I Chaperone High School Students Abroad: Sanity Not Included
Taking American youths around the world is both exhausting and extremely rewarding, a high school teacher explains.
I started taking students on trips right when I began teaching. I believe that travel is important and that all teachers should travel with students at least once in their teaching career.
Don’t be scared. Students don’t bite. Much.
“Okay chicos, let’s number off! Stevey, pay attention. Laura, stop walking away! Here we go: One!” In an over-crowded boarding area of the Lima airport, a completely off-beat metronome ensues of the numbers one through 40. I strain my teacher-trained, bat-like ears to hear all of my students call off their numbers to make sure that I didn’t lose anyone from Denver to here. Suddenly, silence. Where the hell is Number 22? More importantly, who the hell is 22? I scan my list. “Alexis! Stop searching for the nearest Starbucks and pay attention!” “Oh, Miss, sorrrry. 22! I’m here. It’s me!” And the counting continues.
Whew. Everyone’s here. “Okay, chicos, no stopping until we get through customs. Touch your passports! Brady, be the sweeper, you’re tall.” “Miss, everything is in Spanish. How am I supposed to read anything?” “I think I left my passport on the plane.” “Does anyone see my luggage?” “Oh. My. God. Do you see that guy!? He is like, so hot.” “You are literally so annoying already.” “Everyone, look over here and say cheese!” “Okay, chicos. Roll out; to the bus! Bienvenidos a Peru!”
What Led Me to Chaperoning Student Travelers
Snippets just like this happen every time I take my high schoolers on trips, usually within the first 30 minutes of being at our destination, which is typically a Spanish-speaking country. People think I’m crazy for taking students around the world, especially given my age. “Wait, you take high schoolers? Why?” I just tell them that I am crazy and I love it.
It’s in my blood. I’ve traveled internationally since I was five, and with students since the age of nine. Now, traveling any other way has become as foreign to me as some of the places I’ve visited. Don’t get me wrong, there are times on trips when I want to strangle some of my students, tell them to shut the fuck up when they ask “Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?” or accidentally-on-purpose leave one of them in a bus stop bathroom while the rest of us travel on our merry way—but those are fleeting thoughts.
The honest truth is that traveling with high schoolers is exhausting, terrifying, eye-opening, humbling and hilarious. But, mostly, it’s absolutely amazing. Seeing students’ eyes light up when they see Machu Picchu or La Sagrada Família for the first time is an experience that, no matter how hectic these trips get, I would never trade.
The pure, untainted joy and awe that overwhelms every fiber of their beings is beautiful to witness.
As is the silence that overcomes them. For a few moments each day during each tour, my students become so overwhelmed with shock and “holy shit look at that” reactions that their usual Energizer Bunny mouths are rendered completely useless. It really is a priceless moment: their faces simultaneously portraying the appreciation of and inability to comprehend what they’re seeing, something so foreign to them before that moment.
And that silence.
Traveling with 40 high schoolers to bustling Spanish-speaking countries is anything but quiet, so when those brief moments arise, I cherish them. Inevitably, the silence is always shattered by the guide explaining the history of what we’re seeing, the blare of a car horn or ambulance, and, of course, the chatter of the group itself that couldn’t stay quiet for more than 15 seconds if they were being paid—with comments like “When can we sit down?” or “Can we eat yet?” and the ever-popular “I have to pee.”
Some of the Best Stories Are Bathroom Stories
Every group imprints images in my mind and, truth be told, bathroom stories are among the most memorable. (It may sound a bit childish but it’s true.) The door to the bathroom on the bus flying open while driving up a winding mountain road in Peru, followed by a shriek so high you wouldn’t think that a six-foot, four-inch, 250-pound boy could make that noise. Students peeing while snorkeling in Costa Rica, forgetting that there are people in the water behind them. Walk-running as politely as possible out of the crowded tombs of Spain’s past kings and queens in El Escorial because that half-gallon of water they drank at lunch finally made its presence known—only to be halted by a bathroom line eight people deep. Almost crashing the alpine slide down from the Great Wall of China in an effort to make it to a stall, but accidentally peeing a little on the seat before making it to safety.
To this day, when someone has to go to the bathroom on a long bus ride I still call it a “Charlie stop,” coined after a student had to go so desperately on my first trip in 1999 that we pulled over on the side of the road in the lush countryside of Spain to let him run into the field, find the only bush and let loose.
When You Chaperone Students Abroad, Lots Can—and Will—Go Wrong
These once-in-a-lifetime trips are 99 percent amazing, but there are moments that make me question why I do this or instances that put my abilities and confidence to the ultimate test. Once, a girl once lost the entire tip of her finger in Sevilla by reaching into her bag to get her cellphone, only to have it sliced off by an uncapped razor. A student threw up multiple times (including on me) on the bus ride to our school and community visit in Cusco. During that same visit, two students passed out from altitude sickness.
Multiple students have lost their wallets, but the most common occurrence is catching students trying to buy or sneak alcohol back to their rooms: When this happens, I always say, “Thank you so much for the present! I know you wanted to surprise me, but how lucky are we both that we just ran into each other like this?” That, followed by the tear-filled, “I’m so sorry, please don’t send me home” apologies and phone calls home to parents. Teenagers are not as sneaky as they’d like us all to believe they are. Plus, because they use social media for everything, there’s no hiding.
Being a Teacher Chaperone Abroad Is the Experience of a Lifetime
I could spend hours talking about what has gone wrong or those stress-inducing moments on trips, but I could spend weeks talking about everything else.
During my first trip across England, Ireland, and Wales at the age of nine, I knew that traveling the world with students is what I wanted to do. What I was meant to do. Sure, it can be exhausting making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time, that I haven’t lost anyone, that students aren’t getting too homesick, that students are in their rooms at curfew, and on and on.
But more than anything else, it’s gratifying, and it genuinely restores my faith in the next generation. Young people these days catch a lot of flack for being lazy and entitled, but the reality is vastly different. They are hungry for a taste of the world outside of their bubbles; they are curious, they are compassionate, they are excited. They yearn to get out into the world and meet new people and see things that they’ve never seen before. Sure, every single moment must be documented on Snapchat or Instagram ten times over—ensuring that the lighting and angle are just right—but that’s the nature of the times in which we live.
I wholeheartedly believe that every teacher, at least once in their career, should chaperone a trip with students. How else are they going to the chaos that is bus karaoke on a five-hour ride after a hot and sticky three-hour walking tour, the priceless open-mouth pictures snapped when they’ve fallen asleep, the shrieks of joy when jumping off the raft into the river, or the genuine happiness that is so palpable and contagious that it literally seeps out of their pores with every new turn and sight?
I’ll say it again: Traveling with high schoolers is exhausting. But it is an exhaustion that I will never give up. That depletion represents a day well-spent in a foreign country, walking upwards of ten miles, learning about another culture, eating deliciously unique food, seeing breathtaking sights, and witnessing the most wonderful moments of all: my students taking in every sight, smell and sound. They focus so intently on what’s before them, it’s as though they believe that if they blink, it will be gone.
And then we’re back on the bus, off to our next destination. As I sit up front talking with the tour guide about the plans for that evening’s dinner and our departure time for the next morning, I pause. I sit up straighter. I listen. The bus is slowly rocking back and forth down a country road in Panama, rhythmically swaying each passenger to sleep.
I take a deep breath. There it is, again. Silence.