Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Field Trip with Grandma

On Monday I chaperoned Bella’s class field trip to Yaquina Head, a point of land jutting into the Pacific featuring a lighthouse and tide pools.  It used to be an easy diversion for whale watching or tide pooling and we stopped there many times but now it’s an outstanding natural area run by the BLM which translates to $25 per car if you want to find some sea stars in your spare time.  Sigh.

Normally I drive my own car on these school trips given my aversion to that timeless classic—99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall—but with the price of gas, I relented.  Bella was thrilled and we settled into a seat near the front of the bus like good girls with Logan, the three of us enjoying the freedom from seat belts and car seats that school buses afford, since they are so automatically safe or whatever.  Not to mention the unlimited texting.  As our bus plus another filled up with the three classes of first and second graders, I turned around and noticed another chaperone sitting by himself right behind us.  He had long scraggly gray hair and looked like Uncle Sam fallen on hard times.

“Morning,” he said with a snaggle-toothed smile. 

“Hi,” I managed, trying not to betray my shock at his appearance and quickly turning back around in my seat as the teacher began her lecture about bus etiquette—back to back, seat to seat.  Welcome to Waldport, I thought, repeating the mantra which often comes to mind around here and settling into my seat to seat with Uncle Sam a few feet behind me.  Even with my cold, I could smell the stale cigarette smoke drifting across the aisle from the clothing of the little boy sitting there.  Ah, the smell of the coast, I mused, stale booze and cigarettes.  I’d actually contemplated canceling my commitment to attend this trip, coughing as I was into week two and thinking perhaps I should be going to the doctor instead.  But Bella’s teacher had asked me more than once if I was sure I could chaperone because they are always desperately in need of parent volunteers for these trips and were cancelling it if they didn’t find enough.  So, there I sat.

Back in Portsmouth, RI, the Stepford Moms all jockey for position like thoroughbreds at the starting line when the field trip permission slips hit the backpack express and there were always many more eager volunteers than were needed.  Out here on the left coast, the problem is the exact opposite due in large part to the pesky criminal background check and Safe Schools training course required for volunteers which a) you need to complete and b) you need to pass.  I suspect it’s this latter part which is largely responsible for dearth of volunteers.  So, even though Uncle Sam was not exactly a perfectly turned out Stepford Mom, at least he had passed the test. 

The half hour trip north was uneventful and soon we filed off the bus, bundling up for yet another typical cold, windy, foggy spring day at the Oregon Coast.  I could feel my chest tightening up and patted my Kleenex stash like an addict.  This was our second field trip to Yaquina Head this year as part of a marine education program and these kids know their sea stars.  The mighty Pacific was having a minus low tide and we were the first lucky group who got to climb down the hundred plus stairs to explore the extremely exposed tide pool critters.  My group consisted of Bella and her friend Jersey, both easy, Josiah, who is very smart but never stops talking in a very high, whiny voice, Sam who is disadvantaged but adorable with a speech impediment which caused me to ask him to repeat everything he said at least three times, which he did without complaint, and Gabby, the smallest girl in the class and the only first grader in our group. 

Clutching our laminated color charts, we slipped and slided over the sea weed and rocks, trying not to step on muscles, barnacles, and anemones, seeking out the purple urchins and sculpins pictured for our scavenger hunt.  The instructions for the trip stated that we’d be doing a LOT of walking and to wear comfortable walking shoes.  This made no sense to me as I knew we were going to the tide pools which equals water which equals hundreds of little wet feet.  Why on earth they didn’t say to wear boots is still beyond me. And as a result, I held Gabby’s hand while her sneakers slipped and slid on all that exposed slick seaweed, rescuing her from falling for a wet conclusion over and over again.  Sam had informed me three times while we descended the stairs until I finally understood that his shoes were a size one and too big for him and so he fell in a pool and was wet up to almost his knees, his too-big shoes squeaking with water for the rest of the day.  We found everything on our charts except a lemon nudibranch, including a huge purple sunflower sea star with white polka-dots at least two feet across and a gigantic gumboot chiton the size of, well, a boot before they called us to change stations. 

Then we sloshed back up the hundred plus stairs to a platform overlooking the tide pools and had a snack before walking to the lighthouse where we realized that there were thousands of sea birds, mostly common murres, dotting the water and colonies of them crowding the tops of the rocks while mating and nesting.  We watched them in the cold wind while the sun tried to burn through the eternal sea fog and then we had our turn in the lighthouse, climbing another hundred plus stairs up and down again to learn about the life of a lighthouse keeper and the lens and light pattern unique to this lighthouse.  The view was spectacular and we could see the tide creeping back in to cover the places where we’d been standing earlier.

We spent another half hour or more at the restroom while over a hundred kids went potty, leading me to conclude that field trips are all about leaving school, going potty and washing your hands in a variety of restrooms, doing some other things in between potty trips, and then heading back to school where the first thing you will probably do is go potty again.   

Climbing back onto the bus, Gabby begged me to sit with her so I moved a few seats back and across the aisle to sit with her and Morgan.  Gabby was definitely my number one fan by then and I attributed this to my excellent navigational skills which prevented her from bringing home the tide pool in her shoes.  Before we could depart, the teacher had to mediate a critical bus seat dispute behind us, which inspired Gabby to say, “You’re a teacher,” insinuating that I could have handled the situation myself. 

“No,” I said, “I’m not a teacher.” 

“You’re a mom.” 

“Yes,” I agreed, “I’m just a Mom.” 

Mediating bus seat disputes was clearly best left to the trained professionals, I was thinking, when she piped up again, “An old mom,” she said.  “Or a Grandma.” 

“I’m not a Grandma,” I said, feeling suddenly feeble and also quite defensive, even though most women my age around here are, indeed, Grandmas already and I am the exception, not the rule. 

“But you probably will be one,” Gabby said sweetly then added with great certainty, “Soon.” 

She began happily singing Jingle Bells, showing me the lyrics which she had written down on a piece of paper.  Fingering my wrinkles and cursing that worthless Retin A creme, I willed Bella to need me for something, anything, that would rescue me from the innocent torment of Gabby, who had now moved on to chirping the ABC song.  So it wasn’t my excellent navigational skills she’d admired after all, it was my grandmotherly image.  Probably her own Grandma was 50 too.  Welcome to Waldport, I started to chant again when Morgan intruded.

“That’s my uncle,” she said with a second-grade sneer, pointing diagonally across the aisle ahead of us at Uncle Sam, who definitely looked like he could be her Grandpa. 

“Well, why don’t you sit with him?” I asked, still looking for a graceful grandmotherly exit.

“Because I don’t like him,” she said matter-of-factly. 

“But it’s so nice that he came today on your field trip,” I said in my best milk and cookies imitation.  She looked back at me like a teenager.  I shut up. 

The bus doors closed and we were finally on our way to the lunch stop.  Above the general clamor, I detected music.  Without turning around, I realized it was coming from the seat right behind us where another chaperone was listening to Christian rock music on her I-phone.  As the bus accelerated so, too, did her excitement and she became increasingly moved, singing and thumping the back of my seat for emphasis.  I willed that bus to move faster with a sudden impatience I’d never before known for the Cheetos and Uncrustable that Bella had packed for my lunch. 

Finally we came to Rock Creek Park and disgorged again to eat lunch near the porta-potty.  One of the other classes had reared steelhead from eggs to smolts and they were ready to be released so after lunch the hundred plus kids got in line by the creek, ready to do their part for the fish.  The teacher began scooping them out of a water-filled bucket and I watched while the first student accepted the clear plastic cup containing a 2 inch smolt, stepped up to the edge of the bank, and unceremoniously dumped it into the creek from a height of about 6 feet.  This did not seem right.  And I am a fish biologist.  So I propped myself up in the creek with one foot in the water and one foot out, helping each student navigate the short but increasingly slippery muddy embankment to the water’s edge, telling each and every one of them the same thing, “Now, put the cup INTO the water and let the fish swim out.”  I said that same sentence with minor experimental modifications for clarity over a hundred times and still some smolts were dumped in from a grand height, some were poured in from a few inches, and one or two were spilled into the mud.  It was a fascinating exercise in following directions, which maybe 10% managed to do.  The last girl, Opal, slid right down the embankment, flinging her entire cup of water up into my face. 

“Can I please sit with you?” I begged Bella as we loaded back onto the bus for our journey back to the school restrooms.

“Sure, Mom,” she said.  I snuggled up to my eight-year-old and searched through my purse for Opal’s smolt.  Some day I’ll be a Grandma, I thought, but hopefully not soon.


PS  Happy Birthday Hannah Amelia!


  1. Bean wants to be in a Yurt! So glad you keep us updated with the family goings on. How is the new boy? Tell him I need some updating and he should call me on my cell.

    Near or Far