Field Trip

 

Mt. Hope Elementary School, c. 1990

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The first iteration of my elementary school, Mt. Hope Elementary, located in an unincorporated pseudoagrarian area of St. Charles County, Missouri, was built from logs in the mid-1800s. That building now stands as a touristy testament to the grit of pioneer life, on the site of the historic Daniel Boone Home in Defiance, Missouri—a half hour or so from the school’s original site, which is close enough to allow for field trips, though we never took one there.

Mt. Hope Field trips in my time there were feverishly anticipated. “Six Flags?” someone speculates in November, still stuck in summer. Scenarios offered in the winter land us indoors: the Magic House, the Science Center, Tumble Drum, or—horror of horrors—the St. Louis Art Museum. With the spring came a desire to see something I approximate now as nature-in-action. Grant’s Farm (formerly Ulysses S. Grant’s actual farm; for our purposes, a large petting zoo), the St. Louis Zoo (one of only four in the country to not charge admission, and one of the best), and the Missouri Botanical Gardens were frequent springtime conjectures.

I think now that the springtime tilt toward nature in field-trip predictions articulated of sort of commonly felt envy of nature’s ability to haplessly entirely remake itself, to move forward fast enough that the transition must be noticed (which is to say it must be rapid enough to resist perception); the transition, or rather the lack of a clear account of the transition, the stubborn absence of transition, must “surprise” us as the disparity between a “before” weight loss picture and an “after” drastic weight loss picture “surprises” us: we are forced to observe and speculate about the absence of transition. In precisely the same way, when you are on a stroll and come upon a tree that only two weeks ago, when you took same path, sulked beneath piles of snow built up on its branches over the winter, and if today, on this second stroll, the tree offers up hundreds of tiny budding dogwood flowers—if that happens, you cannot but take notice. Cycling through our juvenile psychologies, spring’s flashy burgeoning of life was enviable in its constant material reiteration of its own centrality and importance, immodest in its ability to drastically transform. The transition between winter and spring is unable to be ignored in the way that elementary schoolers want themselves badly to be.

And so nature’s masochistic springtime exertion of near-absolute power cycled through our juvenile psyches and manifested itself as a shared ethereal impulse to get as close to nature as possible, to see if we could cozy up to her, maybe ask her what her secret is—which meant, tangibly, to rub the heads of baby goats at Grant’s Farm or see sea lions do flips and tricks with balls for stinky fish at the zoo. We shared an animal attraction—in our own structured, sheltered, school-sanctioned ways—to the omnipresent, apparently effortless renewal, the blossoming and birthing and beastly humping, the transformation that went everywhere unrivaled, that everywhere successfully insisted on itself. We sought it the way we seek the protection of a schoolyard bully or the friendship of an admired acquaintance or the attention of a crush: approaching slowly and with one eye on the other, taking care to observe convention, to suck up to the bully, to show the acquaintance admiration only indirectly and not appear overly-interested, to ascertain your crush’s interest or lack of interest in you with a cryptic, meticulously folded and carefully placed loose-leaf note. We sought it as we seek the other nebulous things we don’t understand (strength, friendship, love): with institutional insulation; with permission slips.

Unlike nature, we kids were everywhere unsuccessfully insisting on ourselves. In at least one of any number of ways, especially in the later grades, each of us was long done with childhood and straining against its restrictions. Brittany just knew she could make it as an actress if her parents would let her try. John protested that math had nothing to do with the monster trucks he would drive as an adult. Jennifer, bored to tears by remedial lessons, read her own book, Anne of Green Gables or something similarly retrospectively protofeminist, nested in her lap. Billy had for weeks been getting a lot of something called “head”—a concept still unclear to most but by all accounts delightfully transgressive and unbelievably exquisite and therefore the ideal adolescent act—from middle-school girls in some back alleys at the mall. Whatever our reasons, we each longed for nothing so much as we longed for time to speed up so we could set our own agendas—or, at the least, not be condescended to as children. We wanted to just get on with it already: wanted our lives to get to the damn point. The coming of spring enacted for us, made it impossible to deny, a compacted version of the very accelerated maturation and metamorphosis we wanted—and did so with astonishing beauty. It is impossible, especially as a child, not to be awestruck and envious in this situation; impossible not to wish for yourself the transformative power of spring.

Rubbing the head of a goat, seeing sea lions do tricks for stinky dead fish: these weren’t just daylong excursions. They were our consolation prizes for enduring anonymity, for suffering pointless distraction, for wanting to get off by methods other than furtive, feverish masturbation; they were our Thanks for playing! toasters and microwave ovens, our compensation for not being invited to join what seemed to our egocentric psychologies to be an otherwise ubiquitous revolution. In short: they were important.

Or at least I came to think so after fourth grade, during which, a few weeks before field-trip time, Mr. Gettman, our jolly, talented and kind but stern teacher, announced that instead of us “going” on our field trip this year, a field trip would be coming to us—and further, that it would be coming to us in a field. Which meant that “pioneer times” reenactors were to set up shop in the expansive field behind the school and treat the fourth grade to day of butter-churning, washboard-scrubbing, candle-making and outhouse-using. “But that’s not really a field trip Mr. Gettman,” somebody protested, “’cause we’re not really going anywhere and you have to go somewhere for it to be a field trip. Like, somewhere that’s not behind the school…?”

When the day came we went reluctantly out to the field and learned all about pioneer culture. Most of us managed to enjoy ourselves, but the damage, for me, had been done long before the day had begun. The problem wasn’t that we hadn’t physically gone anywhere (though that was the gripe I was best able to articulate at the time). The problem was that in addition to suffering the indignity of not going anywhere—in addition to not having a destination as such—to the extent that we had a “destination” it was a farce, an enactment of the history we’d been reading about and bored with for years. Rather than a recess from our studies, this day was a material projection of them. The actors were contracted to embody historical stereotypes. This they did well, but were still nonetheless clearly fakes: too much like us, wearing too many clothes, too plainly speaking with labored southern accents.

A goat’s head and a trained sea lion presumably remain a goat’s head and a trained sea lion long after you depart the farm and the zoo, but at the end of our fourth-grade field trip, the pioneers stripped off their costumes, toweled off some stinky sweat, scrubbed their hands and faces in the portable miniature Old-West-style well, loaded themselves into two Ford F-150s, a Chevy Malibu and a Toyota Supra, assured the administrators that someone would be back for the large prefab log cabins, and left. What was left wasn’t nature. It wasn’t even history. It was a soccer field dotted with antique wagons mass-manufactured in the mid-80s. Our best chance to finagle a hit of whatever awesome shit nature was on, or at least to take solace in our ecstatic proximity to the awesomely nebulous power of natural transformation, had been stolen from us and supplanted by a bad pun whose excess of abstract meaning only served to underscore the day’s emptiness.

The material remains of that day amounted to the misshapen yellowy candles we’d made by repeatedly dipping lengths of thick string into hot wax. Mine would fit into no candleholder or other suitable vessel I could find in our home. It would not stand on its own, either. I put it in a drawer and didn’t think of it again until five years on, when I visited the Boone Home, in Defiance, for a statewide high-school leadership ra-ra fest. There I saw for the first time the original Mt. Hope schoolhouse, which was so hyperbolically bucolic as to appear itself a patent fake. That night, at home, I got out my shitty, shitty candle, forced its stubborn waxy base into an old dijon mustard jar, and lit it for the first time.

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schoolhouse, Daniel Boone Home, Defiance, Missouri

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