The private school that has been gracious enough to employ my (questionable) services as a Social Studies teacher has never restricted itself to what can be accomplished in the classroom alone. Although I would hesitate to call it a truly elite establishment, we’re aware that parents are shelling out a more-than-modest sum to ensure their little snowflakes get the best overall educational experience — and that includes a few trips beyond the shady suburbs of Sacramento as part of our “Learning Without Walls” curriculum. Our year-long LWW project for the 2011-2012 year was to conceptualize, design and produce a product in keeping with the National Design Museum’s “Design For The Other 90%”. From their website:
“Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, 5.8 billion people, or 90%, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter. Design for the Other 90% explores a growing movement among designers to design low-cost solutions for this “other 90%.” Through partnerships both local and global, individuals and organizations are finding unique ways to address the basic challenges of survival and progress faced by the world’s poor and marginalized.
Designers, engineers, students and professors, architects, and social entrepreneurs from all over the globe are devising cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for those who most need them. And an increasing number of initiatives are providing solutions for underserved populations in developed countries such as the United States.”
A traveling exhibition of the National Design Museum’s work in this area was on display at the United Nations. What better way to inspire a group of 8th grade social entrepreneurs than a flying visit to New York City to view the exhibits — and squeeze in a visit to Our Nation’s Capital while we’re at it.
Sunday, October 23, 2011. Sacramento, CA. 6:55 am. In the pre-dawn darkness, nineteen eighth-graders gathered at Sacramento International Airport for an 8:20 am flight to Dallas, and the subsquent connecting flight to Washington, D.C. The eighth-graders in question were a great group of kids, undoubtedly one of the best groups I had ever worked with, but being the age they were, and belonging to the (ahem) social class that most of them did, there was a decided element of sheltered-ness to them. Even if they had made trips around the country and perhaps abroad, those trips were a round of plush rental cars, unlimited luggage, and 100% parental supervision and control at all times. This promised to be a little different for them. So there were nineteen students (including my son Cade, who will be featured in many of the pics, as I photographed in Parent Mode, not as much in Teacher Mode), and three faculty chaperones (myself, our esteemed Language Arts teacher Mark, and Our Principal). Each person was restricted to two small items of luggage (they had to fit on the train from D.C. to N.Y.C.). Student Hillary immediately tested the limits of this by showing up with a suitcase approximately the size of a Kenmore refrigerator.
The first sign of overall group cluelessness was when at least a half-dozen of them plopped down their baggage as soon as it came out of the security scanner, and proceeded to wander toward the gate, as if they expected a phalanx of liveried porters to appear and bear it for them. We had to round them up and explain to them that they were, indeed, expected to actually carry their carry-ons from start to finish. (And at some point between checking in her behemoth suitcase and arriving at the gate, Hillary managed to lose her boarding pass.)
“Now boarding all first-class passengers for non-stop service to Dallas/Fort Worth,” came the announcement. Tucker immediately gathered up his things and headed for the jetway.
When halted in his purposeful stride by me, a look of genuine bewilderment crossed his freckled face. “We’re first-class, right? Aren’t we supposed to be first-class?” When assured we were flying coach with the rest of the serfs, he settled back in to ponder his new lot in life, which was rammed home to all of us as we squeezed into our seats on board. It’s been a while since I’ve flown, but I have to wonder if there’s been an on-going secret project of gradually miniaturizing commercial airlines. I’m no bigger than average, yet it felt like my knees were around my ears and my shins were driven into the upright folding tray in front of me.
Dallas/Fort Worth International Aiport, TX. 2:05 pm. Massaging circulation back into my lower limbs, I immediately switched into Professional Chaperone Mode upon arrival, counting and re-counting our awkward, gangly pubescent ducklings and chanting the mantra that would become ingrained in my skull over the next five days: “Nineteen…nineteen…nineteen…” D/FW is the eighth-busiest airport in the world, and to facilitate the movement of huge hordes of humanity, they have installed a people-mover monorail system called Skylink. As our Skylink glided to a halt, I stepped off in advance of the kids and began the count. And then failed to step back on after the kids had departed. The doors swooshed closed and the Skylink hummed on to the next gate.
With my suitcase on it.
So all of my lectures in the days leading up to our trip about personal responsibility and keeping your eye on your belongings were now a cruel mockery. Every stitch of clothes I and all of my toiletries for the entire trip were now rocketing solo toward Gate A instead of Gate C. Our flight was leaving in thirty minutes. Sooner or later, the Skylink car with my suitcase would reappear on the opposite side of the narrow concourse, going in the other direction. How fast did those things go? Not fast enough. After spending the most frantic twenty minutes of my life checking at least six arriving Skylink cars, I finally had to give up and sprint to our gate. The gate attendant oozed Southern hospitality, but most Southern hospitality masks deep passive-aggressive resentment and is utterly useless in practical situations where time is a factor. This was certainly the case with Dee Anne and her lipstick-smeared teeth, who vaguely assured me that she would call security with a description, and if they found it within the next three minutes or so, it could still be loaded into the baggage compartment.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Washington, D.C. 6:25 pm. Guess what? It wasn’t there. Luckily, I still had my shoulder bag with my cash and electronics, but everything else was moldering in the bowels of the Dallas airport.
My mind immediately turned to the unavoidable fact that I would have to acquire a change of clothes as soon as possible. It was also an unavoidable fact that I was not operating on my own independent schedule with separate transportation, and the areas we would soon be cruising into did not feature a crop of Targets and Marshalls on every corner.
With everyone but me weighed down with baggage, we staggered onto the Washington Metro rapid-transit train that would take us from the airport to our hotel. As on most big-city Merto lines, the D.C. version offered a quick and efficient trip, but our car-raised, suburban-bred — and frankly, slow-moving — California kids were not quite used to the speed at which one was expected to disembark from a Metro train before the doors closed. They yawned & stretched, lackadasically gathered up their things, and gradually shuffled onto the platform. Not fast enough. The doors slammed shut and the train streaked off, leaving us with eighteen kids on the platform, and one still aboard heading to the next stop of Huntington, Virgina. We watched in horror as Lana’s puzzled face peering out of the rear door grew gradually smaller in the darkened distance. We presumed for a moment that it was only a matter of time before she was fell upon by a group of knife-wielding thugs.
Luckily, Huntington was the final stop on the Yellow Line, and like most eighth-graders, Lana was hardwired to her cell phone. A quick text was enough to ensure she got off the train there, and await retrieval by Mark. After a successful rescue and a stern (and somewhat shrill and exhausted) lecture from Our Principal, we walked about a mile from the Metro station to our hotel, the Spring Hill Suites on the corner of Eisenhower Ave. and Mill Rd. in Alexandria.
Luxury Penthouse. Rosslyn, VA. 10:00 pm. But our night was not yet over. Our Principal had family in the area, and her Aunt Veronica had invited the whole crew over to her townhouse near Arlington for a late pizza dinner. We proceeded to troop back aboard the Metro, and were greeted at the Rosslyn station by Aunt Veronica herself. We were then guided to one of those types of penthouse apartments you assume exists only in movies. An open balcony and a glass-enclosed balcony overlooked Arlington National Cemetery, along with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the rest of the D.C. skyline across the Potomac. Room opened onto to room until you began to wonder how it could all fit into the top of a building, and there were breakable objects at every turn. After the fifth time of slipping on a throw rug and nearly toppling a vase that probably equated my yearly salary, I planted myself in the glassed-in balcony and decided not to move for the remainder of the evening. (The only one clumsier than me was Tucker, and I watched him like a hawk.) We miraculously got through the evening with no gaffes, faux pas, or broken crockery, and after a briefing/pep-talk on Design For The Other 90% given by Mark with far more chipperness than was needed at the end of that particular day, we hauled ourselves back to the hotel.
Monday, October 24, 2011. National Mall, Washington, D.C. 9:26 am.We emerged, mole-like, from the underground Metro station onto the strip of grassy park space known as the National Mall, which runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol building. After an indifferent hotel breakfast and a decided lack of shower and/or clothing change, I was not feeling especially world-beating. But I had a job to do. I counted nineteen, and we began walking. “Walking” would be one of the themes of our trip (when it wasn’t “running desperately” to beat a closing time or meet a reservation). Every Metro station we popped out of on this visit seemed like a good mile’s walk from our destination. The first of which was…
The Newseum, 10:02 am. A seven-story, 250,000 square foot museum dedicated to news media and journalism, the Newseum boasts that it is the “most hands-on museum in Washington, D.C.” Just off the Mall, its big draws are large slabs of the Berlin Wall, the Unabomber’s cabin, twisted bits of wreckage from the World Trade Center (including the huge antenna that once topped the North Tower), and, for some reason, a meticulous re-creation of the late Tim Russert’s office. There are exhibits highlighting the First Amendment (forty-five words of which are carved into an exterior wall) and a wall-sized memorial listing all the journalists killed in the line of duty. All of that was fascinating, certainly, but my favorite part was more subtle. The News History Gallery on the fifth floor creates a massive walkable timeline out of actual newspaper front pages. (See below.) It seemed like we had just got started when it was time to move on to the next destination.
The National Museum of American History, 11:48 am. Ah, the Smithsonian. Not a single museum but a series of them, they are often the sole reason for a traveler’s trip to D.C. Truly “America’s attic,” there are millions of items on display throughout hundreds of galleries located in several multi-story buildings. We whipped through three of them in an afternoon.
Beginning with perhaps the most famous, the American History museum, each chaperone took groups of six or seven, and headed off in separate directions. From the museum website:
The Museum collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts—all true national treasures. We take care of everything from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.” Our collections form a fascinating mosaic of American life and comprise the greatest single collection of American history. Our exhibitions explore major themes in American history and culture, from the War of Independence to the present day.
For all that, the Museum had an oddly empty feeling, with exhibit halls separated by broad areas of open space, as if it hasn’t quite recovered from its two-year renovation that supposedly ended in 2008. It felt a little scattershot. Exhibits like “Taking America To Lunch” (showcasing lunchboxes) and “Within These Walls” (detailing the contents of a typical — if old — house from Ipswitch, Mass.) can be quite interesting in the right context if you’re going to a museum to actually muse, but they do not set eighth-graders’ pulses racing. What made the museum worth it all was the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibit.
The National Air and Space Museum, 1:12 pm. In my opinion, this is the jewel in the Smithsonian crown. Not only is the very subject itself (manned flight) terribly interesting, the museum is laid out beautifully with not an inch of wasted space. As always when dealing with the Smithsonian, a lack of time to properly take it all in is the only complaint.
Speaking of museum pieces, To Fly! is the very first IMAX movie, a 27-minute documentary produced in 1976, and it still shows daily at the Air & Space Museum’s own IMAX theater. We were scheduled for a 1:20 showing, and while Our Principal went off to collect the tickets, the pace of the day caught up with our ducklings, and many of them took advantage of their first real down-time of the day and crumpled to the floor of the museum lobby as if they had been gassed. After gathering them up, we took our seats in the theater, the room went dark, the film began, and nineteen eighth-graders and three adults fell sound asleep for the next 27 minutes.
We would discover this to be a recurring problem. The chaperones would soon get over their jet-lag, but the kids would find themselves absolutely zombified by midday, every day, not helped by their staying up until all hours, wracked by sugar-induced giggling fits.
Also at the Air & Space Museum, I found out that even if they have ten minutes to scarf lunch if we want to stay on schedule, it won’t stop them from ordering the 64-oz. beverage that they cannot take out of the designated dining area. So about fifty-eight ounces of soda (each) land in the garbage can with a sickening thunk as we dash off.
The National Museum of Natural History, 3:08 pm. Dinosaur bones. Stuffed examples in glass cases of just about everything that walks or crawls (including a surprisingly small “giant” panda.) Dioramas of the Dawn of Man. The Hope Diamond (which Tucker yawningly derided as “small.”) This is the platonic ideal of MUSEUM, matching every cliched detail of what we imagine them to be. It was fantastic.
At this point, I could only imagine that my socks and underwear had actually fused to my skin. I was still wondering how and when I could duck away for a moment and at least pick up some new undergarments when Mark appeared out of the museum gift shop with was promised to be a solution to the shirt problem, at least.
“We came up with a plan,” he announced gleefully. Mark’s gleeful announcements usually mean trouble. “We’ll all pool our money and buy you a shirt each day. But you have to wear it, no matter which shirt we buy.” He then handed me the first one: A Natural History Museum souvenir shirt featuring an enormous, full-color image of a Bengal tiger glaring out at the observer. It strained the eye and trampled all boundaries of taste and decency. But I was not in a position to be picky. “And you have to have your picture taken in them in a public facility,” he added. Fine. If only I could score some socks and underwear, I’d be willing to be photographed in nothing but them in a public facility.
The National Archives, 4:47 pm. Recall that all of this museum-hopping was done on foot, crossing and doubling back across the Mall, and, counting walking around museums, I estimated we had logged about seven or eight miles by the time we got into the line for the National Archives, where both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were on display, in the “Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom” (an overblown, pompous name as new to me as I’m sure it is to you. I will never get tired of typing it.) When I first visited D.C. on my own middle-school field trip back in 1988, you could walk in the massive brass front doors directly into the Rotunda. Flash photography was forbidden, but for the most part the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom looked like the foyer of any large public building. In 2012, though, you wind your way from a tiny side entrance into the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, which is now kept as dark as a mushroom farm. The front doors appear permanently sealed, and visitors stumble from display case to display case, each dimly lit from within by what appear to be black lights on their last few minutes of life.
The purpose of all this is, of course, to preserve these 200-plus-year-old documents, but it would appear to be a case of shutting the barn door after the horse gets out. The Constitution and Declaration, despite obsessive protection (in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom), have deteriorated noticeably since I first saw them 23 years previously. The Declaration, especially, is pretty much illegible. Glad to have seen them, but a little saddened by their current state, we left the vampire’s tomb known as the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom (at least a few of us tripping over stanchions in the dark) and headed for the nearest Metro station.
Clyde’s, 3236 M St., Georgetown. 7:38 pm.Our fancy dinner for the evening took place here in the middle of Old Georgetown. If my body chemistry was the type to produce any kind of funk, people would be giving me a wide berth at this point, and I may have even been denied entrance to the restaurant. Luckily, my filth was evident only to myself as I wolfed down my gourmet bacon cheeseburger with one eye on the rear exit that led to the shopping mall known as The Shoppes. As soon as I could, I slipped out to explore the clothing store options. Unfortunately, like many malls, The Shoppes had fallen on something resembling hard times, with more than a few empty storefronts, and several others that kept boutique hours, closing at 5. Despair began to tighten my throat.
H&M, The Shoppes. 8:15 pm. Then I found this was this place at the far end. I had never heard of it before, but when I told people who had heard of it that this is the store that came to my rescue, they had a hearty laugh. Evidently, I am not their target customer. The picture I’ve included (at right) from their website tells you everything you need to know. As I made my way through the garish and trendy displays, heaving my elderly bulk past the skinny photography students and trust-fund aesthetes that made up the customer base, I could not find any damn socks or underwear. Finally, a disdainful, pony-tailed clerk pointed to a tiny rack of equally tiny boxer briefs and super-sheer dress socks. They would have to do. I loaded up four of each, plus a couple of sleepwear t-shirts, and a thirty-dollar pair of “skinny” sweats that clung to my thighs for dear life and had comically large, ankle-hugging cuffs. At that moment, it was the best purchase I had ever made in my life.
Georgetown Cupcake, 3301 M St. 8:53 pm. A storm had blown in and it was raining pretty steadily by the time we got to our dessert destination (as seen on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars) just as it was closing. Luckily, Our Efficient Principal pre-ordered for all of us weeks in advance. There was no room to sit down inside, and the tiny window awnings did not provide much shelter, but as I tucked my H&M bag under my coat and shoved my red velvet cupcake into my face before the rain turned it to red goo, I had to conclude I was having a pretty good time. If only I had known the “Exorcist steps” were only about three blocks away and I could have easily paid them a quick visit, that would have made the day a rousing success.
Back at the hotel, I took the second-greatest shower of my life. (All the showers I’ve taken after my infrequent camping trips are tied for first.)
TO BE CONTINUED…