Monday, May 18, 2009

Bad Chaperone

At the beginning of the school year Tim's band teacher announced that they would be taking a trip to Mackinac Island in the spring. He encouraged the parents to have their children attend, and said that there would be some fundraisers to help with the expenses. "It's a great experience." he told us.

Because I don't like to make my kids sell stuff I signed up for the online payment plan and forked over the $250 fee in installments. At the parent-teacher conferences in March I met with the Band teacher and asked him a lot of questions about the trip, especially regarding how to manage Tim's food allergies. Timmy has never been that far from home before without us, and I know from reading the Food Allergy Network materials that many of the deaths from food allergy reactions have occurred on this type of trip, when the kids are older and kind of on their own. The band teacher suggested that I consider chaperoning the trip since they needed more parents to go along anyways.

At that time I suspected that I might not be working any more in May, so I wouldn't have to worry about taking the time off, but doubling the cost of the trip would sting even more. I didn't do much about it until a few weeks ago when he emailed me directly requesting that I attend because they needed more parents to go. I agreed and went online to sign up. I gulped when I saw that the cost for chaperons was even more, $330, apparently due to the double instead of quad room arrangement. That's almost $600 for the two of us to do this. I could take my own family on a very nice trip for that amount, but oh well.

About a week before the trip there was a meeting for the parents. It turned out that both the band and the choir were doing this. I saw my friend Gail at the meeting. She said she would not be going but asked that I keep an eye on her son since he now has a girlfriend in the choir who would also be on the trip. I met that girl's mom and assured her that I would try to see that things were "on the up and up" with them. The band teacher explained to the nervous parents that the children would be well supervised during the entire trip, and that the chaperons would be evenly distributed throughout the bus. The man from the travel company was there and said that they have been doing trips for years and have never lost a kid yet.

One parent raised their hand and asked how many would be going on the trip, and the teacher said about 40 kids total, way down from years past, "probably due to the economy." That led me to ponder the idea that this trip was actually optional, and that my family was the one with the job loss and complicated food issues and yet was participating.

After the meeting I went up to the band teacher because I wanted to talk about allergies, and another mom was also there because she was looking to find a chaperone who could help her daughter who is diabetic. Since I was the one standing there I said I would try to help with that.

A couple of days before the trip I called the travel agency to find out about the food that would be served. Since I was going to be there with the epi-pen at the ready, I wasn't so much worried about a reaction but needed to find out if there would be enough "safe" food available for Tim to have enough to eat. After I politely explained why I was calling, the woman on the phone sounded all put out about it. "This is the first I've heard about this!" she complained. I told her that the Band Director was aware of the issue and asked if there was a place I was supposed to indicate any special needs when I registered. She admitted there was not but did list off the food that was included in the meals that would be served. When it looked like Timmy might be limited to eating dinner rolls and plain lettuce, I asked if there was a possibility of having anything specially prepared. She said that was not an option and suggested that I bring along a cooler with our own food in it. OK, then.

When travel day came they loaded up the bus with luggage, band instruments, and dozens of over-excited 8th graders. After I took my seat in the front of the bus with the other chaperons, the band teacher and tour guide took the microphone and told the kids to behave themselves, and some other typical rules. The band teacher looked at me, and took the microphone. "And no eating peanuts on the bus!" Then they made to leave and I asked where they were going. "Oh, we always travel in a separate vehicle, ever since that one time" they explained and then left us with our charges.

The bus ride really wasn't so bad, at least in the front of the bus. I looked back and thought I could see the top of Timmy's head. And I identified the diabetic girl. She had her eyes closed and mouth open. She was either asleep or in diabetic shock, I hoped it was sleep. They had given us an information DVD about Historic Fort Michilimacinac to play on the bus. When we did that the kids complained and turned up their ipods. I found it very interesting.

When we got to our destination the band teacher re-appeared and told the kids to stay on the bus while we he met with the chaperons. We were handed a list of children we would be "responsible for" and given itineraries. My list had son, his friend Clark, the diabetic and 6 other girls I did not know. When they disembarked from the bus they were told to go and meet up with their chaperons. Several girls drifted my way and I tried to find out their names and match them up with those on my list. One came up to me and stated: "We don't have to stay with you."

I said that they didn't have to but were welcome if they wanted to. Another girl smiled at that and I decided that I liked her better. Then they went away, never to be seen by me again. To this day I am sure that I could not even select them from a police line-up. I tried to memorize their faces in the 30 seconds I had to look at them, but honestly they all sort of looked the same. I happen to know at this age, they work at that. And then they all bought new sweatshirts, and later changed their clothes. I would often scan the crowd, looking at faces and wondering what girls were "mine." Especially when we were on the ferry, I hoped really hard that none of them were left behind, unnoticed. Imagine the headlines.

Our accommodations for the night were at the Mission Point Resort on the island. The chaperons were to share rooms with 2 double beds, but I noticed that the teachers would be in a complimentary "hot tub suite." I was a little nervous about sharing a room with someone I had never met, but my roommate Bonnie turned out to be very nice, and we did fine. Much better than the two stunned looking 6 foot tall fathers who went to check into their room and found one double bed. After much discussion and wrangling with the hotel and the travel guy they were able to secure 2 separate rooms. Then they were charged extra for it.

The food they served us at the resort wasn't that good and I realized that there were other children who might have had diet issues too when I saw them picking out very little from the one-entree choice line-up. Tim seemed to get in line way ahead of me despite my best efforts to catch up with him. He had very little to eat and would not accept the carton of soy milk that I had lugged all the way up there for him. This made me frustrated and him hungry. By the middle of the second day he came up to me pleading for money to buy a box of popcorn which got him a less-than-loving parental look and yet another wad of money from my purse.

At night we were given a list of rooms to check on that was different than the list of kids I was "in charge of." The rule was that they were to be in their rooms for the night at 10:30, and the chaperons job was to count them. There were security guards with roaming the halls with clipboards at this time. I checked on my assigned rooms, and all looked fine, and then went to the boy's hallway to say goodnight to my son. Clark answered the door and Timmy peeked out and waved at me and then disappeared. Gail's son (who has the girlfriend) was also in that room so I jokingly asked if it was only the four boys in there. As they grumbled an affirmative answer the guard appeared over my shoulder and told me that I should check under the beds. What? "They do that all the time" he told me. I just shouted "go to sleep!" and left.

Mackinac Island is a beautiful place but I suspect that traveling with a middle school tour group in the off season isn't the best way to enjoy it. I looked wistfully upon charming porch chairs and beachfront walkways and thinking how nice they would be to enjoy...IF I were there in different circumstances. I also believe that the students didn't appreciate it. We were scheduled for a horse-drawn tour of the island. After I saw Timmy departing on a carriage full of boys (could he be avoiding me?) I slipped into the back row of a carriage with the girls from the choir. I don't think that they realized there was an adult present as they proceeded to torment the poor woman who was charged with steering the horses and narrating points of interest to her passengers through a microphone. "I'm cold!" those dressed inappropriately for the 50 degree rainy weather interrupted her to complain. "My room had bugs in it! Breakfast was terrible! I can't live without a car! This place smells bad! Everything is old and boring!" I cringed and felt bad for their parents and embarrassed on behalf of our group, their school, our town and my gender. I noticed that it was only me and the choir teacher who chose to tour the historic fort while everyone else rushed to stand around in the gift shop and buy candy. They turned up their noses at the "too fancy" food in the Grand Hotel Buffet and Clark put in his ipod headphones during the Three Men and a Tenor concert.

It made think what the point of all this was. There was a part where they went to a soundstage to play some songs on their instruments and get instructions from a man from CMU, but it came to mind that he could have much more easily made the trip to their school and accomplished the same thing and reached more of the students. I do see the benefit for the economy of the island and the tourism industry in the off season to host all of these students in bulk, and I can see why the teachers would enjoy getting away from the classroom and enjoying their complimentary deluxe accommodations. However, knowing what I do now, I don't think I would do this again, or send my child alone. Can't trust those chaperons.


Heather Leigh said...

Although I'm glad that you didn't, I was secretly hoping that this post was about how you lost one of your charges on this trip. Preferably the "we don't have to stay with you" girl. Ah well, there's always next time! :)

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mindy- This blog made me tense and nervous. Maybe in a few years those less than charming middle school kids will answer to chaperones whether they like it or not as they could have microchips implanted in their necks and activities and whereabouts could be tracked. Congratulations for doing your best in a bad situation. Aunt Chris ps- I know there are bats in that fort.

Anonymous said...

Mindy, I think chaperone's are some type of legal requirement. I bet the kids that went were the oldest in the family because, families catch on by the second time around. And....thank you for the fudge!!!

Mary Beth

MomForThree said...

Great, I'm reading this as I prepare to send one of mine on an overnight field trip to the Henry Ford. Fortunately my daughter is in a group with one mom and 3 or four other girls. All will be well.