The Final Fieldtrip

Tween’s amazing teacher asked me to chaperone the last field trip of the year. And of Tween’s elementary school career. I said yes.

Fortunately, Tween kicked to the curb his vomiting cycle just in time and awoke on field trip day feeling back to normal.

Destination: The County Courthouse and Detention Facility.

As field trips go, it was unfortunately one of the dullest. And yet… education and experience should not go to waste.

Interesting fact: our county courthouse was founded on the Sacramento River delta during the 1849 Gold Rush, when miners wanted legal documents to prove their right to mine on their land – to prove the gold was theirs – and to prevent others from trying to mine the veins on their property. I had no idea our county had such obvious ties to the Gold Rush (then again, I grew up in SoCal, and Gold Rush country felt so, so, so far away).


And so 23 students, Teacher, and 4 parent chaperones spent the day learning first-hand about the American judicial system.

First stop: Snack on the courthouse steps. Because a full tummy aids education.

Next stop: Security. How fun that the empty-handed kids go in first so they get a behind-the-scenes view of the security screens as the chaperones’ purses go through (no advance warning, but then again, the most disturbing thing in any of our purses might have been feminine hygiene products which no security guard would dare point out to a group of school kids).

And then the air pulsed – no kidding, something changed as the building hushed and the cameras zoomed in. The guards explained that a female juvenile prisoner was being escorted into a courtroom for trial. The screen showed a dark-haired young woman, hands cuffed behind her back. I glanced at the screen, to the kids, to the screen, and for a moment choked back tears.

Statistically speaking, out of 23 kids, it’s possible that she foreshadowed the future for some watching. Maybe not, as these kids have advantages so many American youth lack. And yet, having worked with kids and adolescents for much of my adult life, I have seen shifts in attitude and behavior, in circumstance and lifestyle, that could step-stone that path. Then again, accidents happen to the best of us, and even accidents have consequences. Sometimes, unimaginable consequences.

I’m not sure the kids got it. At day’s end, I was certain my own kid hadn’t understood most of the day – it was too long, too sit-still, too talk-at-them to take it all in. But my own heart broke just a little, for her, and for them. Lord, have mercy.

Continuing on: In-session criminal court room. As we arrived a defendant stood next to someone from the DA’s office. He had been arrested for a second DUI. The judge spoke to him with compassion, with kindness. She asked him about AA, and he responded that he’s finding it helpful so far. She leveled strong but fair penalties, and he accepted them with appropriate humility.

Case closed but we weren’t done; we remained in the courtroom for about an hour as the judge moved through at least 20 more cases, one right after the next. However, that first defendant was the only one free to stand in the courtroom. The rest had been escorted through the tunnel from the detention center next door and had to stand behind bars in a walled-in room; we could see only their faces and hands.

And that’s if the defendants even showed up, which several did not, forcing the judge to issue bench warrants along with hefty fees starting at $1,000. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m surprised that a) so many people do really stupid stuff, and b) once caught, they don’t take responsibility for their actions. I guess that’s human nature, and maybe they came from a background that lacked some of the (to me) basic operating instructions for human life (do what you’re supposed to do // don’t break the law // accept responsibility for your behavior), but seriously, people! One person who didn’t show had four open cases against her; another received a penalty of $30,000, which of course he won’t be able to pay.

Once she had cleared her docket, the judge gave the kids a few minutes of her lunch hour to talk about court. Several kids had questions about her gavel, but she doesn’t use one – her voice is her authority (awesome role modeling, especially for girls), although she did share a story of another judge who, when a defendant lost control and charged the bench, chucked his gavel and hit the defendant in the head to stop him.

They asked the most common reason someone comes to court, and she responded: Drugs. Almost all crime comes down to that one issue. People are doing drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs, stealing things to sell things to buy drugs, or fighting over drug-selling turf. Hey, kids: Don’t. Do. Drugs!

The judge enjoys her job and feels like she is giving back to the people. She smiled a lot and laughed at the sweet simplicity of the kids’ questions. She seemed to genuinely enjoy having them in her courtroom; she thanked them for coming.

Before we moved on, the court room Deputy showed the kids his “tool belt,” and explained that the gun comes last – he’s never had to fire it in court – and that mace and the tazer both inflict a whopping punishment should he be forced to use them. His most effective tool is his radio – as in all things, communication is a powerful tool.

Almost done: Dentention Facility lobby. Two women, each with children, quietly waiting; one, the docent explained, was putting money into what looked like an ATM machine so that her loved one in prison could have some money to spend on candy, or toothpaste, or whatever he needed from the prison store. Imagine, kids, not being able to earn your own money, not being able to so much as buy a pack of gum without someone’s help. Well, okay, that’s true for most children, but we’re talking about adults. Adults who can’t so much as walk out a door without permission, who occupy one small room – likely not much bigger than the full-sized beds some of kids sleep in – for 23 hours a day, until they get their one hour “out” to shower, or visit the store or library, or walk outside. Bleak.

The Finale: The kids got to do a mock trial in a real trial court room during the court’s lunch recess. They were assigned parts – judge, clerk, attorneys, bailiff, witnesses, and jury – and took their places. The case involved a woman accused of car theft. A police officer pulled over a woman driving a stolen car, and her finger prints were on the keys in the ignition. She, however, claims that someone else stole the car and invited her to take it for a drive; that he told her he stole it, and from where, and she was on her way to return it. [Going with the stupid people theme from the live court room, I’m not sure what’s worse: stealing the car, getting in a car with an admitted car thief, or actually trying to return the stolen car].

court room

And that was that. We ate a late lunch on the bus on our way back to school and arrived just as the end-of-day bell rang.

All three 5th grade classes took the same field trip on different days. I heard other parents questioning whether the trip had been age-appropriate, whether kids understood what they were seeing and hearing, or how it fit into the curriculum (American history).

I understand their concerns – so much did fly straight over kids’ heads – but I’m glad the kids got out of the classroom. Education involves a process of repeated exposure and experience. No one “gets it” the first time around, and I know for certain kids in this school district will hit it again in 8th and 12th grades at least. I hope they debriefed in the classroom the next day, and I’m glad I was there to be able to continue the conversation with Tween (one misunderstanding: he couldn’t understand why we were in court for an hour when we only saw one trial… He didn’t understand that those behind bars were also defendants, and that prisoners may not be allowed to stand in court).

A few quirky lessons I learned:
Eat a little something.
Keep a clean purse.
Be kind to everyone, child and prisoner and stupid person alike.
Don’t be stupid: take responsibility for your actions.
Live humbly.
Enjoy your job and you’ll do a good job.
Think fast! (You never know when you might have to use a gavel to defend yourself).
Take time for conversation.
Everyone needs someone – choose wisely.
Always keep learning, no matter where you are.


Tonight was Open House at Tween’s elementary school, our last elementary school Open House ever.

One year ago we toured Tween’s class in under five minutes – his classwork hardly represented, his teacher avoiding eye contact, my stomach in knots. We moved quickly from his 4th grade classroom to the 5th grade classrooms. We closely inspected work by kids we didn’t know; we watched how the teachers interacted with students and parents; we talked with parents about their child’s experience.

At home I began composing a letter to the school principal along these (much abbreviated) lines: “Tween has had a difficult year in Room 3 as he and the teacher have not achieved the best ‘fit.’ We toured the 5th grade classrooms and noticed this about Room 4’s teacher and that about Room 6’s teacher, all good things just maybe not the best for Tween, while Room 5’s teacher greeted him by name with a warm hug and a compliment. We know we’re not supposed to request a teacher, but we need a win: please place Tween in Room 5.”

Two weeks later, Principal announced that Room 5 Teacher would be moving to the middle school. Ouch.

So we prayed and prayed some more. One more year like 4th grade would put Tween in jeopardy. Day after day he came home deflated and defeated, intimidated by his teacher, our bright boy telling us he was “obviously not smart.”

At summer’s end, we got word that Tween had been assigned “the new Room 5 teacher.” Hallelujah! The Powers That Be had listened. And our hopes have been rewarded.dapper

First day of the 2014-15 school year, this dapper-dressed man with a great big smile opened the door. Without having previously met any of his students, he shook their hands one-by-one and welcomed them by name into the classroom. The year is almost over and he hasn’t yet stopped welcoming his students.

Tonight Tween directed us to his desk topped with piles of his work. Atop the stack sat a survey about their experience this year. Favorite subject? Reading (of course). Most improved subject? Math (Yes! He has persevered and proven to himself that he can both work hard and succeed – a triumph!). Favorite activity? Science camp (no surprise). What will he remember most about 5th grade? “I will always remember my best teacher ever: Mr. Mathews.”

Cue the mommy waterworks. He loves his teacher, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

This dear man could hardly accept my thanks as he extolled the wonders of his class. They are sweet, and smart, and hardworking, yes, but he has clearly honored and encouraged them and steadily endeavored to bring out their best version of themselves.

Case in point: last week Tween gave his all on a science test-prep packet. Long packet + slow processing speed = frustrated Tween and incomplete homework. Still working on it early Friday, Grumpy Tween slammed the packet on the desk and declared: “I will just tell him I left it here!”

Commence parent-child conversation about honesty and lying, hard work, and the reason for his 504 plan which allows accommodations for situations exactly like this. He shoved the packet in his backpack.

Imagine my surprise as I unpacked his Friday folder to discover a note saying he had not turned in said packet. When Tween returned from baseball practice, I asked him to read the note aloud, and then explained that he’d be writing a note of apology. He burst into tears, terrified that exposing his dishonesty would cause his teacher to stop trusting him.

He wrote an email, not excusing but explaining best he could his frustration with the workload, the peer pressure at play, his own disorganization at having left the packet in his backpack in the breezeway and not in his binder where it belonged. “I am sorry that I lied under pressure. I should have been stronger than that.”

One day later – on a teacher’s Saturday at that – Tween received a graceful response, acknowledging the courage required to come clean and requesting that Tween live into the bravery required to tell the truth up front, whether to this teacher or any other. Tween read the response silently and immediately typed back-hit send:

“Thank you for replying. After I wrote this I thought that you would get mad at me and not trust me. Once I read this I felt reassured that you are the best teacher I’ve ever had. Thanks again!”

Teacher Appreciation Week appropriately wardrobed this guy

Teacher Appreciation Week appropriately wardrobed this guy

Tween has learned a lot this year, reading stacks of books, practicing math concepts, delving into the scientific method, even designing and printing a new invention on a 3D printer (seriously, how cool is that?). Those lessons will hold him in good stead as he moves on to middle school.

However, he has also learned lessons that will carry him far in life: saying sorry, facing failures, supporting friends, hard work, persistence, courage, laughter, positive attitude, even (dare I say?) the benefits of tidying up (whether he’ll ever overcome his embodiment of the Absent-Minded Professor remains to be seen).

I’ve felt weepy-silly this year as we run our last lap around elementary school. Tween can’t wait for middle school – no anxiety, all anticipation. He is ready for the next adventure. And tonight my heart overflows with gratitude for the gift of this teacher, this year, this miracle.

Thank you, Mr. Mathews!