Washington, DC. 2009.
I was accompanying around thirty high school government students to see the nation’s capital. We were boarding the subway from Alexandria on our way back into the city, racing to catch the train just as it pulled away. Half of us made it on and half of us didn’t before the train’s doors slammed shut. I watched in a helpless stupor as the train bolted away from me with a dozen of my kids on it, most of whom had never been away from home before, had never been alone in a big city before, and who I was certain had never ridden a subway before.
I flew with two teen girls to Miami to film our high school’s state championship baseball game. We arrived at Miami International Airport without incident until I tried to pick up our rental car and couldn’t find my driver’s license. The trip suddenly came to a screeching standstill, because as any traveler knows, you can’t do anything without identification.
A host of other problems presented themselves at that point, none of which was more pressing than the thought of having to put the girls back on an airplane alone for the return trip should I not be able to board with them. And how was I to even rent my own car to drive home? I actually thought we would have to take the Greyhound.
Washington, DC. 2014.
Our meeting place was to be at the Mall at 5:00 pm sharp and we had a few hours to kill while our driver got some sleep in advance of our 15 hour bus ride home. We’d already been in DC for several days and had seen all the sites and walked all the museums. With so much time to kill, it seemed petty and totally un-fun to make my high schoolers stay right up underneath me in what was by then a pretty familiar part of the city, so I let them go off by themselves for a few hours, with instructions to stay on the Mall.
Some of them didn’t stay.
At the meet-up later, we were missing four boys from our group and the subdued chatter amongst the kids clued me in to their whereabouts: a little jaunt all by themselves in a cab over to Chinatown, just because they thought it would be exciting.
A host of tragic scenarios played out in my teacher’s head. Muggings. Lost. Human traffickers. Did they have enough money? Were their cell phones dead? This was of particular concern because not a single one of them answered when I called. Hmmm.
Shopping in Rockport with twenty teenage girls will absolutely take longer than expected. Late to dinner, we rushed them out and onto the bus with their packages, and I did a quick head count and gave the thumbs up to the bus driver to pull away. As we headed into traffic and back to the city, our group screamed from the back of the bus, “Stop! We left Autumn!”
We exited the restaurant rubbing our bellies and unbuttoning the top buttons on our pants. The bus ride from Lancaster County back to our hotel in the city felt like an eternity to the poor young man who was stricken with what is horrifically described in other countries as Montezuma’s Revenge, or Pharoah’s Revenge. It was quick in coming, it was vicious and it was unrelenting.
He was the sickest human being I’ve ever been around in my life. He was pained just holding his head up. He threw up every ten minutes. He hit the bus, the parking lot and the elevator going to his room.
There were originally three boys in their hotel room together, but one of them was removed by his mother for fear of infecting him with the mysterious wickedness we were facing. That left my sick patient and one other boy…my own son…who (by the way) gets sick if you look at him and even think about the word ‘sick.’ But I actually worried this ailing young man could die from his own vomit in the night and decided he couldn’t be left alone. Given the choice between me staying in his room with him all night (which presented a much bigger risk of losing my job) and sacrificing my own family to the vomit gods, I assigned my kid to take the graveyard shift to watch over his friend.
The next day we threw out his shoes, his clothes, the sheets on the bed, and most of their towels. It was indeed a long night for all of us.
The next day I phoned his mother and said, “You have two choices. He gets no food at all from me until we get home, or, I’m taking him to the hospital right now.” She said “Bring him home. He’s a big boy, he won’t die between now and then. Give him a hug and make him drink lots of fluids.”
My kind of mom. No panic, no hysteria, no emergency, no anger, no blame.
For the next thirty six hours, I resisted his pleas for a hamburger once he started to feel human again. My Soup Nazi admonitions of “No food for you!” were backed up by forced ingestions of apple cider vinegar. And not just for my patient, either. With my two other chaperones, we walked down the aisle of the tour bus and handed medicine cups full of vinegar and Vitamin C supplements to every single child under our care, a huge infraction in teacher world. We stood glaring at them as they held their noses and emptied their cups in disgust, begging and choking down what they said was the most disgusting thing they ever had to drink in their lives. Some complained that the vinegar was dissolving their intestines and they indeed thought they were dying. Some even pleaded for mercy. I never paused to acquire a parent’s permission for this treatment, and there was a moment, I knew, that the risk of taking that action could prove troublesome for me at the hands of an irate mama once I got home. It’s the society we now live in. Even knowing the risks, we let out a menacing laugh at their complaints and said, “Bottoms up, kiddos.”
I delivered the boy to his mother and not a second too soon, half starved, pale and weak. He lived, and no one else, except for my own sacrificial child, got sick from the Philadelphia Plague.
Why do I tell you these stories?
Because we should remember how amazing it is when teachers and coaches want to take our kids on adventures, how incredible it is for them all (most of the time) and how lucky parents and students are when there is an adult who wants to expose our children to something fascinating. In my fifteen years as a teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of showing hundreds of my students beautiful places they had never seen before, but (yes) places and situations that could be dangerous. Every field trip I ever took was amazing, but every trip had hiccups. It’s the price you pay when you travel. It’s the cost of learning to become worldly. It’s the lessons you learn by problem-solving your way through the snafus of going to places that are unfamiliar. The world is not a safe, predictable place, but I would argue that that’s the best thing about traveling it. What seems completely harmless could turn dangerous in the blink of an eye; it’s the Murphy’s Law of being a teacher on a field trip. In all of my above examples, terrible tragedy was always a possibility.
Every coach has stories like mine, and worse. Every teacher who has ever boarded a charter bus or an airplane with students has these same stories, and worse. Every school takes on these risks when they agree to host a trip away from home but the risk is worth it just to have the experience. We should thank the people in charge for wanting to do this for us and for our kids.
The boys in Thailand made it out of their cave safely and for that, I cannot tell you how many prayers I offered up. As the days ticked off, I played out all the possible scenarios and while I hoped for the happy ending we got, I feared we would probably not be that lucky.
All the while, I thought about their coach more than anyone else. He could be me. He is every teacher and every coach in the world who ever stepped outside the safety of a classroom. One harmless hike. What could go wrong?
He was forgotten among the list of heroes the news channels praised…among the doctors, the divers, the inventors, and the local farmers, his name was never there. I never saw his picture as they discussed the people who were saving the lives of those boys, and I actually feared the backlash he might face for his role in putting them in the cave in the first place. I was right, the criticism came. I am here to defend him.
Ekapol Chantawong is the greatest hero of them all. He goes by “Ake,” their coach and their mentor, and it was Ake who got them through those first two weeks of being totally alone in complete darkness before the help ever even arrived. It was Ake who said the words those boys needed to hear, reassurances to hang on to until the rescuers found them. It was that 25-year old orphan and former monk, still just a kid himself, who sacrificed his own food and comfort for the children he was charged with protecting. Their coach is the real hero, the one who likely woke up that fateful morning and simply wanted to show a few kids he coached the spectacular beauty and adventurousness of a nearby cave. That is something only a teacher or a coach can possibly understand. I have known the excitement that kind of opportunity brings, in spite of the dangers that usually lurk. A harmless hike that turned into a nightmare no one could have predicted, and my prayers now are that those moms and dads will hug his neck and say Thank you, Bless you, We are grateful for you, and let that be what heals that young man’s heart. He blames himself enough already.
My students on the subway hopped off at the next stop and waited for me as they had been instructed to do in the event that we were ever separated. They trusted me, and listened to me, and followed my instructions, and we found each other again.
In Miami, the girls and I enjoyed an unplanned night in a South Beach hotel while I figured out how to get us home, and they would tell you today that our surprise night at the Shore Club was the best part of the whole trip. Their moms shared with me later that they were more worried about those $20 cocktails by the pool than having their children fly home in an airplane alone, and I assured them that satiating them with virgin daquiris was the only thing I did have control over that weekend.
My boys who went to Chinatown alone were properly scolded for disobeying me, but I didn’t come down too hard on them. I probably would’ve done the same thing. Their adventurous spirit was proof that they had what it takes to be true scholars of the Earth, which is why I wanted them to go on trips with me in the first place.
We stopped and Autumn jumped back on the bus, winded and relieved. I apologized and made a note to myself to count slower in the future, but relaxed in the realization that had we actually left her behind, we had contingency plans and plotted maneuvers in place that would have reunited us soon enough. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to get her back and make sure she was safe, any teacher or any coach would attest to that. Our group made many jokes and had a great many laughs thereafter about our memories of her chasing the bus down. After all, it kept things exciting and now makes a great story.
And my sick young man was handed right back over to his mother, starved and weak, but alive with the promise never again to get on an airplane or eat fried chicken in an Amish-themed restaurant. The truth is, it likely wasn’t even related to anything he ate, and soon enough he got right back on his travel horse and rode again.
The gift in that horrible tragedy of a trip, and in all those trips, was having parents who never freaked out on me, who never blamed anyone (especially me) for what was undoubtedly just a series of unfortunate events, a parent who never tried to have me punished or reprimanded for any actions I took with their children, actions both with and without permission slips, and parents who never blinked at the opportunity to send their kids right back out into the world, come what may. They trusted me and they trusted in my relationships with their children. A teacher or a coach who shares those experiences with your kids also loves them, and would never intentionally do anything to put them in harm’s way.
So to the small group of critics around the world, or the parents right here at home in America, who have anything nasty or punitive to say about Ake, the selfless coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, about the who, the what, or the why of how those boys came to be stuck in that cave, let me urge you to check yourself first. Take a minute to re-evaluate what’s most important in life.
It’s experiences. Experiences that sometimes come without permission slips.
Everything else that might happen is just hiccups.