On a class trip, a whisper of what is to come

OTHER than the occasional overnight, my now 14-year-old son has never traveled away from home. Not that he hasn't been willing to.

When he was younger, and domestic affairs didn't go his way, he would occasionally declare his intention to leave. Shortly after I had adopted Alyosha in Russia at the tender age of 7, he became angry over something so significant that I can no longer recall what it was.

In any case, I watched as he stormed for the door, turned, and in his fledgling English announced, "I go back Russia!"

Be that as it may, he didn't get farther than the front yard before deciding that there's no place like home.

In every parent's mind, I think, there lingers an apprehension of the moment when a child will, indeed, leave to begin life on his own. This sense, of course, grows stronger as the child ages and the actual moment becomes less abstract and more real.

The traditional "class trip" provides a whisper of that final leave-taking. This past week, Alyosha joined his fellow eighth-graders for a four-day(!) bus trip to Montreal and Quebec City. From the moment of the planning announcement several months ago to the day of departure, he moved forward with his eyes open and his smile wide.

What confidence, I thought, contrasting his enthusiasm with the unease I felt when I took my first grade-school trip. I was, truth to tell, a bit younger (12), but perhaps just as wise in years, as a result of having grown up in freewheeling urban New Jersey as opposed to Alyosha's pastoral Maine.

We were headed to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut - two states away.

I had never been out of New Jersey without my parents, and all of a sudden I was headed for a state I couldn't quite spell. With my bag lunch and umbrella (of all uncool things), I boarded the bus with a heavy heart, looking back over my shoulder at my parents. Second thoughts coursed through my head as one of the adult chaperones barked at me to hurry up.

As the bus roared off, I took one last, long look back at the horde of parents, still huddled densely in front of the school. Their eyes strained after us as the bus headed for the "on" ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike. Some of the mothers had allowed gentle tears to fall, while the fathers stood stoically by, their faces aglow with pride at the burgeoning independence of their dependents.

When we parents brought our children to the bus for the Canada trip, the mood was far more festive. Has this sort of thing become easier over time? I felt the warm glow of satisfaction with my son's intrepidness, but I must admit to the smallest lump in my throat as well, born of the realization that my son seemed capable of doing just fine without me.

These kids were euphoric, chattering away and laughing as if they hadn't seen one another in years and had lots of catching up to do. I smiled when I regarded their gear: They were studded with electronics, like representatives at technology fairs. CD players, Game Boys, Walkmans (Walkmen?), Palm Pilots. Why should they be missing home when they'd taken all the comforts of home with them?

Contrast this with the stern directive of my Mystic Seaport trip. Mrs. Lempkin - one of only two chaperones for 60 kids - had forbidden transistor radios (I grow old ... I grow old ...) or "any device that would distract you from interacting with your neighbor."

Spending money was an issue, as it always is with kids who go on trips. Alyosha's group had done so much fund-raising that each kid was given $100. A hundred dollars! The parents were supposed to augment this with whatever they were comfortable with.

My gosh, I wasn't even comfortable with the hundred bucks. I couldn't help but think of the dollar bill my father had tucked into my shirt pocket for Mystic Seaport.

We stopped at a gift shop on the way home, but all I could afford to buy was a tube of toothpaste, which I ceremoniously gave to my parents when I threw myself into their arms upon my return.

When my son's Canada-bound bus came around the bend, a spontaneous cheer went up. The kids coalesced, loaded their baggage onto the bus, and then boarded like a herd of buffalo. Most of the girls hugged their moms and dads. Only two of the boys opted for the terminal embarrassment of physical contact with parents in front of their peers. Alyosha, I'm happy to say, was one of them.

He bored through the crowd and threw his arms around me. "What do you want me to buy for you, Dad?" he asked.

"Just have a good time," I said.

"Aw, come on. I want to get you something."

"OK," I told him. "Get me a tube of toothpaste."

Before he could dwell on that one, he was on the bus, swept along by friends, by his own energy, by events. It's the most natural thing in the world, this tentative leave-taking by one's child. I stood there, watching as the bus rolled off.

And I continued to stand there, until I could no longer see the bus, until it moved onto the Canada road, where dreams are said to come true.

couldn't help but think of the dollar bill my father had tucked into my shirt pocket for Mystic Seaport.

We stopped at a gift shop on the way home, but all I could afford to buy was a tube of toothpaste, which I ceremoniously gave to my parents when I threw myself into their arms upon my return.

When my son's Canada-bound bus came around the bend, a spontaneous cheer went up. The kids coalesced, loaded their baggage onto the bus, and then boarded like a herd of buffalo. Most of the girls hugged their moms and dads. Only two of the boys opted for the terminal embarrassment of physical contact with parents in front of their peers. Alyosha, I'm happy to say, was one of them.

He bored through the crowd and threw his arms around me. "What do you want me to buy for you, Dad?" he asked.

"Just have a good time," I said.

"Aw, come on. I want to get you something."

"OK," I told him. "Get me a tube of toothpaste."

Before he could dwell on that one, he was on the bus, swept along by friends, by his own energy, by events. It's the most natural thing in the world, this tentative leave-taking by one's child. I stood there, watching as the bus rolled off.

And I continued to stand there, until I could no longer see the bus, until it moved onto the Canada road, where dreams are said to come true.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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