Last Friday, I found myself in a sea of children of all sizes darting about like excited electrons bouncing off each other and the adults scattered through the crowd in their kinetic eagerness not to miss anything, building walls of human sound and mechanical noise that rose up like waves and crashed down on me. I was awash in a thundering kaleidoscope of sensory input – the swirling movement of the children in their color-coded t-shirts, the bright metal and glass of the interactive science exhibits, the human smells, the voices, the light, the collisions, the random if momentary disappearances of children I was chaperoning.
I was a little rattled.
I looked at my watch and realized, with an exterior calm that I hoped masked my panic, that it was only half over. I only had to endure another 3 hours of chaos at the museum before we would take a walk, pile ourselves back onto a crowded bus which would take us to a slightly quieter but still-crowded train which, 3 hours later, would deliver us home. I found myself fervently wishing I could duck out for a moment of quiet and a cigarette and was already planning my escape when I remembered that I didn’t have any cigarettes. Because I quit smoking 5 years ago. Damn. I was sad.
It got better. When we first arrived at the museum, it was packed with several other groups of children on field trips from other schools. Many of them departed and others arrived, but the population of the museum never again reached the density that existed when we first arrived. Then we all had lunch in a quiet room they found for us somewhere, and I relaxed a bit. When we set the kids loose in the museum proper again, I even began to enjoy myself.
Then we visited the gift shop and found all the children that had vacated the museum floor. The rest of the day went like that – kind of an ebb and flow of sensory overload, stress and fun. After the gift shop, we herded most of the kids into a 3D theater for a 20 minute film on insects and I snuck off to the cafeteria for a much-needed cup of coffee with another parent. Later, I rather enjoyed a 20-minute walk through downtown Charlotte, admiring the beautiful weather and the architecture.
Until we arrived at the largest bus station I had ever seen and spent 15 minutes on a concrete island amidst 6 lanes of arriving and departing buses coughing clouds of exhaust while the lead teacher investigated the departure time of our bus. Fortunately, we had plenty of time to have dinner there at the station where we could choose from a dizzying variety of fast food places (three) and enhance our dining experience by observing the interesting underworld characters currently populating the station. Later, our bus delivered us to the train station where we had another hour to wait and I could enjoy the comparative sylvan paradise of a square of grass in the sun between the depot and an abandoned building.
I had quite enjoyed the train ride to the city and so looked forward to embarking on our return trip. Little did I know that trains apparently differ in character. While our first train ride that morning had been a smooth, quiet, well air-conditioned journey with 20-odd still very sleepy teenagers, the train that returned us home impressed me with its ability to rock and sway with such remarkable energy without ever actually leaving the tracks. Fortunately, I was too distracted by the rising temperature to dwell on this as our coach’s air-conditioner gradually lost its battle with the combined body temperatures of 20 over-stimulated autistic teenagers and their exhausted teachers and parents.
The first half of the trip home, one of those over-stimulated kids, a sweet but very excited boy, regaled me with his high-decibel, blow-by-blow descriptions of his favorite video game, punctuated frequently by a raucous retelling of an off-color story his dad had told him. When one of the other boys appeared and asked me to change seats with him, I gratefully fled.
After a bit of musical chairs, I spent the rest of the trip cross-legged on the floor between the last seats and the bathrooms just so I wouldn’t have to return to my original chair. My son, another mom and her son kindly joined me and her son shared his encyclopedic knowledge of F5 tornadoes which she and my son had apparently heard a thousand times, but I quite enjoyed because I had never heard his lecture before.
When we finally got home that evening, my partner had a cold beer waiting for me in the fridge and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so grateful to climb into my pajamas. I suppose I’m a little out of practice. When our boys were in elementary school and both in self-contained autistic classes full-time, I went on many field trips with them. But now that they’re older and mostly mainstreamed, there have been few trips to tag along on. But this one promised a train ride, and I thought, Cool. We’ve never ridden a train. It turned out to be a day of firsts that I think I will back on fondly – now that it’s over.