I spent a week in February with three other adults chaperoning a trip to DC and NYC with 39 teenagers. From early morning to late at night, we shushed, shoved and shepherded these teens between museums, memorials, plays and restaurants in the most frigid weather I’ve ever been in. Despite the heavy coat, layers of clothes, warm boots, when it came to the weather, I could not warm up.
The good news, it was so cold that most tourists did not venture outside. And in DC, there is a lot to do outside. Crowded, it was not. The paths to the Memorials we visited at night were wide open, albeit very slippery.
The attention to personal conduct sometimes waned with some of these kids, they are teens after all, whose biology is to be self-centered. Inside the Jefferson Memorial for instance, some were dancing, talking too loud and running around, until exasperated with what felt was the lack of respect, we ushered them out.
As the adults rounded up the last student to exit the vast steps, I looked around for a stray student. For about 5 seconds, it was just Thomas and me in this huge dome of a memorial, quiet, surreal, a light snow falling outside. It felt haunting and wonderful brief as it was until a young family walked up the steps to read the inscriptions on the walls. I descended the steps, grateful for the few seconds of solitude.
The annoying moments of callow, insensitive behavior were few. For the most part, the trip lacked the intense drama that sometimes happens when more than a few teens gather together. Yes, there was the typical foul language, fights for the best seats on the bus, inattentiveness to the tour guides enlightening oration on why DC is a district and not a state. There was quite a bit of whining about the cold. A few slips and slides on the slippery paths. The failed attempts to sneak out of the hotel rooms after curfew. These moments did not help my icy state.
Yet, there were the sweetest times that warmed me from the inside out:
- The boy who wanted to buy his mom a nice gift from New York. He budgeted and shopped and bought her a beautiful scarf.
- The 14 year-old girl who so gently helped her friend clean up from a bloody nose on the bus.
- The 6 foot, kind of artsy, cool young man who held the door open for everyone any time we entered a building.
- The twinkly eyed boy who tripped and split his knee, returned from the emergency room with stitches, only to give gigantic hugs to the chaperones for helping him.
- The small group of 5 students who quietly asked if they could find a church on Ash Wednesday to be blessed with ashes. They’ll never forget St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What faith and dedication to do something might be perceived by their peers as “not cool”.
- And, the sweetness shown to the lady on the plane when one of our boys offered to help her with her luggage.
- The thank you’s were common throughout.
- And the girl who chipped in her own money to make the trip happen.
It’s very easy to focus on the commotion, insolence and shallowness of youth. But the truth is, teens are interesting, funny, and vulnerable. Given the opportunity, they will shine and show their potential greatness.
Back in sunny California, after a three-time “tour” with 14 year olds, I am warmed, thawed and hopeful for our future.
Photo Credits T. Oefinger and D. Roberts