Took a day off from work a while back to do something I haven’t done in about twenty years—go on a field trip. My daughter’s class was to spend the day at a local university, and she was psyched for some Daddy Time. I was pretty psyched my own self. That goes to show you how long it’s been since I’ve been around about sixty third-graders.
Any thought that our time together would be both quiet and alone was quickly put to rest with the appearance of one of my daughter’s friends, who sat with us on the bus. The little girl’s name still escapes me, though I’m sure she mentioned it. Many, many times. Mentioned quite a few other things as well. Many, many times.
Country folk like me (the men in particular) tend to shy away from calling people by their given names, opting instead for nicknames of their own creation. There is an art to this. A good nickname is comical but not mean, and usually connotes a certain physical attribute or facet of personality. I tell you that so I can tell you the nickname I’d given my daughter’s friend by the time we hit the interstate.
Because she never shut up.
The trip began with me in the middle of a bus seat designed for two small children at the most. Ours contained two small children and one big redneck. Gums began her questions early and often:
“Are you the writer?”
“You don’t look like a writer.”
“Why do your jeans have holes in them?”
“Why don’t you have any hair?”
“Can I have a copy of your book?”
“Why don’t you shave?”
“Is that your notebook?”
“Can I see?”
That was the moment I paused and asked my daughter if she would mind switching seats. There would be more room for us if I was at the window, I told her. It was a lie, of course. But the truth was that I wanted to use her as a sort of human shield, and I couldn’t tell her that.
For her part, Gums didn’t mind. She could talk across my daughter to me just as easily. I had a headache the size of Texas by the time we got off the bus.
We made our way into a ballroom, the setting for most of the day’s activities. Seven people to a table. My daughter sidled up to me in her chair. So did Gums.
Third grade fieldtrips seem to revolve around crafts. I’m not a craft sort of guy. My little girl is (thankfully), though I still had to pitch in with the glue, the tape, and the stapler. Likewise Gums, who managed to staple both herself and me to the mask she was making before we finally got everything straightened out.
That’s how most of the day went, my arms tired from my daughter clinging to them and my ears tired from the chorus of “Daddy, look!” and “Hey Mr. Coffey, c’mere!” It didn’t take me long to realize I’d never make it as a teacher.
The ride home was interesting. Me mashed against the window, my lap filled with a ceremonial mask made out of construction paper and fake feathers and a drum make out of two popcorn containers. Mass hysteria from the seats behind me, teachers fighting the good fight to keep everything calm.
My daughter laid her head on my shoulder. I saw her smile, and I knew the day had been worth it. A smile from her is always worth it.
Gums peeked at me and made a come-here motion with her finger. I leaned in close, ready for whatever questions she had this time. She had none. Instead, she leaned her mouth toward my ear and whispered, “I wish I had a daddy like you.”
I didn’t mind Gums talking the rest of the ride home. And to be honest, I kind of felt bad for nicknaming her Gums (though she seemed to enjoy it quite a bit).
But I learned a lot on that field trip. Not just how to make ceremonial masks and drums, either. I learned a little something about kids, too.
About how they need something else besides food, water, shelter, and love.
They need attention, too. They need adults looking at them in the eyes and listening to the things they say. And say, and say…