It’s 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, after three extremely full, fast-paced days with little down time. The 120-plus Brattleboro Union High School choral and band students have been told: the bus leaves at 9:15.
I am in my hotel room, trying to desperately finish the last lines of a translation I need to do. I’ve found it exceedingly difficult -- OK, essentially impossible-to finish this while riding on a bus that bounces and having no room to spread out papers. Aware of the time, and my first responsibilities as a chaperone, I sigh, and collect the still-not-done papers into a pile.
Leaving, I figure I should make sure that there are no Brattleboro kids still in their rooms, and I listen carefully for noise. It’s eerily quiet. To be sure, I knock on a couple of the rooms. I find one just finishing stuffing things into a bag; another has only one person who queries if I’ve seen her roommate, who has not yet packed. I go down, run into the missing friend, and urge her to hurry to meet the 9:15 deadline.
When I get downstairs, I pass a large group of students from Florida. They had sung brilliantly on Saturday during the competition. I search for any Vermont stragglers; seeing none, I head to the bus myself. John, our infinitely cheerful bus driver for "Bus 2" greets me with a hearty "Good morning!" and I stow my bag below.
I look around as I get on and stop in surprise. The bus is full. I’m the last one on.
I’m five minutes early. And I’m the last person on the bus. A bus full of high school students. Bus 2 was all ready to go, five minutes early.
Before I left, friends had wished me luck; moms had called me a "brave soul" for taking on the challenge and responsibility of guiding and caring for this group of high schoolers. "I’d never, never in a million years, want to do this!" one said.
After a few comments like this, I, too, started to wonder how it would be. I had eagerly signed up for the trip (after confirming that it was OK with my freshman-aged son). I love music. I love D.C. I love being around a bunch of high-energy people. Why wouldn’t I want to go to D.C. with them?
Somewhere around the week before, I think, I started to realize that other parents were concerned about this trip -- happy for their sons and daughters for the experience -- and yet they had some fears. Around then, little voices began popping up in my head. What if somebody doesn’t bring his instrument? What if I lose someone in the metro going to the zoo? What if I can’t find someone in my group when we are wandering around, at night, in the dark, to view monuments?
I banished these thoughts, and instead focused on what I could control. Two of us chaperones took on asking every single student as they got on, "Do you have your instrument?" Band director Steve Rice gave us cell phone numbers for all the students who had them (the majority), and the cells of all the other chaperones. I looked up the metro map on my phone, and reminded myself of the zoo stops and the changes of trains.
Now, on the bus about to leave our Marriot Hotel, I look back on the whirlwind of the past three days. Band director Steve Rice and choral director Patty Meyers have obviously traveled with this age group before. They assigned each chaperone a group of three rooms to "tuck in" at night, making sure they were in bed and were not leaving again ... and assisting with any problems (finding dry rice for the cell phone that had fallen into the toilet, distributing Advil for a headache, going to vending machine if they were starved -- teenagers seem to need to eat every two hours). We checked with the same kids in the morning, making sure that they were up (mine always were).
Steve and Patty also believe in taking full advantage of the trip’s opportunities. On Thursday, we drove from Brattleboro into D.C. After a buffet supper, we visited Ford’s Theatre (where President Lincoln was shot), and laughed our way through a well-done musical performance of "Putnam County Spelling Bee."
For Friday’s free day, the students self-selected into groups of 11 or 12. With very little input from me, my group had chosen the zoo and the Air & Space Smithsonian. We ended up joining with another group with the same plans, and so there were 24 of us traipsing through the metro together.
On that free day, the students also chose their own food. Our group? We landed at a frozen yogurt shop, extremely well-situated at the exit of the zoo. Mom-like, I suggested-mildly that perhaps this was not the best nutritional choice. I received a very well-thought out argument-pulled together on the fly, with many of them all chiming in with added opinions -- that since they had eaten a very full breakfast with eggs and sausage and bacon and fruit, balancing it with dairy was a perfect idea.
In the end, they convinced me, too. My yogurt and fruit concoction was delightful.
We packed more in. At 6.30 p.m., after a full day of non-stop walking and museum visiting, we started on the night-lit monument tour. The sun set at the Jefferson Memorial in such a spectacular fashion that it almost made up for the non-existent cherry blossoms around the famous tidal basin. Walking over to the FDR memorial-our second stop-several asked me when we were getting back on the bus. I answered truthfully, "It’s just now 7 p.m. You have two and a half more hours before you’ll even see the great Bus No. 2."
Clearly, the plan for fully engaging them worked well. They were exhausted. Still, after the monuments, we even added in a quick stop near the White House, since there was no other time left. We had missed it the previous day, due to the infamous D.C. beltway traffic.
Saturday filled us with music: instrumental, jazz, orchestras, madrigals. Schools from Kentucky, Florida, California, Pennsylvania and Vermont performed, and listened to careful, thoughtful critiques in workshops with master musicians.
By our two-hours of free time that afternoon, temperatures reached 73 under perfectly blue, sunny skies. Out on the tennis courts, the California group’s bus driver lead about 15 Brattleboro students in a game of Frisbee.
The music festival culminated in a banquet. The trophies were lined up across a long table, and Brattleboro took home our fair share. Our group roared in delight as presenters read special accolades and handed out individual trophies to several Brattleboro students who had stood out in specific ways.
One of the chaperones works at several schools, and he doesn’t have the day-in-day-out interaction with the students as a classroom teacher. He watched the students honoring one another, recognizing the hard work of the other schools, and giving a standing ovation to their directors. He was deeply moved. "I don’t normally get to see such passion and enthusiasm," he explained. "These kids are just great."
Now it’s Sunday morning, and we’re all in our assigned seats, with capable John at the helm. It’s time to take in our last site: Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Temperatures have plummeted: it’s a raw, cold day, around 45 for the high already reached that morning, threatening drizzle. The mood fits the scene as the group, admonished to be respectful, maintains Brattleboro’s reputation as they politely hike through and assemble to watch the changing of the guards.
Back on board Bus 2, we start our nine-hour return trip. We vote on a movie choice, and we share a few "fun facts" about the states that we are driving through.
At lunch, I ask what they think. I know these kids, and I know that several of them are struggling to keep band and/or chorus in their schedules with the many choices that are offered at BUHS. Was their hard work and practice all worth it? Are they going to continue in music? Did they have a good trip?
They answer with emphatic yes’s. "It all came together, and hearing the judges say that we sounded good meant a lot," one tells me. "Now I want to change my schedule around so that I can stay in next year, too."
"It was even better than I thought it would be," another one adds. "I had a great time."
We strive onward towards home. A ukulele appears and several (very good) singers start in, the pop songs familiar, yet new, as the melodies switch back and forth between voices. The music continues as we wind our way over Route 9, back through the potholes and bumps of Western Avenue, and across town to finally arrive into BUHS’s parking lot at 10:45 p.m. At 16 degrees, the wind bites as we quickly grab our bags.
Again friends thank me, and say that I hope I "survived." I smile, and I mean it when I say that the pleasure, truly, was all mine.
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.