Before they lead, guides follow a tough course

For Sarah Healy, facing the crowd seemed daunting. It was a busy Saturday at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and 30 people were clustered together, waiting for the tour to begin.

"As we headed out, I heard this clomp, clomp, clomp, and I thought: 'Oh my goodness, they're all here to listen to me!' " Ms. Healy recalls of her first experience as a tour guide.

She had just graduated from a mandatory four-month training class at the museum that covered everything from Georgia O'Keefe's Southwestern style to ancient Egyptian statues. But the former English teacher says the hard work was worth it. "That day and all the others have been great. It's just getting over that first nervous hurdle."

With summer tourism kicking into high gear, it's the season for docents, those people at the front of the pack who explain Greek Revival architecture or Salvador Dal's melting clocks. They usher camera-toting tourists around as they click their way past history.

Amid the flurry of flashes and new faces, tourists may not realize that a guide's job is harder than it looks. It takes long hours of research and practice to get good, docents say, which hardly makes it akin to just a summer job. Yet they focus on the rewards of meeting people from across the globe and building knowledge of history and cultures.

"There are people who come in at the beginning and it's like a new language, learning architectural vocabulary," says Lois Jean Holmes of Boston By Foot. The organization's 200 volunteers give walking tours that focus on architecture.

Standing in the heart of Boston's Freedom Trail on a cool morning, she discusses the Red Coats while a statue of patriot Sam Adams casts a curious shadow nearby. "There are lots of British tourists," Ms. Holmes says with a smile. "They are intrigued with the point of view over here; I like teasing them over the fact that we are no longer British subjects."

To become a guide, she had to complete a month-long lecture course that meets about five hours a week. Docents for Boston by Foot study architecture and history, write weekly papers on subjects like the Colonial era, take a final exam, and lead practice tours, Holmes says. This year, 52 people - attorneys, professors, and college students - graduated to join a growing pool of part-time docents.

"Some people do drop out," Holmes says. "But I loved the excitement of learning. I was always interested in history, but I think because my background was in education, it gave me a chance to build on that." She became a guide in 1986 after she and her husband moved here and wanted to learn more about a city where they kept getting lost.

On the Freedom Trail tour, she points to the Old State House, the oldest public building standing in Boston, built in 1713. The Declaration of Independence was read there on July 18, 1776, she explains. It served as City Hall from 1830 to 1841 and now houses a subway stop.

While the work environment is typically friendly, docents do encounter occupational hazards.

The Boston Duck Tours, for instance, take visitors around the city in amphibious vehicles. They have to keep quiet in "no-quacking" zones, and find that some residents are not the best hosts.

Duck Tour driver Sarah Foley, aka "Lotsa Knots" (because "if you can't tie any knots, tie lots a knots"), learned that the smelly way. "One time I was driving along past the USS Constitution and I hear a smack on the side of my duck. Someone had thrown a dead fish against it," she recalls as boatloads of tourists belt out "Quack! Quack!"

Wearing a lemon-yellow jacket and a necklace made of knots, miniature life preservers, and other aquatic trinkets, the graphic designer explains why she became a guide, even as she reveals a few pet peeves: "I always wanted to be a captain. I like working outside, dealing with people. I like history.... But I dislike traffic, people on cellphones during the tour ..., 99 degree temperatures."

The competition to become a paid Duck Tour guide can be pretty stiff. Last year, 50 applications came in for two slots, says operations director Phil Young. Those who are hired already have a captain's license, but they also go through a six-week training course that includes mastering Boston history and learning to drive the ducks. Candidates even take acting lessons and a final exam.

"I was really nervous. I'd study for a couple of hours before bed," says Dwayne Dougan, "Captain Smokey," who is dressed as a firefighter, his old job. "It wasn't until I'd been doing tours for six weeks that I realized, 'I do know what I'm talking about,' " he adds. "We have to drive, talk, and be aware of what's going on ... keep up on history ... and act funny."

Claudius Lord, who has been a Duck guide for three years, says he dislikes the repetition sometimes, but he's happy about the breadth of knowledge he's acquired. "The Boston landfill project was one of the most important projects to the city," he says of one of his favorite topics. "The city filled 450 acres in the Back Bay area in the early part of the 1800s. Boston in the 1600s was only a mile and a half in circumference. Today, it's 42 miles in circumference - and they're still expanding."

In the end, tourists say a guide's expertise, enthusiasm, and ability to interact with the group usually shine through - and make the experience so much better than an electronically guided tour.

"I like the live exchange, especially with children," says tourist Betty May of Phoenix, Ariz., as she walks through the Egyptian statues at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. "It's important for [docents] to really know the material. They have to have a personality that makes it an interesting learning experience."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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