Our kitchen counter is littered with the average detritus of a family raising young kids: fake tattoos from the latest goodie bag; pencils with tips broken off; bright folders spilling math tests, spelling homework, macaroni art. This river of trash and treasure defies our daily efforts at dredging it. And from time to time, tucked among the flotsam and jetsam is a sheet of paper recognizable to any parent: the field trip permission slip.
At the bottom of most permission slips is a box to check if you, Parent, would be willing to serve as a chaperone. Time and again, in the forty seconds in which the slip is signed and the $8 check written (who ever has eight dollars in cash?), I make a mental note to check the date and time against my work calendar. Maybe this will be the one that works out, and if so, I'll email the teacher. So I tell myself.
I almost never do it.
Actually, I never do it.
I settle for the stories shared over dinner, the email summaries from dedicated teachers, and in Kian's case, the weekly photo post of his Montessori adventures.
Amit, on the other hand, managed to chaperone one of Devan's field trips last year. He came home somewhat shell-shocked, having forgotten in the intervening 36 years what a bus full of 7 year olds sounds like. And wouldn't you know, that field trip was featured so prominently in the school's yearbook that you'd think my husband had joined the full-time staff.
In a thought bubble I'm not proud of, I seethed.
My gosh, how DOES Amit balance his intense and successful career and STILL manage to be at EVERY school event?! What a guy!
Guilt catches up with me at odd and wildly inopportune moments. One morning in early December, with a long, out of town trial bearing down on me, nary a Christmas gift bought, and precious few groceries in the fridge, I spotted the permission slip for Kian's upcoming field trip to see "Seasons of Light" at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater.
It just happened that on that very morning, I'd struggled to squeeze my son's belly into his Size 5 pants. The zipper broke, and so did I, in one of those pathetic displays of Wrung Out Mommy to which I occasionally subject my children. This one combined the helpful themes of "He's Growing Up, and You're Missing It All;" "Some Mothers Buy Clothes That Actually Fit Their Child;" and "I Know Daddy Never Loses It Like This, But It's Different."
By the time I pulled myself together, our au pair had quietly helped Kian into a perfectly fine pair of pants with an elastic waist. I doled out hugs and apologies, and sheepishly gathered my purse and keys. My eyes returned to the slip. I checked the box.
And so it was that I reported for duty at 8:30 a.m. on a chilly Thursday. Kian brimmed with pride and excitement as we walked into his classroom. I greeted his teacher, and turned to take in my fellow parent chaperones, grateful to recognize at least one, and introducing myself to the others with my customary, "I'm sure we've met before, but my name is Caroline..."
Sensing there would be some down time before we departed for the show, I instinctively pulled out my iPhone and checked the morning's emails. If I could blow through these, I reasoned, my afternoon return to the office might not be so brutal. I arranged my body on a 12 inch high toddler chair and set to work, my thumb swiping left to delete each message returned or not requiring response. Noticing I was down to 22% power, I scanned the room until I spotted an outlet underneath some sort of terrarium.
At that moment, Kian's teacher called us to the morning circle. She introduced each of us to the 25 assembled 4 and 5 year olds, and then she handed us an information sheet with the names of our three charges and detailed instructions for each phase of the trip. Aside from Kian, I had his good pal Raj and a little girl named Winnie. Their sweet faces looked up at me from their criss-crossed seats in the circle.
As the kids put on their coats, the teacher summoned the chaperones.
"I need you to commit to not being on your phones. You need to be present and alert to where each member of your group is, and that means no distractions."
Right. Absolutely. What kind of jackass would be so work-obsessed or self-involved to be on the phone at a preschool field trip?
We tied a bright yellow scarf onto each child's neck; it bore the name and number of the school should we fail all tests of adulthood by losing one of them. And then we were off. We poured onto Connecticut Avenue in a happy parade, rows of one Big and three Littles across. Commuters and work crews smiled at the sight of us. Kian pirouetted under my arm.
It should be a great benefit of living in a city that your children experience public transportation at an early age. We would take Metro, two different lines, to the Smithsonian stop. But the time was roughly 9:10 a.m., which meant we would be joined on platforms and in train cars by a good portion of the greater Metropolitan area.
My first hiccup was trying to usher my three kids through the automatic sliding gate at Van Ness. The technology was unforgiving, with just 2 seconds to push the kids through once my Metro pass hit the reader. Before I knew it, my yellow scarves were through the gate, and I was stuck on the other side. The school director saw this play out and ushered my group to safety before they were trampled by the crush of harried commuters, while I quickly pled my case to the Metro guard. Reunited with my three, I clasped their hands in a death grip as we descended the escalator and made it to the platform.
By this point, Winnie had decided she would much rather be a part of a different quartet with two of her little girl pals. Thus began my increasingly agitated reminders:
Winnie, sweetheart, you need to stay with us.
Winnie... Winnie, you're part of our group. Hold Kian's hand.
Winnie, you can see your friends when we all get there.
Work with me, Winnie, I'm in a full-blown panic attack that one of you will end up making friends with the deep-fried rats down on the third rail.
On board the train, a few commuters obligingly gave up their seats. I ushered my trio to some available space along a pole and told them to hang on tight, then placed my legs into a wide stance to form a human fortress around them. If there was one skill I brought to the table, it was how to maneuver on this overcrowded subway.
Across the car, people put down their newspapers and beamed approvingly. I made eye contact with a man roughly my age; he was dressed in a suit and -- based on his evident delight at our spectacle -- had likely just left a child of his own for another day at work. I smiled, resisting the urge to clarify that this really wasn't a typical day for me.
Don't get the wrong idea. I'm supposed to be where you are.
I am you.
Just not today.
As I would learn on our arrival, "Seasons of Light" features the history and customs of as many cultures as six incredibly earnest and happy former Up With People performers can pack into 90 minutes. It celebrates Diwali, Chanukah, Las Posadas, Ramadan, Sankta Lucia Day, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and a First Nations celebration of Winter Solstice.
Our sea of yellow scarves regrouped in the hallway outside the theater, along with large groups from at least two or three other D.C. schools. When the kids were lined up along the wall, a museum staffer bellowed that the children would go in first, sit with their group on the floor, and then the grown-ups could take seats along the sides or in the back. My heart sank a little, as I'd envisioned spending the show with Kian -- holding hands, singing, answering his insightful questions about another culture.
I found a seat along the side. Through the dimmed light I could spot his bright orange coat. I waved, and he waved back.
In the few minutes before the show began, I took in my son. These were his friends, his society. A few kids bounced with wild energy. Others clung to the teacher with visible anxiety. Kian was still. Content, but not giddy, he sat on his knees and waited. I could hear other kids shout his name to get his attention. He was quick with a smile but didn't join the maelstrom of nudges and giggles surrounding him.
Then the theater went dark.
The show lived up to its jam-packed billing. The actors bounded through age-appropriate monologues so imbued with forced merriment that even the stranded Maccabees seemed utterly confident of the miracle yet to play out. The kids held up imaginary prayer sticks to offer their Hopi chief. A young woman attempting an unfortunate Indian accent shouted her Excitement! that Diwali! was Here! and lit diyas to honor the goddess Lakshmi. The finale was a Christmas singalong so gosh-darn jolly that the late Merv Griffin might have produced it from beyond the grave.
The kids loved it. I imagined the awesomely muddled and amalgamated descriptions of winter celebrations that would be brought home that day. But I sort of loved it too.
As we boarded the train to make our way back, I relaxed a little. With permission from the teacher, I traded Winnie to the group she yearned for, and took the boy from that group into mine. The Metro was far less crowded, and there were plenty of seats for the weary and yellow-scarved.
Just two stops into the ride, the teacher whispered my name, smiled, and pointed to the seat ahead of me. Kian was dead asleep.
I moved to his seat and heaved his 50 pound body onto my lap. He was sweaty in his thick orange coat, so I unzipped it a little. His head nestled against me, and I rested my chin in his thick hair.
I thought back to the morning I'd lost my composure over a pair of pants. I wondered how many of those mornings I had made part of his memory by now. How many exasperated attempts to insert protein into their breakfast. How many skirmishes with Devan over her increasingly outlandish third grade wardrobe. How many hurry-up's, sighs, eye rolls. How many moments that called for calm but ended in raised voices, my eye on the clock but so far off the ball.
Maybe I'd never know. Or maybe I'd hear all about it someday, disproving once and for all the chorus of voices that told me I was doing a great job, or -- its cursed alternative -- the Best I Could. The thing about parenthood is you have no way of knowing what, big or small, will make a difference.
I'd like to hope their childhoods will play back a little like that December day, maybe even like that frenetic show. Moments of darkness, but pierced with color, and raucous noise, and fabric, and laughter, and community. And, yes, light. I hope that the moment I walk through the door at night is as transcendent for them as they make it for me. That the weeknight suppers they've spent with our au pair, or with just Amit, or with just me, will blend together in memory so we are one coterie, united in our devotion and best intentions, even if some things got lost in execution.
I hope that if Kian doesn't remember this field trip, he will recall a day when he was still little, and he fell asleep on the Metro, and his mom was there.
If I could plant my prayer stick, it would be that when he sifts through the moments that gave shape to his childhood, he might do a better job than I've done at sorting through the muck.
I hope he lets the rubble and silt and gravel fall back into the water, and that he pans for gold.