Friday, April 25, 2008

Oh, the huge manatee!

Every year, due to my former past as a Travel Camp Unit Head (Tsofim Teen Travel, represent!), I am in charge of coordinating our 7th and 8th grade class trip. The trip destinations alternate: one year it's a science trip, the next it's a social studies trip.

The year of Katrina, we were supposed to go to Tampa to swim with the manatees. However, after the storm took most peoples' life savings away, we decided to cancel that trip and plan one to a sleepaway camp in Mentone, Ala. It was a relaxing, fun, at. They just learn "differently;" in other words, they don't do well in a lecture hall environment. Only like 2% of the population can do that well, anyway, so I don't know why my students are considered different learners.

Anyway, we never tell people that's what our kids are, because there are so many stigmas attached to it. Every so often, I'll hear from even close friends and family members, "Well, maybe that would be okay for YOUR students, but..." Sigh. However, once in a while, you have to pull the card. The majority of the kids have ADHD. Do you want to take a flight with 28 kids with ADHD who aren't able to sit by their 11 chaperons (5 teachers and 6 parents, only two and a half of whom were any use to us as the rest obviously were "on vacation.")? No. I know I certainly don't. I tried calling the airline. First, there is no local desk number for Southwest. You have to call national. We have a teacher who is deathly allergic to nuts, to the point where she can't even be in the recycled air environment of passengers on a plane eating nuts. I had to call the airline to let them know so that an alternative snack could be served. So if you're ever on a Southwest flight and get pretzels, that's probably why. The lady with whom I spoke was courteous and helpful, but she said it probably couldn't be arranged, check in at the airport anyway and see.

I went to the check-in and waited forever and asked, but the lady was a little rude. I waited until we got to the gate (after accidentally putting my boarding pass through the X-ray're supposed to hold it, and they call out "boarding pass check!" and point out the bucket you say it's in and put you in the clear "holding cell" behind the checkers, and you can't leave until they get the pass and check you, and it's HIGHLY embarrassing, especially when you're with 7th and 8th graders and one parents who refuses to accept you as the trip leader or an authority figure or even a human being, like when she calls you nit-picky for correcting her in the spelling of your name (which then also means she's mispronouncing it) in e-mails...and that's the least of her offenses...

In my defense, I was helping a student who is a little spacey, and in my frustration, I put down the boarding pass without realizing it.

Anyway, I asked, rather politely, the guy at the gate if we could possibly seat early....taking the back of the plane, in order to keep our kids together. I played the card. He sad no. I told him our our kids were special needs, and it was really in everyone's best interest if we were together. He said no. I said, "You guys aren't a very group friendly airline, are you?" The guy's reply? "No, we're not. We never have been, and we never will be. Use a different airline next time." GRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. I hope the kids annoyed the passengers. We didn't choose the airline, by the way. We book through a travel agency for students. WHY they put us on Southwest, I'll never know.

We landed in Tampa around 2-ish their time, grabbed lunch in the airport (SO EXPENSIVE), and headed out to the hotel. It was very nice for the type of trip we were on. I recommend the Spring Hill Inn and Suites in Tampa if you ever go there.

The first activity was a sort of orientation. Our course leaders went over rules, expectations, procedures, etc. with the kids, then launched into a discussion of what we would experience and the types of animals we would meet. She talked about animals and their adaptations, then called Mylan to the front. She dressed him as a bird, sort of. She chose him because he was mouthing off a bit, and it was perfect, because it kind of put him in his place. Chris, our guide, proceeded to call him "Bird Man" for the rest of the trip. She put a camo-print cloth on the top of his body to talk about how birds can camouflage themselves as an adaptation. Then she gave him some colorful cloth wings that went on like sleeves and stretched across his body. She added a rainbow feather boa to be his plumage to attract mates. Then she wrapped yellow poster boards around his legs and put flippers on his feet to give him bird legs and feet. She put a paper beak on him followed by sunglasses with large, forward-facing eyes to denote that he was a predatory bird. He was so mad....and everyone took tons of pictures. I later printed one out and hung it in my classroom.

We went to International Mall near the hotel and got $10 vouchers for meals at Earl of Sandwich. I was excited by the food at this place. Most of the adults were. But the kids really shut down. None of the food was kid-friendly. They had a grilled cheese, but it was Swiss, brie, and bleu cheeses. What kid would want that??? I should add that all of our meals are included in the trip price, and kids are told to not bring too much money with them, as they won't need it. So it's really crappy when a parent has paid for a meal that a kid can't enjoy, and then the kid has to spend his or her own money for a different meal in the food court. Last year, if we had a food court meal, you had a voucher for one of several combos at one of several places in the food court.

For the record, I loved my food from there. I just think they should have done something a little more kid-friendly.

We had an early curfew that night, as we had a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call. And no, that's not a typo! We had to get up, eat breakfast, get on a bus, and ride more than an hour away to Crystal Springs to swim with the manatees! They popped "Zeus and Roxanne" in the DVD player. It's a predictable Gutenberg-as-heartthrob(?)-vehicle for children involving a dog and a dolphin who are best friends. Not entirely age appropriate, but it did have a nice side-effect: lulling the kids to sleep on the bus.

Fortunately and unfortunately, there was a ridiculous cold snap going on that week. It was in the 50s, which meant we would be cold. Fortunately, the manatees would also be cold and would have come into the Springs, where the water is allegedly 72 degrees year-round, for warmth. We stopped at American Pro Dive, where we were fitted with wet suits. They were slightly damp and cold. Germophobe that I am, I was having trouble enough getting the blasted thing on, and Chris said, "There are two types of divers in the world: those who pee in their wet suits and those who lie and say they didn't." UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! For the record, Ol' Ironbladder here honestly did not pee. She would admit it if she did, and kind of regrets the fact that she didn't.

We boarded three pontoon boats (A Christian school from California with 15 people....and little kids...shared a bus with us, but that's a longer, angrier story...) and went out in search of manatees. We found a spot and got it with our snorkels, masks, and waterproof cameras. Here I am:

It took me a while....but then...I finally got to see one!! It was such an amazing event. The hour and a half that we snorkeled flew by. The manatees swim right up to you. They're so gentle and beautiful. After I found the first one, it was very easy to find more. The rule is, you can't go after them or anything like that, but if they come up to you, you can touch them. Manatees love to be scratched under their armpits, apparently. If you do that, they roll onto their backs for belly rubs. I love them so much!

I took a rest with some of the kids by standing on a rock. All of a sudden, I got knocked off the rock and started to get angry at whatever jerky kid had done that. Then I looked and saw that I had just been nuzzled by a huge manatee! My slight rage instantly turned into a melted heart.

I was snorkeling along, and one of the manatees they are monitoring as he recovers from a boat injury swam under me. He has a buoy attached to his tail so they can find him easily to check on him. He did something weird and tangled me up in his line. One of the dive guys had to set me free. If I wasn't wearing flippers, I could have done it myself. Those flippers make almost everything impossible.

Towards the end of our amazing swim, I thought I was by myself. I was snorkeling along at a safe distance, tracking a manatee who was moseying along the bottom of the springs, and I felt something under my legs. Ecstatic that another manatee had found me, I slowly turned over, grinning like an idiot, only to discover one of my students crossed paths with me, and his legs ran into mine. It should be noted that he is a bigger kid; I was mistaken for a student, while he was mistaken for a teacher, hahahah. . . however, my comment to him had nothing to do with his size and everything to do with the fact that I didn't know he was out there and I didn't expect anything to brush under my legs. I lifted my head, took out my snorkel, and said, "Oh, that's you, Patrick! I thought you were a manatee!" Well, of course, he takes that to be an insult on his size. Thank God he's an awesome kid who wouldn't take it personally. "Ms. M., if you had reached over and started petting me, I would have been back on that boat so fast, you wouldn't have known WHAT happened!" he replied. It's really hard to snorkel and laugh hysterically at the same time.

At one point, I found a mom and baby manatee pair. The baby was so friendly, and he and I played together for a while. He kept getting face-to-face with me, and I fell in love with him. I was really sad when we parted ways. I wish I could have brought him home. I know that's not possible, but don't take that dream from me, okay?
Here's my little buddy:

In addition to the manatees and little fish swimming around, there were big huge scary tarpons. They're pretty intimidating, even though they won't bother you. I'd never seen a live one before. I've seen plenty of dead ones at the Tarpon Rodeo in Grand Isle, but that's all.

Unfortunately, our time was up. When we got out of the water and back on the pontoon boats, we froze. They put tarps down to block the wind, and we had to take off the wetsuits immediately. The captain passed around a thermos of hot chocolate, and we each had a cup. Then, then engine died. We ended up stuck on a rocky reef and had to wait for another boat to come rescue us. They lashed the boats together, and we continued our slow, freezing journey back to the dock. We boarded our bus and drove to Rainbow River, where we had a picnic lunch on the backs of the river. After lunch, we fought with our wet wet suits....which are the DEVIL, by the way... and got on another set of pontoon boats to head upstream. It had warmed up some, but it was still pretty chilly. I let Torian, one of my students, borrow my school fleece since she decided she didn't want to get back in the water. About a mile and half or so up the gorgeous, crystal clear river, we dropped anchor and reentered the water. Once again, it was warmer in the water than out. We floated/snorkeled back down stream to the docks. We found turtles, fossils, shells, wild birds, and fish, including gars. We could see some of the natural springs and some underwater caves, too. I've never seen such clear water before. All I get to see is the muddy Mississippi and the nasty Lake Pontchartrain. And the Gulf of Mexico ain't too clear, either, especially in Grand Isle!

We went to Homosassa State Park, which is a zoo for indigenous Floridian animals. There are two animals there who aren't indigenous, though: a movie star hippo named Lu, who is the only remaining animal from the days when the zoo was just a regular zoo, and flamingos, which migrated to Florida from Cuba, etc. It was pretty cool, but when you're used to the Audubon Zoo here in New Orleans, most zoos just don't impress you.

After dinner at a former summer camp, we went to the hotel to crash. Or should have.

After everyone was settled in, I got in the shower. As program leader, I am rewarded with a private room. I heard someone knock on my door, and, as I was washing my hair, decided that it wouldn't be prudent to answer the door in a towel, as a student or parent could be knocking. Try again later, buddy. Then I heard my room phone ring. Sorry, guys. I'm full of shampoo and refuse to jump out the shower. I got out, dried myself off, and heard my cell phone ring. It was another teacher. Apparently, one of our rooms had the cops called on it. EXPLOSION!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have escorted two Houston trips, 8 Tsofim trips around the country, the Mentone trip, and the D.C. trip. I've had eight kids crammed in one hotel room. And NEVER have I had so much as a noise violation!!!! Two of the teachers have done 7 trips each, and have never had that problem. And our three course leaders, each having had these jobs for 5 or 6 years, have never had this problem, and they do it year-round!!

I was livid. I couldn't see straight. And, they are damned lucky I didn't have my own car, because all of their butts would have been at the airport if I had.

Trip policy is that if you act up, you get sent home. But, with four kids in a room with a closed door, you can't know who is guilty and who is not. So no one went home. There were write-ups, detentions, and week-long suspensions handed out after returning to school, so they did get repercussions, but they were delayed.

What went wrong? Well, by law, we can't have an adult in the room with the kids. The hotel didn't block off rooms. We were scattered around on three different floors. There is SUPPOSED to be night security. Our course leaders said they'd patrol the halls until security arrived. Well, they didn't. Exhausted after our long day, we were all trying to get ready for bed, and thought the halls were covered, since that's what we were told. Security was half an hour late, the course leaders weren't in the halls, and things got out of hand.

Thankfully, it was our last night in that hotel. The next morning, we packed our stuff, checked out, and went to Fort De Soto State Park. We went to one of the beaches, which was freezing cold, and got not much more than ankle deep in the water. The kids found lots of great specimens, and the people from the Museum of Science and Industry Habitats Program gave a mini-lecture on what they found. We went to a park shelter, where the kids were put into groups and given spiny dog sharks to dissect. I couldn't watch. After that, we went to a different beach and played in the sand a little. We met up with the other school and kayaked through an estuary lined with mangroves. I was paired with one of the Joshes, who is a really funny kid. We discussed "Rob and Big," as well as other similar stupid TV that we love. We kayaked about two miles. At one point, when we were kayaking upstream, we stopped moving. Josh had never kayaked before, and I had done it twice in Bayou St. John, right outside of school, but it's much calmer water. We suddenly stopped moving. I said, "Oh, what the hell," then realized what I had done. At least that's all I said. Luckily, it was the right kid to say it to. I apologized, and he said it was okay, he's said a lot worse, haha. Then he talked about different teachers and the fact that they were either easy to picture cursing or impossible to picture cursing. Only one teacher did he deem impossible: Penny. I laughed and said I'd heard it once, and it almost made me pass out. They joke that Penny has no pulse. She's calm, so quiet, so amazing....and it takes a lot to ruffle her feathers. Josh claimed he would probably just die on the spot if he ever heard her curse.

Remember that anecdote.

Meanwhile, Coach Isaac is in a boat with Taylor C., who is being a real jerk in the boat. Coach isn't a swimmer and was nervous about kayaking. We each paired up with a kid who would need an adult, and the trustworthy kids were also paired up to prevent tipping, fights, and immature behaviors. Well, another kid who has kayaking experience but isn't very well-behaved, Austin, got put in charge of another kayak with Mario based on his experience level. Both Taylor and Austin made scary rides for their partners.Coach offered to help Mario by pulling over and switching partners. Something happened where Austin really scared Mario, then Taylor splashed him, and Mario took off down the highway, cursing and yelling. Coach had to chase him down. Meanwhile, teacher Mary with passenger Max, and Josh and I came upon Austin and Taylor, two empty kayaks, and no Coach or Mario. We thought someone had drowned or something and were internally freaking out. Then we heard what happened, and the course leaders sent us ahead while they dealt with the problem. That was nice of them. Again, no one went home because Mario WANTED to go home and was acting out to be sent home, so Austin and Taylor couldn't be sent home, either, which I thought was lame. Get rid of all of them. Each ended up with a week-long suspension when we came home. They also had to spend the next two activities sitting out with Marie, another teacher.

We had another picnic lunch, then went to Mote Marine Lab. We saw a giant preserved squid, some fish, some sharks, and typical aquarium type stuff. Then we went to a Spineless Sea lecture, where kids identified and classified echinoderms, arthropods, mollusks, and more. They were informed (rather, reminded, as they'd already learned it in school), that squids and octopi are considered mollusks, which is confusing, as mollusks must have shells to be considered mollusks. The shell, or remnants of a shell, of a mollusk is internal. So they were put in groups again and asked to dissect small squids. They found the shell, called the pen, dipped it in the squid ink, and were asked to write their initials on paper. They loved that part!!

During the dissection, Ashely started giggling. She turned around and asked me if I'd heard about what happened to Penny. I hadn't, and Ashley could barely get it out. She shared a kayak with Penny earlier that day. Neither had done it before. Remember the anecdote I told you to remember? Well, here's what happened in Ashley's words: "Well, you know how Mrs. S. is so calm and intelligent and stuff? Me and her were in the kayak together, and we ran into one of those bush things {mangroves} and it cut her face up and she said, 'OH, SHIT!' She told me after I stopped laughing, 'That's between you and me, Ashley.' So of course everyone knows now, because that's too funny to keep to myself!" Josh was at the table with her, turned around, and said, "Mrs. M. ... that's exactly what we talked about!!! We were probably talking about it as it was happening!" He couldn't stop laughing. I had noticed the cuts on Penny's forehead and cheek, as well as her arms, which were also bruised, but didn't want to ask her about it. The way Ashley told the story was so funny, I couldn't control my laughter. We got shushed. Oops.

After that, Patrick told Marie, "Mrs. B., have you noticed that everything we've done on this trip ties in with what we learned in science this year?" "Yes, Patrick, that's kind of the point!"

After dinner at the Old Salty Dog restaurant, where I had the biggest chicken sandwich in the world, we went to Lido Beach, where we walked, played around, and watched a beautiful sunset. Then we went to an amazing ice cream place. I had English toffee ice cream in a waffle cone...absolutely amazing!!!!

Did you see the bun under the chicken? It was DWARFED. I had to cut the breast in several small pieces and left more than half of it behind on my plate!

We checked into the Sarasota Hampton Inn that night, and there was not a peep reported to us by the security guards. We'd basically threatened them all with expulsion if anything happened that night. We saw the course leaders weren't planning on staying in the halls, so we all plopped on the ground (we got rooms all on one floor this time) and kept watch until the security guards showed up 40 minutes late.

Next morning, we went to Myakka State Park, walked through a forest of palms and elms, and took a canopy walk. It was gorgeous. We climbed a tower 76 feet up to a platform and had a breathtaking view of the park.

From there, we went to Myakka Lake, where we had a slow airboat ride to look for alligators. It was really cold, so we didn't see as many as we would have liked, but we did see some. The tour guide had a low, monotone voice, and the kids, exhausted, all passed out.

After that, we headed back to Tampa. We got lunch at a few fast food places that were all in a row along the way. In Tampa, we went to the Florida Aquarium, which was much smaller than our Aquarium of the Americas, but had nicer displays. I got to see a penguin show!!! I loved them almost as much as I loved the manatees.

We had dinner (rather, everyone but me had dinner) at the Golden Corral. After a terrible buffet experience involving food poisoning and me breaking my 13-year streak of not vomiting (I beat Seinfeld!!!), I don't do buffet. Then we went to the airport, where I got a fruit cup and croissant from Starbucks for dinner. After an uneventful flight back to New Orleans, I was home. I slept until 2 p.m. the next day. That's just awful!

I'd rank swimming with the manatees among my top 5 life experiences. Hm...that's an interesting blog idea....

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