“The Williamsburg Field Trips”
Throughout my thirty-four year teaching career I had been on over a hundred field trips, mostly with seventh and eighth grade students. Some of the more exotic destinations have been Philadelphia, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Atlantic City, New York, Hershey Park, Kings Dominion, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, Luray Caverns, Washington DC, and on the emotionally traumatic Williamsburg/Washington DC field trip.
The three-day and two-night annual eighth grade field trip to Washington/Williamsburg was definitely the most harrowing misadventure that could easily whittle away at a teacher’s life expectancy. At certain times on the bus the children would be screaming so loudly that I thought the juveniles were testing the malleability of my ears’ tympanic membranes.
The students would kick each other across the bus aisle, slap and punch the children sitting behind them or in front of them and put chewing gum (which was forbidden and against school rules) into girls’ long tresses. Some of the more boisterous and aggressive children behaved as if they were rookies vying for starting positions in a professional football team’s camp. A traveling sideshow class of a hundred and fifty fourteen-year-old squealing demons could dramatically transform an ordinarily tranquil motel into a frenzied scene.
I recollect one particular excursion down to Williamsburg, Virginia very well. Four buses were commissioned to transport the pint-sized eighth grade Philistines. I was assigned to Bus #1 along with another teacher Rob Renbeck and the superintendent of schools. “Where are you going to sit?” I asked the school system’s chief executive before I boarded the bus.
“In the front,” the superintendent replied. “I always like to sit in the front.”
“Okay,” I said, “I guess I’ll be sitting in the back somewhere with Mr. Renbeck. First I’ll take attendance!”
I stepped onto the bus while the superintendent was gabbing with the other chaperones, the principal and the school nurse. After surveying the caliber of students aboard I rearranged the children’s seats while I took the roll to make sure everyone on my Bus #1 roster list was safely aboard. I made sure that all of the worse’ behaved children were sitting up front with the superintendent with the better-behaved students in the rear with the other teacher and me.
After an hour of motoring southward (on the Delaware Memorial Bridge just before I-95), the ornery tendencies of the more naughty rascals surfaced in the anterior of the bus. The children hooted, chanted and carried on, testing the mettle of the school system’s chief administrative official. And before a person could recite the Russian alphabet the children seated toward the front of the vehicle then began singing popular television jingles with dirty words being substituted for the original rhyming ones.
Several of the boys started shouting and sounding like they were a covey of inebriated hoot owls while they explored the boundaries of being free of parental control. Many of the less illustrious students had never been out of New Jersey before and didn’t know how to act civilized in public (or in private). In fact they acted like little spoiled scamps just the same way they had always been behaving in school.
While the back of the bus was rather calm the front (where the superintendent had been sitting with his rigged audience) produced the racket of an ancient Roman gladiatorial contest. The mystified school superintendent turned around several times to get my attention but I ignored his eye contact, pretending to be taking in the blurred scenes flitting by my side window.
“The super’ looks distressed!” I laughed to Rob Renbeck, my teaching comrade.
“The front of the bus sounds like a juvenile gang fight in a teenage cabaret,” Rob answered.
“He must think we’re fantastic disciplinarians,” I chuckled. “Rob, let’s step to the front of the bus and settle the little urchins down so that we don’t have to perform emergency CPR on the superintendent.”
The superintendent was an intellectual philosophical type and he actually impressed me by showing a remarkable bit of disciplining while at the Williamsburg motel. The children had just finished swimming that evening in the motel’s pool. Next the energetic lads and lasses had dinner at the motel and at ten everyone was supposed to be in their rooms. At ten-thirty the superintendent was telling Rob Renbeck, Joe Sacci (the music teacher) and me how he had surprised several students that had tried sneaking out of a Washington motel room back in 1950.
“I was down by the pool at the Washington motel, just like we’re standing here right now,” the superintendent explained to Rob, Joe and me. “Then I spotted two girls sneaking out of their motel room on the second floor and I yelled, ‘Hey you up there’!” the superintendent bellowed and then laughed as he turned and pointed up to the motel’s balcony without really looking up at it.
Well, it was a very unbelievable case of déjà vu. When the superintendent yelled out “Hey you up there!” with his back to the motel’s balcony and then turned, two girls tried sneaking out of their room and had thought the superintendent had caught them in the act of escaping while he was telling us his 1950 story. The startled young ladies re-entered their room thinking that they would be seriously reprimanded. The superintendent had caught and indirectly disciplined two girls in Williamsburg violating the rules without his knowledge while he was cheerfully describing in 1977 a similar incident in Washington that had occurred way back in 1950.
“What’s so funny?” the Socratic-type superintendent asked when noticing that Rob Renbeck, Joe Sacci and I were holding our stomachs while laughing so hard.
“You tell the funniest stories!” I answered as Rob Renbeck nearly lost his balance and almost tumbled backward nearly launching Joe and him into the motel’s swimming pool.
On another trip down to Williamsburg from New Jersey, some nutcase sniper (on the passenger side of a passing left-hand-lane car) had an air rifle and took a shot at the driver’s side window. The glass internally shattered while the bus was going sixty-five miles-per-hour down I-95 between Wilmington, Delaware and Baltimore. All four chartered class trip buses heading south stopped and we had to wait for the Maryland State Police to arrive so that a report could be filed.
That same beleaguered bus driver should have read his horoscope before re-embarking toward Washington. As the driver of Bus 1 made a wide right-hand turn heading onto Independence Avenue toward the Capitol Building a taxi cab driver tried passing the bus on the right. The dual bus and auto’ turned simultaneously and the bus smashed the taxicab into a parked car.
The already stressed-out bus driver got into two heated arguments at the same time with the Iranian taxicab driver and an Iraqi that owned the stalled parked car that had had its hood open. It was a unique dispute because neither the Iranian nor the Iraqi yelled and screamed in English while the accursed bus driver was bellowing an assortment of curse words at the two foreigners using very understandable and graphic American expletives. The vehement yelling and cursing really entertained the children that had recently been evacuated from the bus after the collision.
The thought of the annual Williamsburg pilgrimage always made me shudder with apprehension. In 1978 the hundred and fifty screaming neurotic demons were impatiently waiting for entrance into a Smithsonian Institute exhibit area. A female teacher- chaperone brought it to my attention that the students were blocking the other tourists’ access to the exhibit’s ticket booth so I chivalrously commanded in a loud authoritarian voice for the eighth grade students to “slowly shift to the right.”
As I casually shuffled to the front of the students’ irregular line a young married couple began shouting a stream of criticisms directly toward me. The pair of “civilians” apparently had become unhappy campers mixed up in the legion of eighth grade maniacs moving to the right and had been severely jostled around in the turbulent student migration. The young man bellowed in my ear, “Look buddy, your kids almost crushed my wife and me. We didn’t appreciate being mauled and knocked about by your discourteous teenagers!”
“Sir, I was only trying to show the other tourists some courtesy by making the ticket booth accessible to them!” I answered. “I guess my maneuver backfired!”
A crowd of bloodthirsty fourteen-year-old children crowded around the man, his wife and me and began yelling, “Give him a shot in the nose Mr. Wiessner!” and “Teach him a little karate Wheesey baby!”
I immediately felt like a frustrated toreador at a bullfight geared to the emotional interests of aspiring juvenile delinquents. The students actually wanted to see their English teacher get into a wild fistfight with a simple disgruntled tourist and his equally distressed wife.
“Sock it to him Mr. Wiessner!” a young fight enthusiast boisterously hollered. “Hit him upside his head!”
“Listen Mister, do you see this mob of screaming young devils!” I told the fellow as I pointed to the psyched-up crowd of youths. “How would you like to take my place and be in charge of these young hellions?”
“No thank you!” the man instantly answered. “My wife and I have already felt their wrath!”
“God bless you!” the wife exclaimed as she and her husband voluntarily moved away from the ticket window vicinity to the back of the line.
Events that suddenly emerge out of nowhere can make long-distance overnight field trips about as desirable as a chicken hawk colony flourishing on a poultry farm. As the buses rumbled through the federal government district of Washington DC I was amazed at the observations the more alert students were making while glancing outside their bus windows. None of the magnificent white marble monuments and obelisks that they had recently viewed at an eighth grade educational assembly slide presentation interested them in the least.
As the bus driver announced over the microphone, “There’s the White House on your right!” several students looking in the opposite direction of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue then yelled to their classmates, “Hey, look at that weird guy selling balloons!” and “Check out that drunk begging for booze money!” But that was not the rule for several of the more serious students that had asked when pointing at the White House, is that the Capitol or is it the Supreme Court Building?”
The purpose of the Williamsburg/Washington trips was to cultivate an appreciation of American history and of our nation’s colonial heritage. But to the nefarious-minded students the highlights of the daily educational itineraries were staying up all night, pounding on walls, and having wild pillow fights. The children also reveled in playing strip poker with members of the same sex, sneaking out of rooms at four in the morning and making the teacher-chaperones earn every cent of the money they weren’t getting paid extra for.
If the social (sociological) experiences just mentioned were the culminating aspects of the students’ trip, then why did the teachers have to transport them three hundred miles away from home? We could have simply rented a motel five miles from the school and saved fourteen hours of needless transportation back and forth from Williamsburg. After all, the social experience should transcend the dull academic learning agenda, shouldn’t it?
“It’s a good thing we have the rule that girls sit with girls and boys sit with boys on the bus!” Rob Renbeck stated to Joe Sacci and me.
“Yes, and the girls are on the second floor of the motel and the boys all on the first floor!” Joe added.
“Guys, the school field trip rules might actually be promoting homosexuality by keeping genders together without even realizing it!” I concluded much to Rob and Joe’s amusement.
That night we stayed at a motel on the Alexandria side of the Potomac. Several enterprising students somehow jimmied open a soda machine’s door and the culprits emptied out the entire Coke dispenser (which had recently been filled) and distributed their booty among appreciative and already hyperactive classmates. When the hotel manager discovered the theft he really protested to the trip’s coordinator and the school had to compensate the motel for the juvenile larceny.
Rob Renbeck and I had pulled the midnight to three-in-the- morning shift to check rooms and curtail male students from sneaking out of their quarters and visiting members of the opposite sex on another floor of the motel. I noticed across a side street that someone was breaking and entering into a car so I reported the crime-in-progress over my room phone to the motel’s office. The night manager came running up the concrete steps to the balcony overlooking the alleged crime scene.
“Look at that guy over there trying to start that car!” I told the night manager. “Mr. Renbeck here and I just saw the fellow break into the auto’ three minutes ago!”
“Oh,” the night manager replied, “that’s not happening on the motel’s property so I’m not going to worry about it and get involved!”
“But it’s the stealing of an automobile!” I objected. “It’s a major crime!”
“Do you want to come back to Alexandria and testify in court six months from now just to see justice served?” the motel night manager asked me.
“No, I don’t think so!” I replied in astonishment. “I live a hundred and fifty miles away!”
“Well then, if I was you I would just forget that I had seen anything at all!” the night manager finished with a wink. “Now if you’ll excuse me I have some important paperwork to do!”
Rob Renbeck and I looked at each other and we both shrugged our shoulders. We stood there and watched the entire theft transpire and gave the anonymous criminal mock waves as he drove the stolen vehicle by the motel balcony.
While we were in Williamsburg on that same trip a group of students was watching a colonial craft demonstration. A female Williamsburg employee dressed in 1700s garb was showing some of the students how pottery was made back in the time of George Washington. “Don’t stick your hand near that spinning machine!” Rob Renbeck cautioned the children.
The last thing’ in the world a teacher can tell fourteen-year-olds is “Don’t do that!” or “Don’t try that!” An eighth grade girl stuck her right index finger in the spinning pottery and got it caught in the rotating lathe. Blood was squirting all over the place. The rotating pottery wheel had to be stopped and Rob Renbeck had to accompany the crying injured child to the nearest infirmary and then call the parents and get permission for stitches to sew up the wound. Renbeck had to spend five hours of his time making sure that all school procedures had been properly followed involving the case of “an unnecessary student emergency.”
“Maybe that girl will grow up and become a spinster!” I told Rob that night in our motel room.
“I don’t think so!” he tersely returned with a forced smile.
That night at the Williamsburg motel I was rooming with music teacher Joe Sacci and with Rob. Joe heard some ecstatic students yelling into the air vents and they were telling other children in neighboring motel rooms that big parties were to be held in rooms 211 and 223. Joe stood on a chair, skillfully disguised his voice and then yelled into the air vent, “The biggest party is goin’ to happen in room 217 at three in the morning!” Joe told his anonymous air-vent audience. “We have two big bottles of whiskey!” Joe persuasively added.
At three a.m. there was a gentle rapping at our motel room’s door. Joe triumphantly opened the door and he, Rob and I yelled at the six astounded and shocked violators standing outside, “Busted! You’re all busted!” in what was certainly the finest case of student entrapment I had ever been associated with on any overnight field trip.
On the way back from Williamsburg the buses stopped at the distinguished and eminent Kennedy Center in Washington. After a brief tour of the cultural arts’ facility the students were conducted to the Kennedy Center’s cafeteria. Some hungry students had beaten Rob Renbeck and me to the cafeteria, had opened up the menu ledger and then had mischievously rearranged some of the word’ letters of foods available to diners. Servings of “Pussy Burgers” and “Dick Dogs” were suddenly imaginatively listed inside the Kennedy Center’s cafeteria ledger. A cafeteria manager came over, saw the recently created obscenities inside the ledger and screamed, “Who’s in charge of these juvenile delinquents?”
Rob Renbeck and I looked frightfully at each other, spun around and deftly hid behind two tall and wide red pillars so that the columns completely obscured us from the distressed woman’s sight. The thoroughly appalled cafeteria manager eventually got the children to line up and then assigned a cafeteria employee to change the ledger language back to the normal “Hamburgers” and “Hot Dogs.”
The trip coordinators showed up and had to listen to the cafeteria manager complain to Mrs. Finnian, the school principal and the superintendent, “This is definitely the most embarrassing and humiliating thing that has ever happened in my cafeteria! It was absolutely mortifying and a horrible public disgrace!”
When the four buses headed back north toward Baltimore, Bus #2 passed Bus #1 and the children got all excited about the little race the drivers were conducting. Rob Renbeck and I were on Bus #1 and watched in astonishment as a student on Bus #2 opened the roof-hatch and stuck his head out giving the middle finger to the mesmerized students on Bus #1.
The buses were heading toward the tollbooths for the Harbor Tunnel before traveling under the Patapsco River. The wise guy student on Bus #2 (giving the royal finger to the tunnel-vision students on Bus #1) was almost decapitated as Bus #2’s raised hatch just made it under the Harbor Tunnel tollbooth’s pavilion roof. Everyone held his and her breath until the bus’s roof hatch was finally closed. The student received three days of Office Detention for nearly beheading himself and for using obscene gestures (not jesters as indicated in the Teachers Handbook) to his fellow classmates viewing the crazy spectacle from bus number one.
The Williamsburg three-day-trip was eventually shortened in the 1980s to simply being the Washington DC two day and one motel night trip. That move was done for costly economic expense reasons. The high school seniors that used to go to Washington for their pre-graduation trip now flew from Philadelphia to Disney World in Orlando, Florida so the eighth grade graduating class inherited Washington as its prime destination.
The first day of a 1990s eighth grade class trip was rather exhaustive as the students and chaperones visited and toured the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, Ford’s Theater and then partook of a night cruise with dinner on an entertainment ship down the Potomac River.
The chaperones deliberately kept the students touring historic sites and monuments to tire them out so that the children would sleep the night instead of bugging the heck out of us. After we had toured the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the buses finally headed across the Potomac where that year the children were staying at an attractive Tyson’s Corner motel.
Since the children had been well’ behaved on that particular Washington excursion, the chaperones rewarded them with a pizza party in the motel’s Madison Room. When the pizzas and soda had been totally consumed five chaperones escorted the first half of the students back to their rooms, which were strategically located in a remote section of the huge suburban motel. The four remaining chaperones (including myself) escorted the second batch of seventy-five students from the Madison (mass dining) Room to their accommodations.
Mack Fascito and I made sure all of our students had evacuated the Madison Room and we brought up the rear guard of the second set of still boisterous fourteen-year-old children.
Suddenly a stocky male in his early twenties (chaperoning a Catholic high school sophomore class that was also staying overnight at the Tyson’s Corner motel) came sprinting up to Mack and me nearly screaming the larynx out of his throat.
“Are you in charge of those wild kids on the other side of the building?” he hollered, apparently not used to the behavior of normal public school eighth grade students.
“Yes we are!” I politely answered. “There are five of our chaperones already over there’ getting the students settled in their rooms!”
“Well your kids are banging on the walls and setting a bad example for my kids!” the young muscular fellow shouted with a crimson face.
“Look,” I calmly answered, “I’m assigned to this group of seventy-five students. Our school already has five very capable chaperones over there to deal with that problem!”
Evidently the muscular Catholic high school chaperone didn’t savor my explanation so he surprisingly took a huge swing at my face. I ducked down just in the nick of time and his blow glanced off the top of my head and knocked off my red Phillies baseball cap. Then Mack Fascito latched onto the fellow’s right arm and I firmly gripped his left one and the enraged chaperone’ finally realized that we weren’t exactly wimps and that my friend and I could effectively restrain him and defend ourselves if necessary.
So even while enjoying a pleasant field trip a teacher’s existence might be endangered by a chaperone from another school losing his temper from excessive stress and then ultimately going ballistic. When Mack and I got back to our “Home sweet home!” motel quarters we heard a major disturbance sounding like glass being shattered originating from the adjoining room.
Four of our eighth grade students had indeed been pounding on the walls and had antagonized a drunken tractor-trailer driver that had been occupying the neighboring room. The noise had aggravated the inebriated fellow to the point where the big-rig operator was climbing the walls from the students’ pounding on the walls. The totally upset man had entered the startled kids’ room, broken an empty bottle of Southern Comfort and the crazed tractor- trailer driver was in the process of threatening to slice up the throats of the suddenly shocked students with the shattered weapon in his right hand.
Mack and I convinced the intoxicated man that we were the students’ unfortunate chaperones and then we humbly and respectfully apologized for any inconvenience the little terrors (presently being terrorized) had caused him. After Mack and I had promised that the “obnoxious children” would not bother the troubled gent again the somewhat appeased driver slowly staggered out of the boys’ motel room muttering under his breath how he indeed would inflict serious injury if the rascals persisted in the continuation of their annoying high jinks. Remarkably and much to our relief the boys’ sensed that the fellow meant business and calmed down their boisterous antics and soon went to sleep shortly after midnight.
The following morning after enjoying a scrambled egg breakfast at the Madison Room, the buses were boarded to tour some sites in metropolitan downtown Washington. Mack and I had pulled the difficult midnight to three a.m. shift and were tired the entire morning. After touring the Vietnam Memorial, Mack Fascito and I returned to our bus only to find four eighth graders standing on the roof and being screamed at by at least twenty Vietnam War veterans (several of them were in wheelchairs) that the children had recently verbally antagonized. Police in the area arrived on the scene and adroitly broke-up the brief altercation and the incident was then reported to the school principal for further disciplinary action.
At noon the eighth graders ate in a cafeteria in downtown Washington. Several students were making fun of an old man sitting alone dining in the cafeteria. After noticing the old man reaching into his vest beneath his sport jacket and toying with an object that Mack and I believed was a handgun, my fellow teacher and I approached the boys’ table and had them move into an adjacent dining room before any unnecessary tragedy might have happened.
While we were waiting for the buses to arrive Mack and I casually strolled through a shopping mall browsing at window displays. Three of our students raced by before I could yell out “Stop!” Then suddenly five motorcycle gang members in black leather jackets dashed by in hot pursuit of the three scampering children. Apparently the students had made some irreverent remarks to the gang members, who then hopped off their motorcycles and chased the young renegades through the shopping mall. Obviously the offensive children must have been in better shape than the motorcycle enthusiasts because the pursuers eventually gave up the hunt and disgustedly walked back past Mack and me in the direction of their parked Harley Davidsons.
At the Smithsonian’s Aerospace Museum Mack and I showed some bona fide students the Spirit of St. Louis that had been flown across the Atlantic from New York to Paris by Charles Lindbergh and then we viewed several space capsule models. We were really fatigued from a lack of sleep so Mack and I did what we traditionally had on all previous trips. We entered the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum’s planetarium to rest our bloodshot eyes and our weary bones.
“Wake me up if I fall asleep,” I told Mack.
“And you wake me up if I fall asleep,” my chaperone friend requested.
Three fairly reliable students from our school were seated directly behind Mack and me so I figured I would ask them for a small favor. “Guys! If Mr. Fascito and I both fall asleep,” I said, “please wake us up after the planetarium show!”
“Don’t worry Mr. Wiessner!” the three dependable students assured me. “We know you both must be real tired!”
The lights went out and fifteen minutes later I heard Mack snoring so I gave him a jolt to the ribs to bring him back to consciousness. Then ten minutes after that Mack gave me an elbow poke to alert me that I too had been snoring.
Fifteen minutes after that I felt a hand shaking my right shoulder. A planetarium usher was shaking both Mack Fascito and my shoulders waking us up from deep slumbers. The three reliable children had abandoned us after the astronomy show so we had to suffer the mortification of being irresponsible chaperones falling asleep on the job and having to be awakened by a thoroughly amused planetarium program attendant.
author of 41 books
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