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“My Chaperone Diary: Tales of a Neurodivergent Field Trip”

What could go wrong while chaperoning eighth graders with ADHD and learning differences on a day trip to Chicago — a city hundreds of miles from home? Apparently, a lot.

Field trip, Class trip, Chaperone, Neurodivergent student

When my children were in elementary school, I never missed the chance to chaperone a field trip. Zoo? I knew the shortcut to the gorillas. Historic sites where visitors can spin wool or churn butter? Sign. Me. Up. Of course, as kids age, the number of field trips sadly dwindles.

This was precisely why I instantly and enthusiastically volunteered to chaperone my daughter’s big class trip to Chicago. The Chicago trip was a time-honored tradition for eighth graders at my daughter’s private school for students with ADHD and learning differences. An arm’s length away from high school, I suspected this would be my chaperoning swan song.

I didn’t consider the 30-plus neurodivergent pre-teens along for the ride.

Chaperone Tip #1: No Candy Before 5 a.m.

On departure day, my daughter and I boarded the Chicago-bound charter bus at 5 a.m. Though the sun had not yet risen, her classmates were 100% awake. Some students had pulled all-nighters by the looks of their puffy, red eyes. Others were fueling up on an array of sugary candy. From the looks of unease and awkward smiles of fellow chaperones, I wasn’t alone in fearing the students’ sugar rush and impending sugar crash. Sleep was out of the question.

Chaperone Tip #2: Never Leave Essentials on the Bus

Six hours later, we arrived at our first Chicago stop, the Museum of Science & Industry. My joints cracked and popped as I walked off the bus like some humanoid robot (my payback for skipping years of yoga classes).

We were told to leave our stuff on the bus because “we’re changing bus drivers for the day, but not buses.”

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Our time in the museum went as fast as the 80-mile-per-hour wind tunnel we stepped into. (Other highlights: a captured WWII-era German U-505 submarine and a Tesla coil that discharged 1.5 million volts of electricity.)

As we boarded the bus for our next stop, The Field Museum of Natural History, something felt off.

The bus was clean — too clean. Where were the candy and snack wrappers and haphazardly thrown backpacks? Where were our personal belongings, which we were assured would be secure on the bus?

I caught the eye of another chaperone; her face was ashen. This was obviously not our bus. According to another chaperone’s GPS tracker, our old bus was parked — at a location 45 minutes outside the city. And, we learned, we wouldn’t see it again until our last stop.

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Chaperones quickly triaged the bus situation while teachers assuaged the students. What was left on the other bus? Phone chargers, tablets, snacks, water. Then it hit us. DID WE LEAVE THE STUDENTS’ MEDICATIONS ON THE BUS?! Hours into this trip, some students with prescriptions would need additional doses — soon.

Chaperone Tip #3: Don’t Get Distracted

In the short drive to the Field Museum, we realized that teachers had all the students’ medications. But we lacked water and snacks. “I’ll find some,” a teacher volunteered. Like a sacrificial lamb, she went searching for a drugstore.

The remaining teachers went to check us in at the box office. The chaperones sprang into action, determining a game plan for the day. However, while huddled, we failed to notice that some of our students had turned the revolving doors of the Field Museum into their private amusement park ride. Three to five kids crammed into a space meant for one person and forcefully pushed until it caused a full-tilt spin. Kids cheered loudly with approval, eager for a turn.

Since a chaperone handbook for such a scenario wasn’t available, we did the next best thing: yelled. Loudly. Embarrassingly. “Sssttooopppp!” It worked.

Chaperone Tip #4: When All Else Fails, Find the Dinosaurs

We corralled everyone inside the museum and, simultaneously, every student needed an item that was surely on the other bus. Then came the questions echoing through the museum’s halls: When was their teacher getting back with snacks and water? When was lunch?

We needed something to redirect, stimulate, and engage them quickly. I looked up and saw the pterosaurs flying above us. Of course — dinosaurs! We ventured to the “private suite” of SUE, a massive T. Rex specimen, and the Field Museum’s most famous resident, and then visited SUE’s relatives in the Hall of Dinosaurs.

Chaperone Tip #5: Skip the Gift Shop

A glob of neon-colored goo packaged as a “stress ball” was the museum gift shop’s most coveted item. We urged the students to leave the goo globs behind as we embarked on our next activity, an architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. To no one’s surprise, they totally ignored us and the squishy balls set sail with us.

Despite the promise of “a seat for everyone,” our group was directed to standing-room-only options, which forced us to spread out on the boat. Some students jammed themselves between strangers to be near friends. Other students sat on steps they were told not to sit on or stood on stairwells they were told not to block. After glaring at a family using prime bench seating for their American Girl shopping bags, I got a seat. (The Kit Kittredge doll survived the Depression; her box could endure the floor.)

Though a few students attempted to lean over the ship’s bow to re-enact the iconic “I’m flying” scene from Titanic, no students were injured or fell off the boat. The same could not be said for the souvenir squishy balls. To the crew’s displeasure, some had popped open and oozed a jelly-like, hot pink substance down the boat’s side.

Chaperone Tip #6: Nothing Is as Simple As it Seems

Our final stop was Medieval Times (because nothing says “Chicago” like a medieval feast and tournament reenactment). To get us in a competitive spirit, we watched The Karate Kid on the bus ride there.

A large castle with colorful flags waving from its crenels greeted us as we pulled up, at last, into the Medieval Times parking lot. “You are not allowed to purchase any swords or weapons!” the teachers told the students as they exited the bus.

Swords? We saw what happened to the stress balls.

“Is this a good idea for a crew as rambunctious as ours?” I asked a teacher.

“Historically, this has been the best part of the school trip to Chicago,” she said.

She was right! Our group was fully enthralled with the festivity and pageantry of the tournament show – Andalusian horses, blaring trumpets and knights jousting, and participating in hand-to-hand combat. (I shouted, “No mercy!” and “Sweep the leg!” figuring I’d never have a more opportune time to yell out lines from The Karate Kid.) Then we devoured our utensil-free feast. (At least we had napkins.) With our bellies full, and our throats hoarse from shouting and cheering at the show, we knew it was time to go home.

Relief set in when we saw our original bus with all our belongings in the parking lot. That relief quickly vanished when the engine refused to start.

Since our cell phones were long dead, we couldn’t tell anyone we were stranded. And on such a humid evening, waiting inside the bus for help was not an option.

I watched as my daughter and her friends spread blankets across the asphalt as if preparing for a late-night picnic. If only the kids were allowed to purchase swords, I thought. We could’ve jimmy-ed into the dungeon for shelter.

Chaperone Tip #7: Beware Murphy’s Law

Some kids were, understandably, not reacting well to the turn of events. They hurled unanswered questions our way. Suddenly, students had cramps, sore throats, and headaches. Others felt homesick. A few kids began to cry softly.

And because things weren’t chaotic enough, I saw an unmistakable flash of lighting, followed by the rousing rumble of thunder.

“Everyone, get back on the bus!” the teachers shouted.

We scrambled to gather our items, but we were no match for the storm. Pelts of rain showered down, drenching us. Defeated, tired, and soaked, we returned to our broken bus, where all we could do was sit in the dark.

Would my last moments on Earth be spent abandoned in a Medieval Times parking lot? I thought. Where was our knight in shining armor?

We passed an IKEA on the way to Medieval Times. Could my daughter and I hitchhike there, find shelter in home furnishing, and subsist on Swedish meatballs? I wondered.

Chaperone Tip #8: Adults Can Learn About Resilience from Neurodivergent Kids

Seemingly hours later, the soft glow of headlights appeared. Somehow, our courageous teachers procured a new bus. Hallelujah!

We rushed into the air-conditioned bus and nestled our exhausted bodies into the dry seats.

“Are you okay?” I mouthed to my daughter.

She nodded.

Though it was the middle of the night, the teachers popped Shrek into the bus’s overhead DVD player. The opening chords of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” played. Students began to sing along. The cacophony of voices blotted out the stress and disorder we collectively endured over the past few hours and soothed me to sleep.

We arrived back at my daughter’s school just as the sun rose.

“So, what did you think of Chicago?” I asked her after we gathered our belongings.

“That was the best trip ever,” she whispered.

Chaperone for the ADHD Class Trip: Next Steps

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