The School Trip

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.

20 thoughts on “The School Trip

  1. “White food only!!” *snort* That’s my son’s diet too, although he makes an exception for large and expensive steaks.

    My son went on a trip to Washington D.C. last year and it was indeed somewhat nerve-wracking for me to let him go. But generally I am not particularly vigilant so it’s not much of a difference being on a group trip😉

  2. Litlove – or armchair traveller – may I suggest you rent “Into the Wild”? You’ll either feel a lot better, or confirmed in some of the things you write about. Maybe both. Amusing post.

  3. When I lived in England, we went on two school trips a year: a week in the Lake District doing outdoorsy things (which was glorious, even if they kept serving us lamb in March, and all the girls refused to eat it, so we subsisted on chips and the Yorkshire pudding nights) and then a week that this one daft teacher arranged each year to a different capital. I only went on the first one to Paris, and it was hell (the buses broke down on the way in France and the French cops did not get along with out bus drivers, when we finally got there, they had us staying in college dorms with college students who were rather too fond of bongo drums late at night and made us wake up at 5 AM every morning, and then the food was horrible again), so I refused to go on the other trips to Rome and Madrid. And then I went on a weeklong trip to the Hague for a Modern United Nations conference, and that one was actually fun (an extremely competetent older teacher ran it)!

    Unlike you, though, my parents were less than brave…my dad went as a chaperon on the Lake District trips every year and my mom went on the Paris trip (and would have gone on the others). I appreciated that, thuogh! So many memories this post has brought back, lol.

  4. Your comment about the exotic locales serving as the backdrop to the human drama is perfect! I went on a trip to Europe while in high school, and, although we did see the sights, the infinite and infinitely diverting drama of our lives took center stage.

  5. Well, I have to second the above recommendation of renting Into the Wild, although admittedly that is only because of it’s total fantasticness as a movie and not because it particularly relates to this post…
    I have no children, as you know, so I will share this: When I was ten my parents sent me to summer camp. Now, I grew up in an entirely white town (very very small) but was raised by liberal parents. The only thing I really knew at ten was being racist was WRONG, and I found myself the only white girl in my cabin. I was immediately nicknamed Barbie ( I am very blonde) and was somewhat ignored until they asked to play with my hair. I immediately agreed, LOVING finally being included, and several girls put this product called Gerri Curl (the same product Michael Jackson supposedly used) and braided my hair in what seemed like thousands of tiny braids. I made friends I kept for years, but when my Very Presbyterian mother and grandmother picked me up and saw what had happened to my hair, they rushed me home and tossed me in a tub. In the end, my hair was such a mess they had to take me to a salon and cut it off, ushering in what is since referred to as my Ugly year. Anyway, there is absolutely no point to this story except to say, whatever adventures your son has away from you, my one hope for you is you don’t have to throw him in the shower for two days before throwing your arms up and spending one hundred dollars on shaving his head.
    Much love, litlove – it’s moms like you who make me excited to have a child soon.

  6. This post is fantastic! You know, burnt sausages can be a good thing. You shouldn’t be afraid of sausages.

    I agree with you on many points, although I enjoy camping for short periods of time. I always avoided school trips, however, not because of the kids but because of the moronic, opinionated parents that always went on these excursions (myself excluded, of course).

  7. Yogamum – I read your comment to my husband and we were both so relieved to find another ‘white food’ child out there (with a steak garnish). I’m also glad to hear that he went away and came back safely – and look how well you trained him up for group activities!🙂 JB – This sounds like the perfect distance for me from the wilderness – all representations of reality warmly welcomed! I’ll rent it and let you know how it goes. Eva – I just love these stories! And to find someone who has grown up hale and healthy after all those school trips is most reassuring to me! The United Nations trip sounds like something that even I might have enjoyed. Hobgoblin – now there’s a post in waiting! I really enjoyed your account of your recent trip to South America. I wonder at what age the landscape stops being the stage set and becomes the point of the journey? Courtney – this story made me laugh and laugh! To my knowledge my son has never ever let anyone become so alarmingly intimate with him as to touch his hair, and I have been in intensive training over the past 13 years to remain perfectly expressionless No Matter What. Still, he’s becoming a teenager and stands on the threshold of surprising me in all kinds of ways, I imagine. And when it happens for you, I know you are going to be such a lovely mummy. Chartroose – Too funny! I’m full of admiration for people who can camp, for any length of time! And hey, I’m going to walk on the wild side now as far as sausages go.

  8. I’m one of those people who loves to be in nature, as you know, but I think the more people who prefer to stay in civilization the better — otherwise the woods and trails will get crowded. Really, you are doing your part for nature by staying home!

  9. I’ve both been on and chaperoned such trips. The kids think they behave much worse than they actually do. Just feeling free of parental supervision is enough to make them feel mature, without actually taking IV drugs or working for reactionary political candidates.

  10. Litlove, you crack me up! I’m all for communing with nature for a few hours, but then I’m with you–I need a nice comfy bed in a temperature controlled building! And a good view out a window, book in hand sounds very nice. I’ve been camping only once and I don’t really have pleasant memories from it. You’re very brave to let your son go off to Spain for a school trip–I never did anything that exotic. I can’t think of a single school trip that was farther than 50 miles away. You’ll have to share with us his experiences when he comes back!🙂

  11. On the subject of the filling in of forms, a friend has just received one for her son who starts in Reception in September and last night at book group was asking our advice as to how to fill in certain parts of it. For example, she had no problem with “Is your child dry during the day?” because he is. However “Is your child dry during the night?” posed more problems. In fact, Coel is, but his elder sister isn’t and so for policy sake Helen has kept them both in nappies (Edie’s self-esteem is battered enough about this as it is without her younger brother putting her to shame.) and just occasionally as their toilet is downstairs, Coel takes advantage of this. Given, however, that we couldn’t see what on earth the school needed to know this for our unanimous decision was that she should answer neither “Yes” nor “No”, but quite simple, “Mind your own business”!

  12. I think we were having somewhat identical experiences this week of the horror that is the school trip. Charlie’s (he’s 12) trip is a week in Yosemite, which I’d love to do (okay, they do have to sleep in tents). Let’s just say he’s a little less than enthusiastic. Which I understand perfectly. Tents. Hordes of children. Forced marches through the wilderness. Papers to fill out about nature. The absence of the food you like. Bossy parents who aren’t your own bossy parents.

    I’m going to have to let him sneak in candy and an ipod — both forbidden comforts — to get him through the week.

  13. Wow, even when I was going on my first school trips (a decade ago) the forms tended only to care whether or not you were vegetarian. Health and safety (or self and hafety as I accidentally say it every single time) is necessary, but rather a bore…

  14. Oh this did make me laugh out loud! I had no experience of school trips since my mother firmly refused to let me go, fearing all the disasters that could potentially occur. I encouraged my son to go on trips when they were offered, and though he tried, he could not overcome his inherent need for privacy and the comforts of home (read a soft chair, a warm bath, and his computer.)

    My most interesting school trips have been as part of the staff. I’ve been on 14 bus trips with high school music students, which have run the gamut from the disastrous to the sublime.

    I believe young people learn a lot from traveling, and from these forays into the wide world. But like everything that is “good for you,” it isn’t completely pleasant.

    I hope your son enjoys/survives his trip, and the ensuing “sheet work”!

  15. I never got to go on an international trip when I was a kid. I was allowed on two school trips though. The first when I was in sixth grade my whole class got to go “camping” in the mountains for a week. Family vacations had always been camping so I was excited to go until I got there and found myself in a dorm-style cabin with 30 girls I didn’t know who came from other schools. During the week we suffered through threats of panty raids, camp counselors who loved to tell us ghost stories in the dark just before bed, one cabin-mate who was constantly crying, another who freaked out when she found a tick on her stomach, and another who went home early because she was covered head to toe in a poison oak rash. My other trip I was a senior in high school and my guidance counselor and a couple of parents packed about 30 of us into various cars and drove us around southern California to visit colleges. At night we stayed in various dorm rooms of college students and every night no matter what campus we were at, there was a party in the dorms at which many would be drunk, there was also pot, and the girls had to fend off advances from drunken college boys. I was too terrified to do anything but hide in a corner and watch in wide-eyed fascination and horror.

  16. This is hilarious and rings so true on so many levels. I sent a young vegetarian to Rome with his Latin class for two weeks. He was in pasta heaven but was constantly checking for stray meat. He came home saying: “Mom, I’m thinking maybe there are other places in the world I might want to live beside here.” Sure enough, he’s a plane ride away for college.

  17. What a wonderfully funny and well told story. You really have such a great way with relating experience and your descriptions are rich and satisfying. Here’ hoping the sheet work isn’t too strenuous!

  18. Dorothy – that is just SUCH a sweet thing to say! Thank you for making me feel better about my nature-phobia! Emily – this is also a delightful comment. I’m sure you are right and that the great dramas recounted afterwards are mundane in the extreme! Danielle – I will most certainly be sharing – I’ll need the therapy! No, I never went as far as Spain either, and don’t feel very brave about it at the moment! But I’m so pleased that you also enjoy the delights of a book and a good view. Ann – your comment did make me laugh. The questions you get asked on these forms are extraordinary sometimes. What possible reason can the school have for asking about a child’s nighttime toilet habits?? Bloglily – I know you to be a fine woman with so many impressive talents (the ability to camp being a mere one of them). I do hope you did manage to smuggle Charlie’s ipod and candy into his rucksack – my son would most certainly be cheering you on! Simon – the complexity of the forms is amazing. Back in my day, no one knew what a vegetarian was🙂 Ravenous – so nice to hear from you. I’m sort of with your mother, and I think my son is rather with your son🙂 And I agree, there is a lot to be said for the trips but of an ambiguous nature. I’d love to hear more about your own experiences on the road! Oh Stefanie – come here and let me give you a cyberhug! I went skiing with a group of university friends when I was 21 and the place we were staying was packed out with another large university group. The place was crawling with drunken students most evenings and I loathed it. I would have given anything to find a like-minded bookish soul who just wanted to sit around discussing what she’d read…. Writer R – ah now isn’t that the way? So glad your son has found somewhere so lovely to live, but I wish I could drag Italy a little closer across the globe to you. Still, I’ll bet you have wonderful visits out there. TJ – thank you so much! I love telling stories about the family but I have to watch out. One day they will object to something I write, but until then, I’ll get away with recounting what I can!

  19. Oh this is very very funny to me because I have always traipsed off to overseas school trips (the best kind) as far as the shores of South America and never once considered how my mother felt about it.😀 I daresay if she had ever been so silly as to worry about my “safety” I probably would have gone on a hunger strike. It only occurred to me when I moved to Canada and all my professors, neighbours (who were parents) etc. shared how they could not imagine letting their children go so far away.

    I am the elder (of two) and so I suppose that helps to foster independent feelings, along with boarding school which made me feel as if I could do everything if I survived it.

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