Before I was a beloved high school teacher… I was a beloved middle school teacher.
I loved middle school because my students were excited about so many silly little things:
Spongebob stickers and Mojo-jojo drawings.
And Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Yes Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
1994, the year of the 6th grade boat trip incident, the first year Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came out on the market, and they were a VERY big deal in middle school.
In fact, if you didn’t show up to middle school with at least a snack sized bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos… you were nothing… you were no one… and because I remembered my own scandal in 1976… when I rode on my Schwinn banana seat to every liquor store within a 10 mile vicinity of my house because I had bragged and told EVERYONE at school that I had the first pack of Bubble Yum to be delivered in Long Beach (which of course I didn’t)… and then showed up at school to be shamed for weeks… I let everyone, all of my students, eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in my class. I even brought extra bags to hide in my desk (for anyone that was feeling left out of the game) and generally just spoiled the kids rotten with snacks to make up for my own middle school failings.
Now during this time period, we had been offered a special school field trip from the marine biologists at Cal State Long Beach.
My students were invited to go out on one of the CSULB oceanographic research boats to study the water and learn about the fish and marine mammals in our area.
The kids were more than excited.
A field trip meant a day away from school.
A field trip meant a rowdy bus ride to wherever.
A field trip meant sack lunches full of yummy treats and of course….
EVERYONE WOULD BE PACKING FLAMIN HOT CHEETOS!
I was more than happy to take the kids on the trip and convinced my young teaching partner, Mr. Eldridge to be my fellow chaperone.
Mr. Eldridge was a lovely man: An idealistic young conservative Christian sure that he could make a difference in the world.
Those of us with more teaching and parenting experience, took bets in the Teacher’s Lounge daily to see which little hooligan would finally break him.
As the science and math counterpart to my English and history teaching, he was really excited at the prospect of taking the kids out to study science first hand.
So when the day finally came for us to go on our field trip, it was no surprise that he was the first one on the bus, face shiny with idealistic expectations.
I smiled at him as I counted each and every little prepubescent head that boarded the bus: once as they entered the bi-fold door and once as they sat, three to a seat, wiggly with excitement, and then went to sit next to him as he babbled on about the joys of science for the entire bus ride: Bless his little heart.
The short fifteen minute trip to the port seemed like an eternity for me and the children. I spent my time trying to seem enthused about Mr. Eldridge’s impromptu lecture on Red Tide and the fate of dinoflagellates and the students spent their time comparing the size of their Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bags.
From the murmured whispers of envy that were circulating throughout the bus, I was able to gather that Treshawn and Jushay had brought family size bags of hot cheetos and were already in a heated competition to prove that THEY would out eat each other at lunch time.
I snapped my fingers and watched as all of the students quieted in their seats but not before I caught a brief exchange between the two boys… both eyeballing the other… with a “just you wait” stare down: It was quite impressive.
We arrived at the CSULB Marine station where we were told that one group of students would go out on the boat in the morning… while the other group stayed at the Marine Station and worked in the classroom. Then… in the afternoon… the groups would switch.
Now, you would think that a smart young teacher, skilled in science, would be the first to figure out why I would want to be in the group that went out on the boat in the morning, and ended up in the classroom by the afternoon but, Eldridge didn’t even catch it… although he knew science, he had not yet learned children, let alone had any of his own.
This was his first group of students.
His first year of teaching.
But I had learned long ago to be hard on the “newcomers.”
It is best to baptize new teachers by fire and so… I looked at this moment as a necessary initiation.
Mr. Eldridge would learn today… this very moment… why you always take the first boat.
My group of students were furious with me.
“We don’t want the first boat!” they screamed.
“That means we have to spend the WHOLE afternoon in the Marine classroom!” they moaned.
“Please Ms. Wood, please,” they begged. “LET US GO LAST.”
They all fussed and mumbled “I hate you” under their breath as they trudged up the gangplank and stomped onto the boat.
I smiled to myself, sure in my decision.
We waved goodbye to Mr. Eldridge and his group and went off to have a lovely time on the early morning ocean.
The sea was calm.
The boat barely moving when we stopped to take water samples or dredge the bottom of the shallows.
It was a lovely time… the children forgot their troubles, happy now that I had let them go out first.
We returned to the dock close to 11 where they skipped off the boat to meet up with the other group and share their lunches.
I watched as the bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were pulled out of the brown paper sacks.
Treshawn and Jushay were mowing down cheetos and gulping down coca-cola as the other students cheered them on and it was difficult for me not to snicker…. to hide the impish grin that continued to appear on my face as I watched Mr. Eldridge, who sat eating his PBJ, in complete ignorance, of what would be his total and inevitable downfall.
The students finished gorging themselves on trash food, and so I herded my group into the Marine classroom before turning to wave at Mr. Eldridge, Treshawn, Jushay, and the rest of the group as they ran happily to the boat.
“This is going to be the best trip ever!” Mr. Eldridge shouted with gusto and his students jumped and shouted and screamed with joy.
I took about fifteen minutes to settle my students with their CSULB mentors, before walking back outside to sit on the bench at the dock and wait for Eldridge’s return.
The wind had picked up in the afternoon, the sea had grown choppy.
I could just imagine the size of the swells, the depth between each crest, the rocking of the boat from side to side and end to end, and I wondered just how long it would take.
I thought of my own first years of teaching… my baptism into the reality of the world:
The time I let the kids help paint murals in the classroom and ended up with thirty-five students covered in acrylic paint and about fifty phone calls from angry parents when they realized it couldn’t be removed from their school clothing.
The time I saved the seagull on the school playground and ended up being attacked by it in the teacher’s parking lot when trying to release it, while all of the students laughed at me from the classroom windows and the veteran teachers stood and shook their heads in disgust.
The time I cut the tip of my finger off at the school dance, while cutting ribbon with a razor to tie up hundreds of helium balloons, resulting in large squirts of blood across the dance floor, numerous children screaming hysterically, and the ruining of the big hit line dance “HEY Macarena!” as I was ordered by my principal to take my fingertip and leave for the nearest hospital before the children began to faint.
I was doing this guy a favor.
He should be thanking me for bringing him this moment of teaching perspective.
This trial was nothing compared to the ones I had gone through.
I checked my wrist watch.
It had been 45 minutes since they had left the dock.
If my calculations were correct… they would be rolling back in within the next five and sure enough… they did.
I could see the boat approaching.
It was chugging at a slow pace and soon the sobs and wailing caught up in the wind and rang in my ears.
I stood and ran to the edge of the dock to get a better look.
Mr. Eldridge was standing on the bow, his face miserable, his stance one of defeat.
The children were scattered about the boat: hanging over the railings, lying on the lower and upper deck, large red vomit streaks of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos everywhere.
It was a mess.
It looked like someone had bombed the boat with large jars of Prego spaghetti sauce.
I waited patiently as they lined up to the dock, the crew already hosing down the decks, Mr. Eldridge and his group gathering themselves together and exiting the boat solemnly.
Jushay and Treshawn sat down on the dock bench and put their heads down in their hands.
I directed the other children to go lie down in the patio area while I waited for Mr. Eldridge to come and stand next to me.
“Treshawn, Jushay,” I said. “What did we learn today about being greedy with our Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?”
“That we will throw them up on the boat?” Jushay said miserably.
“Yes,” I said. “Next time you go out on a boat, eat a light meal first to see if you can handle the sea. Do you understand?”
Both boys nodded their heads slowly before I gathered them up and sent them to the patio.
I turned and looked at Mr. Eldridge and said, “And what did you learn today Mr. Eldridge?”
He looked at me as if he wanted to give me a hard slap… but his loyalty to Jesus wouldn’t allow it.
“I learned to always take the first boat. Before the kids eat lunch.”
“Good man,” I said with an authoritatively triumphant tone as I patted him on the back.
He grabbed my hand and pushed it away from his shoulders. “And to never go on a field trip with you again,” he said as he walked away from me disgusted with my lessons.
“See?” I shouted after him. “You’re a pro already.”
Unlike the students, Mr. Eldridge did not whisper “I hate you” under his breath… but I knew… at the time… he was thinking it.
And rightfully so.