I'm on another airplane.
But this time, I'm flying west and back to Denver, and within three rows of me are five 6th graders, six 4th graders, and three of their moms. Actually, they're now, officially, a mix of 7th and 5th graders as of Friday, when the school year ended.
Except they all missed the last four days of class before summer vacation, because these two sets of kids were competitors at Destination Imagination Global Finals, in Knoxville, Tennessee. I won't belabor you with a long description of DI (you can follow the link for more information). Suffice to say it's a sort of creative problem-solving competition. A geek bowl of the highest order, with kids from elementary school through college spending months planning, writing, and practicing skits or activities that must adhere to very unique and detailed specifications.
Simone's team, made up of five kids from her middle school, has been working since last fall; meeting at least once per week, then twice or more as they approached Regionals, where they managed to take first place in their specific challenge, qualifying for States. At that point, their team manager, a driven, focused, mom coaching both Simone's team (with her eldest son, Simone's longtime buddy) and the younger team (with her other son), emailed parents to let them know they needed to start thinking about chaperoning the kids to Globals, if the kids placed at the state level. She believed both teams had a high probability of getting there.
Not thinking too hard about it, I offered to accompany Simone's team. It sounded fun to fly to another city with them, get to know them for a couple days, and watch them compete.
So we were settling in at the States awards ceremony in a giant university gymnasium, when the team captain looked at me and said, "You're the only parent going with the 6th grade team, but we'll have a couple moms coming with the 4th graders. Are you okay with that?"
"Sure," I said. "Sounds fun."
"Great," she responded. "It's a life-changing experience for the kids to be there in Knoxville for the week, and to compete on a global level."
"Uh, the week?" I asked. In Tennessee?
She nodded, matter-of-fact in her answer. "Yep. We'll fly out that Tuesday morning and return Sunday afternoon."
"Oh." I said.
"Yes. We'll be bunking in the dorms."
Uh..wait a minute...
"It'll cost about $1,200 for you, but Simone's trip will likely be subsidized to some degree by the school district."
Are you kidding me?
"Still good to join us?
What was I going to say? No other parents had volunteered, and I'd already agreed to do it.
"Of course," I said. "It’ll be an adventure."
She laughed and nodded knowingly. What she (and Simone) didn't know was that, as the judges announced the winners in the team's division, a part of me secretly hoped they'd get a nice, respectable, fourth-place showing.
I know. I'm terrible. And I felt a serious pang of guilt about it.
So when they qualified, and screamed and jumped up and down and hugged each other, I had no choice to but to smile big, give high fives all around, and hug Simone with pride in the fruits of her hard work.
And Simone was so stoked that I'd be joining them. "My friends think you're the coolest dad, ever," she said. "We're going to have so much fun together!"
But the oh shit feeling never went away. In fact, it grew as I learned more about the conditions of the trip.
Last Tuesday, I met Simone, her mom, and the rest of the team and chaperones at the airport at 8am for a 10:30 flight. In an email the week before, I'd given Simone's mother several options for getting the girl to DIA — meet me there; drop her at my place by 7:15; or, which would be truly helpful, pick me up and take us both there, so I wouldn't have to leave my car parked outside for almost a week.
Her response: "I will drive Simone to the airport."
I’d known it was a long-shot, but, damn, it would have been kind and human for Simone's mom to suck it up and give me a lift, considering the sacrifice in work, time, and money I was making to be there for our girl. The simple brutality of the response — civil yet cold — made me laugh out loud. After nine years of being divorced (longer than we were together), we get along just fine. But every so often I get a stark reminder that we'll never be friends.
Chivvying 11 kids and four adults through the airport — checking luggage, guiding everyone through security, taking care of bathroom breaks and keeping a crew of over-excited youngsters calm before dealing with the fun of boarding and seat assignments — was just a preview of what was to come. Without thinking about it, I switched into dad/camp counselor/teacher mode, doing my part to corral the kids, keep them moving forward, and make sure everyone's stuff stayed with them.
Fortunately, these two talented teams are made up of smart, creative, kind children, which made the job much easier than it might have been. The two hour flight to Nashville went without incident, and the three-hour bus ride to Knoxville was painless. So when we arrived outside the recreation center at the University of Tennessee, I'd been lulled into a sort of pleasant complacency.
The plan was for us to leave our stuff on the bus, and while the team manager registered, we parents would watch the kids as they ate pizza and joined the pre-opening festival taking place.
We'd expected rain, heat, and humidity to greet us when we excited the bus. What we didn't expect was water guns and kiddie pool fill-up stations at the pre-opening party. And once the sun went down, we had 11 shivering kids, soaked through to their underwear, more than ready to get warm and dry. But registration took nearly two hours, and it wasn't until sometime after 9pm when the bus finally dumped us off at the bottom of a steep hill leading up to the dorms we'd call home for the next five nights. We helped the kids drag, lug, and hoist their baggage (plus props and fragile structures) up the hill, with more shivering in the air conditioned chill as the team captain sorted out rooms at the front desk.
I was assigned a "suite" with the two other girls on the team in one bedroom, and Simone and me in the other. When we got upstairs, we found two prison-like cells connected by an entryway. The rooms were grim, chilly (the air conditioning was cranked high), and grotty, each with two metal cots hosting wafer-thin mattresses that had some miles on them. Each room had a vanity with a sink, but the weird thing was that the entryway was where the shared shower (with a somewhat opaque door) and the little toilet room were situated. Made for some potentially awkward situations, with that shower located between the front door and the individual room doors.
The floors were made up of gritty, cold, slippery tiles, and on each mattress rested a plastic-wrapped bedroll, containing sheets, a threadbare blanket, and two raggedy towels. A microwave and mini-fridge sat plunked in the middle of each room.
I'm pretty sure Simone is not looking at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville as a contender for college.
Each girl took a hot shower, but getting warm afterward was nearly impossible, and by the time I had them all settled in, they were shivering under their blankets. Exhaustion took over, and the kids crashed hard. It took a little longer for me to find a comfortable position on my little cot, but I finally settled into a doze myself, though I was cold the entire night.
Morning arrived with a vengeance, but it didn’t take much more than the promise of a hot breakfast to get the girls (and me) up and out. Along with the rest of the kids and the moms, we wandered across a courtyard to the cafeteria where we’d be consuming most of our meals for the next several days. Let’s just say that the food was not impressive, and waiting in long lines to get to desiccated proteins and overcooked veggies made the week feel even longer.
The next several days kind of ran together in a haze of hustling kids to different parts of the enormous campus, shoveling down food with a resigned sense that the calories were important, and trying not to overheat once the sun did find its way back to Tennessee. For the kids, it was a grand, exhausting adventure, and though there were minor meltdowns and moments of acting out, all eleven of the youngsters handled the trip fairly well (Simone’s team placed 16th and 4th in the world for their two challenges).
It wiped me out. Between the sleeping conditions, the long hours on our feet, the laughably horrible food, and the feeling that I was the human equivalent of a sheepdog, barking to keep the kids together - preventing them from falling behind or getting lost in a crowd — left me feeling like I’d never recover.
But that’s irrelevant, because I was there for the kids, and they had a magical experience due to some incredibly cool and coordinated programing by the Destination Imagination staff.
And I did learn a lot about Simone on this trip, and for that I am very grateful. Watching her interact with her teammates, especially the two other girls, was eye opening. Simone was both the outsider and part of the team during the course of the week — the two other girls have been best friends forever, and they’re very alike in their pop tween aesthetic and interests. For the most part, they did a decent job of including Simone, but there were plenty of times when the disconnect was very evident — whether it was in sartorial choices or teen idols. Simone was happy to be brought into their circle of silliness, but only to a point, and then she’d (consciously, I think), roll her eyes and step out of the bubble, leaving the other girls to their New Directions gossip. With the two boys, she could banter about video games and The Avengers (pin trading is a huge deal at Globals, and Simone went after Avengers pins, highly coveted by many, with a shrewdness that was both nuanced and childlike), but boys are physical beings, and when she got stabbed in the foot by a needle one of them had come across, she put distance between herself and them. So she was part of the team, and contributed in a big way in competition, but with the genders split the way they were, she was also an outsider.
Which is probably good for her in the long run, because she’s learning early on how to fit in and work with a team when appropriate, but how to maintain a lock on her own personality and preferences. Simone is only in middle school, which means she has much bigger social challenges ahead of her, but I loved seeing my headstrong girl tenaciously be herself.
Of course, it also breaks my heart, and there were plenty of times when I wiped away tears for her and the heartache that she faces. I’d chalk up my weepiness to exhaustion, but those of us who were the coolest kids very few of our peers appreciated know exactly what I was feeling. Isn’t that right, @fitzwillie?
So I don’t regret the lost work time, the expense, and the privations of the trip at all. I’m not sure I’d volunteer again, if the opportunity presented itself, but the chance to grow closer to my little girl and have a peek into her middle school world was without price.
And, of course, daddy points never hurt.