One of those things i think is just plain good for the psyche every now and then is to work with kids.
Now, I’m not one of those people who’s just nuts for kids. I’m not above describing a child as an asshole, and my tolerance for any kid, even my own, isn’t that long. I was, for most of my life and including some moments after having them, firmly against the idea of having kids. And I could not get the big snip fast enough after I reached child capacity.
But sometimes proximity to childhood just makes one feel good.
I got shang-hai’d into being a chaperone today for my older daughter’s seventh grade class (i know, what are they thinking – me, the very picture of bad influence, as a chaperone) on a field trip, and this was my first with a public school class. My kids have both been in smallish private schools, so it’s always been a small crew, small trips, usually with parent drivers.
Today’s trip, the group of parent chaperones was larger than my kids whole grade at the old schools. Seven buses – big coaches, not yellow school buses), something on the order of three hundred kids. Again, bigger than the whole school in days of yore.
I had a crew of five thirteen year olds. And was warned abundantly by my daughter that I had a couple of the grade’s bitchiest girls (she didn’t say bitchy – if she said bitchy, she’d have then had to go wash her own mouth out, but I can’t recall the word she actually used), and a couple of the grade’s biggest trouble-maker boys.
I wasn’t in any mood for any of this. My week’s a fuckin’ mess. The same old story about work, ad infinitum, and personal business matters that are getting further and further behind. I agreed to do this a couple months back when I didn’t quite have the foresight to know I’d but buried. Plus, you know, morning. I’m not the world’s happiest morning guy – I’m an ogre before coffee (not the cuddly green shrek kind), and while after, I’m awake, I’m not particularly what you’d call gregarious. So having to get up an hour early for the task didn’t help.
But once I started talking to to kids it didn’t matter. The four or five I knew said cheerful hellos, and the teachers (whose job never gets quite the respect it deserves, if only for shepherding skill) gradually got the amorphous crowds of kinds formed into lines.
My daughter brought over my small group (what’s the collective noun for a group of teenagers anyway?), and introduced them. One of the girls shares my daughter’s name (Olivia); I greated her with I have your name tattooed on my chest, which was data she seemed utterly flabbergasted by. The two boys proceeded to try a flim-flam on me by quickly switching up names (“No, I’m nick! No, I am nick!”). I pointed at the tall one and said, “no, you’re Beavis”, and to the short one, “and you’re Butt-Head. Clear?” They looked at each other and started to giggle, but didn’t play the name game with me again.
Later, my daughter reported the over-heard conversation;
“Olivia’s dad is scary.”
“No, he’s not really”
“He is, kind of – imagine meeting him in a dark alley.”
In other words, we now had our understanding.
And so, into busses and off to San Francisco zoo, on what you might call a typical San Francisco late spring day; foggy, damp, bitterly cold.
I have mixed feelings about zoos. I love animals; while I don’t really like owning pets, I’m endlessly fascinated by the behaviors of wild animals. I grew up watching documentaries (and in fact, when I find time, still turn to cable channels that play nature stuff), I used to endlessly study books on all sorts of animals. I grew up learning about simian social behaviors as my father studied it (he was a communications teacher, and I grew up on evolutionary biology and communication physiology).
But zoos, particularly older ones, are very often filled with too-big creatures in too-small enclosures.
As with many older zoos, SF zoo is gradually replacing out-dated enclosures and building more natural exhibits. They’ve a long way to go, but they’re heading the right direction, and many of the older enclosures (like the elephant house) are closed down right now while entirely new exhibits are built.
So the trip didn’t leave me with the usual sense of sadness I tend to have when I leave an older zoo. Maybe that’s cause my main focus wasn’t on the wild animals that live there, but the wild animals that I had under my temporary care.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with packs of free-range teenagers (at least, since I was one). And I was pleased to see that, even though in some ways these suburban thirteen year olds are much older than the calendar shows (my god, a lot of them seem to be dating already, and a lot of the girls are wearing clothing that could have made me insane at that age), in many ways they were very much kids. They wanted begged to see the petting zoo, first thing after we finished visiting each child’s assigned animal (where each child in my group did a small public recitation of facts about black rhinos, chimpanzees, meerkats, kangaroos, and hippos – the recitations being their own idea, not part of the assignments). They were dragging me in five different directions at once at some points in sheer excitement over howler monkeys, tapirs, lemurs, prairie dogs, and capybara.
Despite the fact that the day was freezing and none of us was dressed for it, none of them bitched or whined. There was no show of i’m too grown up for this, no jaded eye-rolling. When it was time to go, not a one of them wanted to leave. Only the fact that the bus was warm and that the wind was getting colder got them out the gate.
I’ve spent a lot of time on field trips with classes from pre-school through fifth grade; I was afraid this was going to be a completely different experience, particularly when the kids I had today were described as so-and-so and so-and-so’s girlfriend, in both cases. I was wrong; they were just kids, and I remembered why, every now and then, I think working with kids would be a great thing to do for a living.
Of course, I got to leave them all at school and get in my truck and go home. Which is what lets me think that from time to time. People who do this every day have a calling, or a level of patience I can’t fathom. But doing this every once in a while – getting the hell out of work, watching kids be kids, and showing ‘em that authority figures can be cool, weird people who get it, it just feels like a really good way to spend a morning.