Of Mice and Molecules...
My First "Trip" To Europe
From the childhood cringe files.
Rarely do I return to where I grew up in Southeastern North Carolina, but the anniversary of my twentieth high school reunion has been bringing back memories of my time as a ward of the Onslow County Public School System. Some of these are good, but the one I want to write about today is just brutal, gutting stuff.
So we're in sixth grade. Northwoods Park Middle School. The Dolphins, I think. Early days of our educational lives. The real formative years. We're not quite to the point where specialization is necessary, but I think we switched between two teachers (plus an elective or two. I recall one of the electives was simply called, "Computers") once or twice a day. Standard stuff for that time period.
At this point, we were doing European history. I've forgotten the teachers' names, but two of the ladies teaching the classes decided to have a flier at making the experience of learning about exotic Europe super special. To accomplish this, they decided that we would make a semester-long trip to the Old World.
Obviously this was an imaginary trip. Which is kinda lame in and of itself, but whatever. Looking back, I am pretty sure neither of these women had ever sniffed continental Europe. Maybe they wanted to give us an experience they never had or something equally fuzzy. Well, mark my words, people: well-meaning folks are often the sources of the greatest fuck-ups or, in this case, a real lowlight of my adolescence.
To get the ball rolling on the grand experience, our teachers announced that we would be taking a flight there. One kid asked if we were going to get to fly in a plane. No, our teacher told him, it would be an imaginary flight. But they assured us that it would be just as good as the real thing. The kid who asked looked disappointed.
It was at this point that I began to doubt that my teachers had ever flown in a plane. There is nothing fun about flying. I imagined them cramming us in a cramped seat for six hours with nothing to do as we desperately vacillate between having to pee and total desiccated dehydration. Then I realized that this is kind of what school is, so maybe our teachers did know what they were talking about, in their own finite way.
The heavily hyped "flight" had to fit into a double period. I'll give the teachers a little credit here for at least trying something. The effort may have been universally shambolic, but it wasn't mailed in. We got the best out of them, only that wasn't so great.
The big day arrived. To really make things real, we were issued a paper boarding pass. After an unplanned explanation of what a boarding pass was, we were lead next door to the "hangar." The plane* was parked in our social studies room. Down the middle of the room, the teachers had stretched several blankets to form the perimeter of our ostensible cabin, an eye-level wall of fabric that extended some thirty feet on either side**. Within the "cabin", our normal chairs had been placed in paired rows. Where the windows would be on aircraft, our teachers had clothespinned pictures of notable European buildings. Although my request for exit row was denied, I was lucky enough to snag a window seat with a view of the Lion of Lucerne, which I then thought was an homage to The Chronicles of Narnia.
There is a grey period in my memory surrounding take-off. I believe I've (successfully) suppressed these memories, but there is a hazy recollection of one of my teachers, a woman in her late fifties, making a motorboating sound to simulate aircraft engines. That's all you get - I'm not opening that door again.
Our highly-anticipated in-flight meal arrived. I still remember this part vividly, as it actually made real airplane food look good. Our "meal" was a pair of small sausage biscuits, obviously purchased this morning from the fridge section of a nearby gas station (TWO FOR $0.99!!!), served room temperature and sweaty with condensate on the inside of their plastic wrapper. The second course was one of those strawberry-flavored hard candies with the wrapper that looks like a strawberry. I was a fat kid in training, so I ate it all, but it still sucked.
This was followed by our in-flight entertainment. The teachers wheeled the AV cart (anyone over thirty knows exactly what I'm talking about) and popped in a scratchy VHS tape of an episode of Rick Steve's Europe. Watching the film was mandatory. By the time it was over we were broken, listless things, more than ready for the known comfort of pre-algebra.
What's the point of this stroll down memory lane? Why is this a big deal? Moreover, it's kind of a dick move to belittle the efforts of public servants, who are underpaid and underappreciated, right? Well, here's the thing: a strong case can be made that this should never have been done. This argument can be made on two points:
(1) The fact that our educators simulated this lackluster experience tells me that they thought it unlikely that most of us would never be financially able/industrious enough/legally eligible/mentally capable of making the trip to Europe in our lifetimes. Perhaps they were right - the kid who asked if we would be flying now works at Wing Stop - but the sheer pathos of the gesture still stings. I'll give them this - the experience was memorable, but not for the reasons they'd wanted.
(2) We paid for our in-flight meal. $2.35 apiece, actually. The specific number they came up with made it seem as though they'd done a cost-of-goods analysis and were charging only enough to cover their costs and were therefore making little-to-no profit on the enterprise. However, in the intervening decades, I have become skeptical of this explanation: Using the consumer price index, $2.35 then is $4.14 in today's currency. For a $1 pack of biscuits (TWO FOR $0.99!!!) and $0.02 worth of candy that's a bit heavy. Extrapolating, we can see that they made about $3.10 per student (in 2018 dollars). Times thirty kids, that's a cool $93. That $93 in supplemental income, split between the two teachers, is the reason for the existence of this experience, or at least I strongly suspect it is.
Honestly, I'm not even mad about the money. It's just sad on so many levels. Sad we're paying teachers so little that they felt the need to do this. I feel like we were fundamentally mistreated, if not exactly abused. Like a dog recruited to lick peanut butter from the genitals of its master.
A few years later I would go to Europe for real. It was then I learned of the rich cultural history, culture of casual nudity and easy alcohol access to minors of the Old World that could never be replicated, even in the shabbiest fantasies of our least-gifted educators.
*Obviously everything on the "plane" deserves quotation marks, but if I used them as needed to describe this shitshow, I'd run out before I finish.
**I would see this low-effort decoration many more times during my tour of the Onslow County Public School System, culminating with desultory prom and an even more underwhelming graduation.
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.