Sunday, March 11, 2007

Journal from a School Trip to the UK: Feb. 28 - March 9

2007 International Studies Program Trip
Pine Point School

Day 1 and 2,
Wednesday-Thursday, Feb. 28-March 1
We fourteen students and four teachers enjoyed (or endured) a seemingly interminable first day and night of Pine Point's annual trip abroad. We left school around 1:00 pm, departed JFK at 6:45, landed in London at 1:00 am (Connecticut time), and kept the kids on the go for another sixteen hours, until nearly 11:00 pm (6:00 Connecticut time). This means we were awake (except for maybe two hours of sleep) for 36 consecutive hours. It was, in some ways, a dreadful time for me. I felt completely fatigued around 10:00 am London time, and then I had to keep pushing ahead for another thirteen hours. There were times when I thought I was living inside a nightmare. However, these 36 hours were also filled with excitement. We took a wild and entertaining trip on the Thames in a duck boat, a rattling old craft that seemed ready to capsize at any moment. We enjoyed two fine meals, did a considerable amount of sightseeing, and ended up at the Tower of London, at 9:30 on a damp evening, to watch the famous "ceremony of the keys". As tired as we were, it was still spellbinding to stand in the misty courtyard of the old Tower and watch the warders perform the same ceremony that has been performed each night for over 700 years. We shivered in the cold, but we also eagerly took in the grand atmosphere of this long-standing tradition.

Day 3
Friday, March 2
Today we moved from our somewhat cheerless hotel (the St. Athans) to a good Youth Hostel near Stratford-upon-Avon. On the way, we stopped for a visit at Warwick Castle, a grim structure representing over one thousand years of English history. We all enjoyed rambling through the enormous rooms, laughing and talking with friends, and learning many facts about medieval and renaissance life. I was still fairly tired from our first days on the road, so I sat for a while on a bench in the sunshine and took in the atmosphere of the place.
I suppose the student who most enjoyed this day was Rebekah, for this, I think, was the first real castle she had ever visited, and she was simply enchanted by the place. She had a smile on her face from the first moment she entered the gates, and I'm sure she was sad when we said we had to leave. She bought some precious souvenirs, which I noticed her clutching affectionately as she walked to our mini-bus. From the castle, we drove to our hostel, which was a well-kept, airy place in the midst of fields and meadows. We settled into our rooms, enjoyed a bit of a rest, held a productive English class, and ended the night with a not-especially-tasty fast food meal in the nearby village. By 11:00 pm, all Pine Pointers were fast asleep in their rooms out in the English countryside.

Day 4
Saturday, March 3
Today we hopped in the minibuses (cheerfully operated by Simon and his good friend Tarquin Wiggins) and drove up to a town called Ironbridge on the Severn River. Here we toured a restored industrial village of the early 19th century. We listened to old-time music in a Victorian pub, bought pastry goods at the old-fashioned bakery, and watched pigs and piglets rooting around in their muddy pens. We then strolled along the main street of Ironbridge, taking pictures of the bridge (the world's first cast-iron bridge, 1789) and listening to me read a few poems by the English poet A. E. Housman, who grew up in this famous Shropshire country. Back at the hostel, we enjoyed a hearty dinner in the dining room, held another English class, and retired fairly early and quietly.

Day 5
Sunday, March 5
Today we had a leisurely breakfast, broke camp at the hostel (we were all sorry to go), and headed for the Cadbury Chocolate factory a few miles away. Since it was not a school day, I didn't feel guilty about spending a good part of the day touring a place that specializes in making candy. I'm not sure we could call it an "academic" trip, but it certainly was a cheerful trip. We saw people stirring huge vats of chocolate, artists making chocolate shapes before our eyes, and life-size plastic figures moving around in a make-believe world of chocolate -- and most of us bought lots of chocolate. What impressed me most about the factory was the emphasis the company placed on worker happiness. Right from the start, way back in the 1820's, the Cadbury family has considered the welfare of their employees to be of prime importance. As I listened to the lecturer describe the company's commitment to the care of their workers, I thought about my late father, who felt exactly the same way about the people he employed in his small playground equipment business. After Cadbury World, we drove into Stratford-upon-Avon to pay our respects to the greatest of all English writers. We took a tour of Anne Hathaway's small cottage, and stopped for just a few moments at the birthplace of the Bard himself. I walked down the street in the rain and stood in quiet meditation for a few minutes in front of Shakespeare's first home. My students, understanding my need to do this, politely and patiently waited in the minibuses.

Day 6
Monday, March 5
We awoke around 7:30 at our new hotel in London, the Belgrove, and, after a quick breakfast, headed off under Holly's direction to the Tate Modern Gallery. For many, the center of attraction there were the enormous slides spiraling down through the five-story main hall. Screaming and laughing while lying on their backs, the kids corkscrewed down from both the third and fifth floors and landed with a thud on the ground floor where I was waiting. There was a spirit of excitement while they were sliding, but I got the feeling, afterwards, that many of them were a bit disappointed. The slides were, after all, little more than amusement park entertainments.
The students were not disappointed, however, by the art works they saw in the galleries upstairs. I toured with a small group and listened to their informative presentations about the artists they had studied, after which we spent a good amount of time on our own, studying any works that caught our attention. For many of us, I think, the art was strangely freeing. These artists created their imaginative and innovative works right from the heart, and looking at them perhaps helped us all to free up our own hearts. For myself, I sensed a looser, more serene feeling inside me when I walked out of the museum with the kids.
In the evening, my brother Joe met our group at Westminister Abbey, where we were given a private tour by an old friend of Simon's. Once again, I enjoyed the quietness and serenity of that thousand-year-old cathedral. As Joe and I and my colleagues and students walked around, the soft voice of our tour guide was almost drowned out by the intensity of the silence. There was a sense of absolute consecration all around us.

Day 7
Tuesday, March 6
Today, a sojourn in Dickens country, was a special one for me.
Simon and Tarquin drove us first to Greenwich, where we heard a scholarly and fervent lecture by a chronometer enthusiast named Leslie Howard, and then we motored over to the old village of Rochester. This was a town that Dickens knew well. He often walked here from his home at Gad's Hill, and the consensus of scholarly opinion is that some of the key scenes in Great Expectations were set here. We first had lunch at the quaint Dickens Café, then walked through a small museum dedicated to Dickens and his writing. We ended our tour of the village in front of a large red brick mansion called Restoration House, but which the author calls Satis House in Great Expectations. We stood in front of it for a few moments, perhaps recalling scenes from the book, perhaps comparing the house in front of us to the one we imagined as we were reading. After a few minutes, we moved up some steps to a small park where we had a better view of the house, and I read aloud some appropriate passages from the book.
We then drove out a narrow country lane to the small church in the village of Cooling, where a cemetery sits quietly under some shade trees. This is the place Dickens was thinking of when he wrote the first few pages of the novel, and it was a joy to me (and, I think, some of the students) to stand there and read those pages aloud as a quiet wind blew in from the marshes and the river and the distant sea.
We ended the day with a drive to the coastal town of Dover, where we saw a stormy sunset over the famous white cliffs and enjoyed a filling meal at a seaside restaurant.

Day 8
Wednesday, March 7
For me, this was "Shakespeare Day", and a thrilling one, too.
However, before we did Shakespeare, we did art, and that, too, was thrilling for many of us. As Holly led us on a scholarly tour of several rooms in the National Gallery, I was astonished (as I often am in museums) by the beauty of the paintings. To me, the Impressionist paintings (in an exhibit called "From Monet to Picasso") seemed effervescent and totally enriching. I went from one to the other in amazement at the straightforward energy and beauty of the works. I had the opportunity to chat with several students as we walked around, and they, too, were feeling a similar sense of wonder. Upstairs in the Renaissance area, I was again astounded, but in a more muted and subtle way. These old paintings didn't make me want to shout in admiration, but they did impress me with their simple loveliness. I especially admired the soft use of colors like purple and pink, particularly in the flowing clothes of the people.
After lunch, we traveled over to Southark where we enjoyed a private guided tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theater, and then were led through an intense 60-minute acting workshop by one of the Royal Shakespeare Company actors. It was an exhilarating experience for one and all. We teachers took part right beside our students. 14-year-old Marissa and I were partners for one exercise. I had to play the role of a slave (like Caliban) who keeps saying "Yes", and Marissa was the master (Prospero) who had to keep saying "No" -- and she said it in an increasingly commanding manner. I felt quite intimidated by the natural clout of my young student.
In the evening, we saw a wonderful production of The Tempest, in which Patrick Stewart played Prospero. The Pine Point group had excellent seats in the Novello Theater, and I think we all enjoyed the performance. Since we have spent many weeks studying the play (reading and discussing every line and footnote), the students were entirely ready to see how this famous play looks onstage. Many of us were surprised, even shocked, by the directorial touches (Ariel was a wispy, wraithlike man, and the setting was an icepack somewhere in the Arctic), but we all were swept away by the force of Mr. Stewart's performance. In fact, we rushed outside to wait at the stage door to try to secure his autograph. We failed, but we did get to ask the actor who brilliantly played Caliban to pose with some of our kids, and he genially consented. Tomorrow at our morning class we'll surely have a rousing discussion about the production.

Day 9
Thursday, March 8
Today, the final one in the United Kingdom, was a day of gratifying leisure. We accomplished a lot, but always in a carefree and indolent manner. Because the trip was nearing its end, I think we all felt a little wistful on this last day in England, so we teachers made sure that this was a day for pleasure and pure exuberance.
We first walked across the street from our hotel to visit the British Library. We didn’t have any bookish goals in mind, just a short, informal visit to a very significant institution. We simply wanted to give the kids a feeling for this august building that houses so many extraordinary manuscripts. In a “scavenger hunt” activity, Gary had them look for a few important items, which they did with both eagerness and orderliness. Now and then they rushed outside to show their list of objects to Gary, and then went back to continue their quiet search. It seemed like the perfect way to introduce them to the library without also boring them.
We then rode the tube down to Trafalgar Square, where we luxuriated in the warmest sunshine we’d felt all week. There were hundreds of people milling around in the mild air, and our kids mingled among them in their happiness to be outside in weather that was, for a change, not damp and chilly. After enjoying lunch outside among the stone lions and fountains on the square, we went in small groups up to Covent Garden and spent some time being lighthearted shoppers. Gary and I wandered among the stalls and shops until we found a small table just perfect for an afternoon cappuccino.
That evening we capped off our adventure in the UK with a visit to the home office of Reuters, the largest news service in the world, where our tour guide was David Schlesinger, a Pine Point alum. Just by luck, Gary had arranged this last-minute tour, and it turned out to be, for some of us, one of the highlights of the entire trip. David spoke to the students in a knowledgeable yet modest manner, and also politely answered questions and showed us around the offices and newsroom. Afterwards, several of the students told me that this brief visit had renewed their interest in journalism, and one boy even remarked that he was now thinking seriously of becoming a journalist rather than a career Navy man!

Day 10
Friday, March 9
Today our weary band of travelers squeezed our luggage onto a rush-hour train at 9:00 am and traveled to Heathrow for the long flight home. I stuffed myself into a car with three of the girls and we rode silently along until we reached the countryside and the crowd thinned out. After many days in the teeming city, it was comforting to reach the open spaces again. Before long, we were aloft in our British Airways flight across the Atlantic, headed for families and our own familiar beds. The flight was smooth. Most of the kids passed the time watching movies, writing in their journals, or quietly talking. A few of us slept, perhaps dreaming of Shakespeare or chocolate or keys to castles or small church yards beside misty marshes.

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