I spent today, Easter Sunday, with my children, who are both students at UMass Amherst. During the day I was reminded of a class trip we took ten years ago to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. May is Museum Month – go and visit, you never know what you might see.
Let’s start with the statistics. Fifty-four sixth graders from the Cambridge Public Schools embark on a class trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, an adjunct to their studies of ancient Egypt. There are six teachers and ten parent chaperones. The children reflect the diversity of the City; about 40% Black, 40% White and 20% shades of other origin. One teacher is Asian, but the rest are white. All the parents are white. They have the kinds of jobs that allow time off in the middle of the day. They choose to devote that time to their children.
The teachers have assigned the children into groups, one adult for every four children, but within minutes the children have reassigned themselves according to their own preferences. The Black kids hang together. They fuse into a mega group that has the strength of numbers. They are rowdy and mischievous; they test the adults at every turn, teacher and parent alike. The white kids form smaller groups with more focused compulsions. Three children play a continuous game of Dungeons and Dragons the entire day, with cursory connection to their fellow students. Another group is likewise mesmerized by the card game, Magic. The white children are quieter than the black children. They are easier to manage, but equally uninterested in the museum’s collection of Egyptian artifacts. Then there are the brown kids; Indian and Hispanic. They are more recent arrivals. Many know little English. They hang together by default rather than common interest. Finally, there are the odd balls; the kids with Special Ed plans who don’t fit with any social group because they cannot socialize. They meander without regard to the world around them, oblivious of anyone else, possibly even themselves. They are pinballs, aimlessly careening through a world where the flippers are the scorn of their fellow classmates; the bumpers are turning cars and subway trains.
I am a parent chaperone, assigned to the Dungeons and Dragons freaks and a lone boy prone to dart off the curb in an instant. As we wait in line for the Museum staff, outside, in the back, in a cold place that signals these visitors are not important, I am discouraged by the divisions among the class. I want all the children to get along, I want them to be friends, to appreciate each other’s differences and savor their similarities. But there is no time to dwell on these ideals; I am too busy monitoring my buddy who’s prone to roam, giving warning to a boy hitting a girl in a provocative region with his newspaper, and rousing the D&D gang to move along.
We are assigned to a beautifully coiffed matron who can barely disguise her displeasure with our group. She speaks in hushed, museum tones. The children can barely hear her, and don’t much care. I stand on the periphery of the circle, nudging the children closer. After a few minutes they come upon something that resembles a picture from their books on Egypt and they take an interest. A few start to answer the guide’s questions, proud peacocks showing off. Enthusiasm would be too strong a word, but there is learning going on.
One boy dawdles well behind the rest. He takes no interest in the art work, but when we cross the grand stairs, I ask him if he’s ever been to the Museum before, he stands still, stretches his neck across the vaulted ceiling, and replies, “No.” I realize not only has he never been to the Museum, he’s never been anywhere remotely like the Museum. A few more prods and he admits that he has never been out of Cambridge. He stands with his head back, mouth wide in amazement at the magnificent grand stair. How insignificant it must seem for him to focus on a particular artifact of art or history when the entire experience of traveling to this formidable place is so unprecedented.
The tour lasts barely an hour but the children’s attention span is even shorter. On the way home, during our lunch stop, I realize there is one boy who flows easily among the disparate groups. A white boy, big for his age, heavyset and smiley, with three earrings and spiked hair. He jostles with the black kids, tells body part jokes with the white kids, even redirects the lost wanderers with a firm tug of their shoulders.
We shepard the children back to the subway. I have no idea whether their knowledge of ancient Egypt has increased, but it has been a day out of the ordinary, a day they will remember. Each will take something away from the experience, though we adults will never know what.