Friday, May 27, 2011

It lived up to its name

I've written about the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium before on this blog. And I've been there many times since my son was born. We even sprang for a membership last year, which we thoroughly enjoyed. However, I've been somewhat spoiled in my zoo visitations, because I've always been able to take advantage of weekday mornings and off-season lulls. Our family's zoo escapades were made with crowd avoidance in mind, with daytime temperatures in mind, and we've always steered clear of May visits, period. Why? Field trips, that's why.

Except yesterday, I was the field trip. I went to the zoo with my son's kindergarten class. Some other insane mothers also chaperoned (one of them coming straight from a night shift—no sleep!!!) and we met the buses in the parking lot. We'd already received a list of the kids for whom we'd be responsible, and we checked names, counted heads, double-checked lunches, and set off through the zoo. We had to meet back at the entrance in under four hours, and there was much to see.

A couple of my little cuties immediately decided they wanted to stop at one of several shops; they seemed to be convinced that I'd be ponying up for everyone to purchase an overpriced item from China. Sorry, kids, not happening. I steered them clear of the first store and we made our way toward the leopard and tigers. It began to dawn on me, then, just how many people were visiting the zoo that day. Hordes of kids and a handful of adults, most in a series of matching t-shirts, were crushed up against all the fences surrounding the tiger area. People were standing several folks deep in places. It was a bit unnerving.

I tried to keep an eye on my five children, one of whom was my own; this was not an easy task in such a slew of small bodies. I'd have them in sight, and then one would be gone, then two... Sigh. When I finally was able to extricate all five of them from the mass, I called an emergency meeting. We needed a team name, I said. And some rules.

One child wanted to be the Cats, another wanted to be Orange Cubs, so we combined and became the Orange Cats* for the day. Also, I explained, there are tons of people here and I need to be able to easily see you all, at all times. That meant, I stressed, no one more than 10 feet away at a time. Perhaps I should have forced hand-holding, but honestly, it was hard to do—the day was heating up, people were sweaty, slippery little hands kept sliding away anyway, boys outnumbered girls... and I was not their teacher. They just weren't as willing to do that for me. I guess I can't blame them.

So, the Orange Cats set out once again, up the hill toward the savannas of Africa. It seemed that every display caused a slight uproar of sorts: the elephant house was too smelly, the fish in the pond were yucky, the orangutan was vigorously scratching an inappropriate area, the gorilla had some sort of visible residue on his posterior... Through it all, I kept losing my kids in the crowds, then finding them again. I can tell you in precise detail what each one of them had one because I got so good at locating the clothing. Happily, calling to the Orange Cats yielded better results than yelling out their names.

At some point, after much repetition of the phrase, "I'm hungry, I want lunch," I noticed that indeed, our bag lunches were looking worse for travel. I gave in at 11:30, and we found a large shady rock outside the aquarium and ate our sandwiches. Several people needed help opening packages, but at last we were all munching and for a moment, life was calm. We hit the head, and got drinks of water.

Refueled, we plunged into the aquarium (the building that houses the tanks, not the tank itself) and the madness resumed. Bigger crowds than ever shuffled through the dark halls, and the noise was deafening. Even if you could see your charge a few feet away, they likely couldn't hear you calling because of the throng of voices all around. We finally got out of there, passing through one of the cute zoo shops so the kids could see I was, in fact, not springing for toys for all. Once they comprehended this sad truth, they made their way outside again and we headed downhill to the polar bear exhibit. Outside the big bears' window, one of my kids announced that he was bleeding. Indeed, he was: lovely red droplets stood out on his shin. Did I have a tissue? Neosporin? Of course not. I'm the rebel mother who won't even join PTO, remember? Naturally I did not have the "good mom" tools of the trade. We found another restroom, I appointed the biggest kid as stand-in leader, and I rushed into the ladies' room to get a paper towel and soap. No towels! We're green!!! Blow your hands dry! So I had to stem the flow with toilet paper.

The boy survived and we went on. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.

Kids Kingdom is a part of the zoo specifically designed for kids. It has play areas, animals you can pet, crazy rope bridges and climbing apparatuses. The Kingdom also has several enclosed slides at its entrance. I hate enclosed areas and have never attempted to partake in these slides, but I know that even on less crowded days, the slides are popular. On this day, they were absolutely mobbed. The children in my little group had been talking about them and couldn't wait to get there; also, I'd happily noticed that my gang was getting a bit more tired and slowing down. I made them all promise to come right back to me and not leave the slide area. (Stupid, I know—I should have handcuffed them all to me and run in the other direction.) Anyway, the Orange Cats had been listening pretty well and staying together. I found an obvious place to stand and waited for them to return to me.

Minutes passed. The two little girls showed up at the bottom of one slide, and I quickly corralled them. One time down was enough. My son showed up. And the other two remained missing.

More minutes passed. It felt like at least ten. Maybe 7 or 8 minutes? I kept checking my watch. They were gone. I had the other three sit in front of me and we all scanned the crowd. I was praying they'd show up. Where were they? What could have happened? Would they have gone on to the next area without me? After we'd all agreed to stay here until we were together again? I scrunched around in my purse, found my wallet, pulled out the number of the teacher... I had to talk to her and find out the procedure for lost kids... There was another little lost kid just behind us, talking to a zoo worker and another adult, and the stricken look on the boy's face made me want to cry. Oh, why did this happen?! I trusted them to come back to me!

My mind raced ahead, to the moment of confrontation with the parents of the boys; would they shout at me? Call me irresponsible? What if someone kidnapped the kids? What if they were found by another teacher or parent, thus informing the world how ineffectual a chaperone I truly was? Would I be ostrasized from future trips? I was just dialing the teacher's cell phone when one of my waiting three hollered out to the missing boys. There they both were, coming away from the end of the biggest, tallest tube slide.

Oh, my Lord, I was so relieved. The two latecomers explained that the line for the big slide had been incredibly long. We hadn't been able to see that, because the whole Kingdom is cleverly designed in a stand of tall trees, most of which had foliage now. It's a great set-up for shade, a beautiful view when you're strolling along the elevated walkways above the whole place... but when you're missing two children? It is decidedly not pretty.

Well, we held hands for awhile after that. Then, after I'd finished having a heart attack, we made our way toward the final building, first stopping at another playground with—yep, you guessed it—more of the awful, horrible, infuriating tubes where kids can climb and hide. And one of my disappearing boys did his best trick again, while my other four students and I looked in vain at every tube opening. When he did finally emerge at the top of yet another slide, I waited at the bottom to nab him. Guess what? The little twit saw me and turned around to exit another way. Suffice it to say that he got to me my favorite little buddy and hand-holder for the remainder of the day, which was thankfully wrapping up. I might have sprained a couple of his fingers when he tried to re-enter tubeland, but at that point I figured it was worth the risk; missing the bus back to school wasn't much better than losing a kid or two.

We made it back in time, and found the sidewalk littered with weary 6-year-olds. The buses came, the kids climbed on, and I left with sore feet, salty brow, and a firm decision that I would not willingly participate in this particular event again. And then I thought, What if I don't go and there aren't enough adults? What if everyone has to keep an eye on 8 or 10 kids instead of 5, all because of me?

Well, I won't think about that now. I'll just keep researching hair colors, so as to best hide the additional grey hairs that I am certain to find after yesterday's adventure. I came away not just with more greys, but also with even more respect for people who can work with large groups of small kids. God bless 'em. Every one.

And for the love of pete, don't go to the zoo in May. Or early June. Or on holidays. Unless what I've just described sounds like a grand time to you, that is.

*I've changed our team name for privacy reasons. Because I'm anal like that.

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