Worst Field Trip Ever


During my student teaching days I would try to visit as many classrooms as I could so as to absorb what elementary teaching was really going to be like, as opposed to the silly anecdotes in my glossy college books and artificial labs that I was certain were not realistic.


A good friend from college who had recently been hired as a fifth-grade teacher invited me to spend the day in her classroom in a sleepy river town near the foothills of the Cascades.  I was excited to visit a great friend, watch an enthusiastic teacher, and even count this as “observation hours” for some meaningless course.  It had the makings of a fun day.


Five short minutes after I arrived at her school, a principal’s booming voice came onto the P.A. system to inform all staff that there was going to be a spontaneous field trip for the entire school that would be departing within ten minutes of when the kids arrived on campus.  In all my life in a public school system I had never heard of a “spontaneous field trip”, nor an all-school trip, and especially one that did not require formal signed permission slips printed on goldenrod paper.


Immediately after morning lunch count and attendance was taken the buses were boarded.  Our loud lumbering yellow bus convoy traveled just ten blocks or so through a “declining neighborhood”.  The bus had to stop in the middle of the road since there were many fire trucks now blocking our way.  In the middle of the road, the bus driver killed the engine and I began to realize that the black and charred ruins of a house clumsily surrounded by emergency vehicles was actually our destination and not the obstacle.


We were then marched single-file through where the front door had recently been.  The immediate attack on my senses made me nauseous.  Along the walls, three feet up from the floor, a precise black line had been created by the smoke from the house fire.  Everything below this black equator was as pristine as before the fire.  Everything above the line was a black melted mass covered in a matte finish.  A clock was melted to the wall, and some plastic figurines had dripped over a wooden shelf.


I looked at the faces of the 5th graders, my companions in this house of horrors.  Most of them walked with eyes and mouths wide open, as if frozen in a night terror.  I looked to my friend, but I could not get eye contact, it was obvious she was both stuck in her own thoughts of this tragic present moment and of the future aftermath when we would return to school with both children and questions.


We walked slowly to the kitchen while remaining on the plastic runners set down for us.  It was here we were told that the fire had been started.  Rumors traveled down the line that it started when a child was using a deep fat fryer to make dinner for her siblings.  The child was a student at the school, which seemed to make this event even sadder.  Everyone had gotten out of the house except for the family dog who had perished.  The new smells forced my nose to retreat toward my weeping eyes.  Everywhere was the smell of burnt hair.  As a child I had read that burnt hair was the identical smell to the putrid scent of burnt flesh.  More nausea.


Firefighters with bright headlamps stood in the smoky hallways as if guards over this blackened disaster.  We traipsed silently through this gruesome site, eager to leave.  Water still dripped from the ceiling and pieces of smoldering furniture forced us to look at the only things moving in this otherwise still house.


As I walked out the back door and into the yard, I gasped greedily for fresh air and felt both dizzy and disoriented.  The sun was now shining and the contrast of colors was bright and vivid compared to the musty, dark shell of a home.


We walked in slow-motion back toward the cruel bus that had brought the fifth-graders and me to this hell.  Our zombie ride back to school was quiet and surreal.  When we arrived back to the school, another teacher beckoned his 5th graders to exit the bus first.  The children passed us quietly through the narrow aisle while we waited, still stunned, in our seats.


A taller boy in a torn ski parka and the start of pre-teen acne was one of the last to pass us.  He glared at the girl sitting in front of me as he sauntered by.  He paused before her, raised his voice at her and said, “Nice Job, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”


It was then that I realized the young girl who’d accidently started the fire was on the bus with us.  She’d ridden among us.  She’d toured her own burned house and sniffed the remains of her dead dog with us.


I’d forgotten how cruel some fifth-grade boys could be in their failed attempts at humor.  All that consumed me was a series of rapid questions marks.  Why?  Why would that boy say such a thing after walking on top of the ashes of her young life?  Why would the principal think this was more benefit than traumatic for all who visited?  Why didn’t the veteran staff members speak up about his horrible judgment in making a decision to tour the house or bring the victim along?  Why?


For my own 23 years in teaching, I have thought carefully about all planned field trips and their purpose.  Additionally, I’ve never gotten on a big yellow bus with the din of excited kids without first thinking of the worst field trip ever.