We’ve just been filling in forms concerning my son’s forthcoming trip to Spain with his school. They’re going for a week to Seville and Granada and it will be the longest time he has ever been away from home. ‘Are there any special illnesses or medical conditions we should let the school know about?’ my husband asked. I said I thought that the stubbornness was possibly reaching a chronic level. ‘Okay,’ said my husband. ‘Chronic obstinacy. And any special dietary requirements?’ We looked at each other and both answered at the same time ‘White food only.’ Honestly, by the time we’ve finished filling in these forms he might have traveled to Spain and back again. Given the way things are going in the world there was one clause concerning the staff acting in loco parentis that made me feel a little unsettled. We had to sign that we recognized the staff could not supervise children 24 hours a day, nor could they guarantee one hundred percent the safety of the children. Now if you think about this, then of course you realize that such things are not possible, but no mother really likes to look those words in the face. It’s better to pack them off without thinking too much about what they are going to do, and how they will be attempting to do it unsupervised. Anyway, I swallowed bravely and signed. If I withdrew my son from the trip at this stage he might not talk to me again. Those who are not going are having a ‘special intensive languages week’ and it was the thought of a week’s French lessons that convinced my son to go away in the first place.
I don’t have a lot of experience of school trips to go on. I only ever went on one, a 36-hour coach trip to Paris, and having done this I never wanted to go on a school trip ever again. Oh actually, I tell a lie. When I was 11 I went on a week’s youth hostelling trip to Wales. That was okay, apart from the collie dog the youth hostel owners kept that was a working dog and trained to nip the ankles of sheep to round them up. Alas it could not distinguish between a sheep’s ankles and a child’s ankles and this was back in the day when children being bitten was unfortunate rather than criminal. I remember one little girl being taken off to the hospital for a stitch and a jab. Anyway, I lived in terror of that dog and wouldn’t play outside for the whole of the stay, but I can hardly claim the refusal to play outside as an extraordinary occurrence. After that, at 12, there was a week’s camping trip which I loathed and detested and…. Well, you get the picture. The food was terrible, I couldn’t sleep, I forgot that I needed to drink and when I finally got home my legs were blue from the jeans I’d worn day and night (it had been cold in that tent). Never, ever again, I said firmly, no tents, ever. Seeing as every member of my family thought they were an abhorrence, this was not a problem. I’m really sorry to all those people who love to commune with nature and who find camping tremendous fun. I’m very impressed by anyone who can manage without a hot bath a day and who enjoys, or indeed even trusts, the food produced on one of those teeny calor gas stoves. This is a level of unmediated engagement with the universe I could not begin to imagine. I’m very appreciative of a nice view beyond the windows of a comfortable villa or hotel, whenever I look up from the pages of my book. But that’s enough nature for me. I’m really glad it’s there, honest, and I’m happy to protect the wilderness against the onslaught of civilization, but please, don’t make me spend time in it.
So I digress, where was I? Oh yes, recalling school trips I hadn’t so much forgotten as repressed. My god they were all awful. After the camping I did refuse to go on any more for a long stretch. I much preferred listening to the witness accounts of the bedraggled return party, full of tales about who fell out with whom, who got off with whom, who lost their dignity in front of the entire assembled crowds of tourists before the Greek Parthenon, etc. No one ever mentioned the places they were supposed to have visited other than as backdrops for the human drama; the whole interest of the trip lay in the new horizons opened up beyond parental control, and the infinite variety of scrapes and disasters that a group of teenagers are capable of conjuring up. I recall a brilliant account of a school trip in one of the Adrian Mole diaries by Sue Townsend. Adrian sits on the coach recounting how a couple of children have lost their packed lunches, another couple get into a brawl, one child is travel sick, and then the fateful words ‘Finally the coach left the school.’ When I was teaching in France for a year, the German assistant at the college approached me, eyes shining, with a wonderful opportunity to accompany a trip of children on a 10-day visit to Scotland. It was only years of drilled-in British politeness that prevented me from running out of the room screaming.
I admire the way schools relentlessly commit to taking packs of children to foreign locations, and it’s good, I imagine, for children to be given the opportunity to visit places and enjoy the kind of adventure holidays that perhaps their parents wouldn’t provide for them (and certainly not if the mother is, say, me). Sometimes, something amazing does happen on these excursions. My husband’s brother met his future wife on a school trip to Russia, and no, she is not Russian; at the time they met she was living in Canada, and somehow they managed an international relationship until they married after their university graduations. My husband went on the same trip and remembered the highlight as getting lost in Moscow. And sometimes these trips are the stuff of every mother’s nightmare. My 12-year-old nephew went on a school trip last year when a freak accident, a falling tree branch, killed one of his friends and injured several others. As the school reminds us, no one’s safety can ever be one hundred percent guaranteed – that’s just reality. But millions of school children take trips every year and come home no worse off than me – disgruntled, bored, hungry and sleep-deprived – and some even have a really good time. So I shouldn’t let my prejudices, or experiences, stand in the way of letting my son make his own, although I do think he may have inherited the maternal gene of preferring home to any other location in the world. I have to accept that I am a little strange when it comes to holidays, still. At the moment I’m busier than I have been for years, researching and writing the academic book and my new project on motherhood, and loving it. The work is wonderful and the last thing I’d want is a holiday to take me away from it. Why on earth would I choose flapping canvas, damp clothing, public showers, burnt sausages and mosquitoes over a stack of fabulous books, a comfortable chair and a friendly computer? I asked my son what he thought about the prospect of his trip and he said ‘Oh the trip might be fun, but you know you’ve lined yourself up for weeks and weeks of awful sheet work afterwards about what we did. Bleugh!’ Now there’s a hazard I hadn’t thought of.