Last Field Trip

When I wrote to my sister to tell her I wouldn’t be working on Friday because I was going to chaperone a field trip, my last ever, she replied, “Last field trip…bittersweet!”

It’s just one last after another for kids and parents alike senior year. I hadn’t done this particular parenting duty for a while though. My heyday of chaperoning field trips for North was fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. (I never did one for Noah after preschool because when he was in elementary school, he had a younger sibling I was looking after and after that the schools didn’t ask very often. Plus, he never seemed to want me to do it as much as North did.)

After supervising a bunch of rowdy sixth-graders attending a chorus festival, I wasn’t in a hurry to do it again, but it had been six years and I had an inkling high school seniors in an AP English class would be better behaved.

It was also a draw that trip was to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’d been only once before, when Beth’s mom and aunt were visiting in 2017 and I remembered feeling rushed on that visit. I was the slowest to move through the displays and I had not finished the history section and never got to culture at all.

It’s an excellent museum, but it wasn’t completely clear why the AP Lit classes were visiting. They’ve read African American literature, of course, but the trip didn’t seem explicitly tied to what they’d read. According to North, there hadn’t been any discussion ahead of time about how the visit would connect to Their Eyes Were Watching God or any other works of literature. I wondered why.

North and I left the house at 7:25 on Friday morning and caught a bus that would take us to the Takoma Metro. We had the choice to meet up either at school or at the Wheaton Metro, and the Metro stop is on North’s way to school, so we went there. We got there a little early and I ate the breakfast I’d packed from home. There was a young woman using the same low concrete wall I was using as a table to set out her breakfast from Dunkin’ Donuts and the makeup she was applying. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out she was on the trip, too.

Once the students, teachers, and chaperones had arrived at the Metro station I received a map of the museum and a list of the students in my group. A teacher took roll, and I was able to cross off three kids in my group who weren’t there or who had been switched to another group, but I did not have the remaining kids collected. Apparently, that would happen later. We all got on the Metro and went to Metro Center.

Here we were supposed to divide into groups, but it wasn’t clear how because I couldn’t put kids’ names to faces and they had not been told ahead of time their group numbers, which would have enabled them to find me. It was a big crowd, three sections of AP Lit, probably about seventy-five kids. North and the kids I did have with me tried to help locate the other kids on the list, but I don’t think I ever had all eight of them in one place at the same time.

I was moderately stressed about this, but whenever I let North’s teacher know I didn’t have all my group with me, she didn’t seem all that concerned, and she said she’d find the rest of them. It didn’t seem as if they were supposed to stay with me the whole time anyway, just to check in at certain points, though it also seemed all the chaperones were handling it differently. Instructions were never clear.

We walked from Metro Center to the museum and got in line. There was a group of high school students from Michigan in line next to us. Two of them were in Trump or MAGA gear, which caused North to raise their eyebrows at me. We had timed tickets for 10:15. We were given instructions to convene for lunch at the food trucks at 12:15. My group immediately dissolved and North and I were left alone to explore the museum for two hours. North said a little sadly that El was supposed to come on the trip but couldn’t because it conflicted with a coffeehouse the literary magazine was putting on at lunch that they were helping to organize, so they’d stayed at school. It was an odd echo of the fifth-grade trip to Mount Vernon, when I ended up chaperoning just North, who was using crutches and a wheelchair and couldn’t keep up with their classmates. I must say though, that just like at Mount Vernon, I enjoyed the unexpected one-on-one time with North.

We had a list of two things to try to see on each of the museum’s five levels, so we used that as our guide. We started on the first floor at the Afrofuturism exhibit, where we checked off the Janelle Monae video and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther suit. (Throughout various parts of the museum, North was interested in actors’ and musicians’ costumes, which makes sense, as they spent a lot of time in high school on costumes crew or as costumes manager.) I found this exhibit very interesting. It took a broad view of Afrofuturism, including for instance the Abolitionist movement. Though I’d always heard of Afrofutrism as an artistic movement, the Abolitionists did imagine a different future for African Americans, so it makes sense. The exhibit also went beyond science fiction and speculative fiction, considering the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley as Afrofuturist. North and I had a good talk about the exhibit, and they were kind enough to let me go on and on about Octavia Butler.

This would not have been true if we’d made it to the history section of the museum, but we didn’t, so my most heart-rending moment came in Afrofuturism. There was a display case with three space-related uniforms. The first one belonged to a NASA astronaut. The second one was a costume worn by Nichelle Nichols, the first black woman crew member on Star Trek. The third one was from a kids’ space camp and had belonged to Trayvon Martin. His name was embroidered on it. Seeing that was a gut punch.

Next, we went all the way to the top of the museum and worked our way down from the fifth floor (Music, Art, Performance, Culture). North rested on a bench and watched a video while I made a quick scan of the floor to get a lay of the land and find the suggested items so we could visit them together first. It was easy to find Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, though probably not so impressive for North, as they’d never heard of Chuck Berry. They dutifully read the plaque about him. I tried to take a picture of the bright red car but there were too many people in the way, so I gave up. (I didn’t end up taking any pictures inside the museum.) The second destination was Neighborhood Record Store, which consisted of a faux record store where you could page through album covers, interlaced with informational placards about artists. After that, we wandered around the floor, taking in the displays, especially costumes. I think it might have been here I saw a purple cape worn by Prince that kind of surprised me with the awe and joy it made me feel. I’m not even a huge Prince fan, but still… It was one of the sweet moments, interspersed with the bitter.

We didn’t spend too much time on the main part of the fourth floor (Sports, Military, Education), but we made sure to find Kobe Bryant’s Lakers uniform and to stop at the Place Table. This was a table with a screen. Photos moved all over it and when you touched one it would stop and text about the place in the photo and what it meant to the person in the photo would appear. It was part of a larger exhibit about sense of place. I watched part of a video about an African American town on Martha’s Vineyard, while North lingered at the Place Table, reading people’s stories.

The third floor was devoted to Interactives. We watched an instructional video about how to dance in a step show. (Some people were in front of the screen dancing along.) Even though we were hurrying by this point because we needed to be out of the museum soon, North later said the Green Book display was their favorite feature in the museum. You sit in a car, with a screen for a windshield. It shows you where you are driving on a map and you have access to the Green Book, which helps you select restaurants and hotels where African Americans could stay along your route.

We were almost out of time and intended to quickly pop into the history galleries on the second floor to find the stools that came from North Carolina Woolworth’s that were used in a sit-in and to walk through the segregated train car, but these galleries were crowded, and  you are funneled into the fifteenth century, so we didn’t think we could make it to the twentieth century in the time we had left without dashing through the galleries, which did not seem like a respectful thing to do. We did glimpse the train car from an atrium a floor above.

We reported back to the lobby where I could only find one member of my group. It turned out the meeting place was outside the museum and by the time North, the other kid, and I went outside all the kids were in line at the food trucks. North’s teacher let me know everyone was accounted for and we got our lunches, walked back to the Metro, and headed home.

Other Lasts

The field trip was not the only last of North’s high school career this week. Last weekend they attended their last two Cappies shows, The Adams Family on Friday night and The Prom on Saturday night, and they wrote a review for each one. I don’t think they’ve ever attended two plays in one weekend before, so they went out with a bang. Also, the Adams Family review will be published in The Alexandria Times. This was their first published review of the year, so that made them happy, partly for the validation, but also because it gave them the last point they needed to graduate as a five-star thespian. I asked if they were happy or sad to be done with Cappies (except for the meeting to vote on awards for plays) and they said both because it was fun but also a lot of work. 

Tomorrow and Thursday North will take an IB math exam, Friday they will go to the prom with El, and the following week they have the AP Lit exam. Over the weekend, Noah was helping North with their math homework and I was at the dining room table, half-listening to them. My phone was showing me memories of my kids eighteen years ago and I showed North a picture of themselves as a one-month old. “I was little then,” they said. “I didn’t have to do calculus. When did the expectations change?” I wonder the same thing sometimes.

There are several weeks of school left, and one more dance in early June (Pride Prom) but after a busy spell, things should start winding down soon. And then high school will really be over. I can hardly wrap my head around that bittersweet reality.