as these visits were, they made perfect sense as field trips, since field trips are about context. Detroit in the 1970s was a complicated, beautiful place on its way to ruin. The industry that ballooned the city was deflating it. And the profiteers were on the run from the human impulse to organize and fight for your rights. I may not have understood what alienation or reification meant, but I knew exactly where I was.
So when the 4th grade of Milo’s school announced its field trip to the far west of our state to learn about geology, geography and gem mining, I signed up to chaperone. I want to know about where we live. The buses left the parking lot at 5:30. But Milo and I drove separately (at the request of the staff who feared an “incident” on the bus) so we had an extra 1/2 hour of sleep. I helped a drowsy, warm Milo’s into the back seat of the mini van, supplied him with pillows, a blanket, Nanny McPhee Returns on my laptop, a bag of dry cereal, a water bottle and a stack of graphic novels. He was busy. I watched the sun come up in my rearview mirror.
Our first stop was a park where the kids sat through a geology lecture, then crossed a bridge, a mile high in the air with the wind blasting them at 4o miles an hour. Milo was fidgety through the lecture and thrilled with the bridge. He clung to me until the last moment when he tore across the expanse, shouting unheard happiness into the high roar.
From the bridge we toured the animal habitats. Milo was full of impertinent questions and the guide was having none of him. I kept my disapproval of her attitude to myself as he was, in fact, being slightly disruptive. But he wasn’t disinterested. And instead of redirecting him she shut him down, she even came close to shaming him, shushing him and asking him if he had, “a serious question” or a “silly one,” which seems downright wrong for someone who works in education. She got what she wanted. He stopped raising his head and talking out of turn. He also shut down entirely, shuffling his feet, pushing up against me and asking if we could go home. So much for all kinds of minds being welcome.
After lunch we headed to a cavern. Earlier the teacher had divided the kids and chaperones into groups. The number of people per group allowed in the cavern was not the same as the number of people in the field trip groups. So when it came time for our cavern tour, Milo and I were separated from our field trip group. Milo’s teacher had designed our field trip group with Milo in mind, putting us with his 2 friends and their mothers. When we were abruptly told that we would not be allowed underground with said friends, Milo got very upset.
The upside to Milo’s discomfort was that he expressed it as sadness rather than rage. He cried. And cried and cried. His cries echoed mournfully off of the cold, wet, boomy walls of the caverns. I gently turned him to face me as we walked, hoping my sweater would muffle the sound. Most everyone avoided us. Even in the cramped space underground they managed to give us a wide berth. It was a horribly fraught experience for Milo, an awkward experience for everyone else on the tour, but for me, it was funny. It just was. Poor Milo sniffling and sobbing and shuffling through the glistening underground tunnel, missing the cool stalagmites because he had to wipe his nose on me. And poor everyone else, trying like hell to ignore the totally conspicuous Milo.
When I declined to explore a particularly tight section citing my claustrophobia, Milo took the brave step for me. His triumph was enough to end the tears. And he finished that part of the day as if his heartbreak hadn’t happened. I was so proud of his tears (not just because tears are appropriate when you’re sad, but because tears are more socially acceptable than rage, even when you’re trapped underground and they aren’t really socially acceptable at all.) I was proud too, of his recovery.
And yet . . . I was sorry that his tears caused his classmates to stand still farther from him. I was sorry that the day had to be exciting AND hard, that in the course of the field trip my Baby couldn’t just cross the windy bridge and conquer the narrow underground passage, he also had to feel the shame of being shut down by an authoritative stranger, and left out by his peers. But it was indeed a field trip, Milo in context, and now I know exactly where we are.