Picture this: You've planned since October to take your fifth-grade class on one of those one-day, cheapo flights to Cleveland for a fun field trip, something just a little out of the ordinary.
You arrange for most of the 93 kids and parent chaperones to sleep overnight in your school -- the city's Madison Square Elementary.
You roust their sleepy heads out of National Guard-supplied cots at 4 a.m., having warned them for months the chartered buses will arrive to take them to the airport at 5 a.m. sharp for their 6:10 a.m. flight. No stragglers!
And now, picture this: It's yesterday morning, the kids are up early, dressed, still rubbing their eyes, talking nervously and excitedly -- and the buses never show up.
"It was my worst nightmare," says Doretha Galloway, Madison Square's adventurous principal who saw this trip as a golden educational opportunity for the students -- most of whom had never been out of Baltimore, let alone on an airplane.
Well, it turned out to be educational all right. The missing buses were just the beginning of a very long day of trials for this plucky group -- a day that featured lost kids, a hospital emergency, one missed plane, several passenger bumpings, a convoy of taxis and mini-vans, a really nice pair of anteaters and a group of grumpy business travelers charmed out of their socks by the kids from Baltimore.
Cutting to the chase, it all ended surprisingly happily, although the long-planned trip seemed all but doomed before it began yesterday morning. "We got up at 4 o'clock just for nothing," moaned Steven Beasley in the darkened Madison Square lobby as Ms. Galloway announced that for some reason the two buses she had been told were chartered by the school transportation department from Woodlawn Motor Coach Inc. never showed up.
Later in the day Woodlawn and the transportation department would point fingers at each other, but with only 20 minutes to make their plane, none of that mattered at the moment.
"I won't disappoint these children," said Ms. Galloway, whose team of teachers and parents had held bake sales and student drives to raise money for students who couldn't afford the $51 that covered the airfare and a visit to the Cleveland Zoo.
She quickly organized parents, neighbors and volunteer chaperones into a convoy. Linda Kelly, whose son Christopher was scheduled to go on the trip, ran home and got her mini-van. Others grabbed their cars, packed in the kids and off rushed the caravan, arriving at BWI just in time to miss their Southwest flight to Cleveland.
Momentarily stunned, Ms. Galloway and crew brightened when Southwest offered to put some of them on the 8:25 to Cleveland. It meant a two-and-a-half-hour wait -- not easy for 56 rambunctious fifth-graders.
But it wasn't just the kids who crowded the terminal windows watching planes take off and land. "Very few of these children have ever flown, and they're terrified," said Donna Money, one of three Madison Square fifth-grade teachers. "But a lot of their parents have never flown either."
Crowded up against the window the conversation was filled with 10-year-old anxiety. "You ever see that movie 'Alive?' asked Evan Turner, referring to the recent film about a rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes. "It sure don't make you want to get on a plane."
Overhearing this, with some discomfort, was Lissa Riley, who was putting up a brave front so that her daughter, who had never flown, would not be afraid. "I'm trying to be cool for her." she said. "But I'm scared."
A few feet away Shannae Logan admitted that she hadn't slept well in the school the night before because of nightmares. "I had the butterflies," she said. "I prayed we wouldn't crash."
But moments later, with most of them packed aboard a Southwest 737, they had the chance to test their true mettle. So did a group of about 60 business travelers, unaware until that moment that so many youngsters would be joining them for their morning hop to Cleveland.
The dismay was all over their grim faces as the kids poured down the aisles. Then came one of those rare moments. Imagine almost an entire planeload of people who have never seen the airline attendant give the seat-belt demonstration or never heard those strangely disconcerting words, "In the unlikely event of a water landing, you can use your seat cushions as flotation devices." That this did not seem to offer the solace intended was evident in the ever widening sets of eyes up and down the aisles.
And then a truly magic moment. As the plane roared down the runway and lifted off, the children let loose with giggles, sudden cheering, wild laughter and applause. It was a moment of high incongruity among so many jaded veterans of flight, and for one brief moment every person aboard the plane was doubled over with the kind of laughter only wonder can inspire.
"This plane ride will have an impact on their lives that will last forever," said fifth-grade teacher Gregory McNeil, who dreamed up this trip. "Life is not something you can just get from a book. I've told them to grab for the gusto. I want them to see the sky's the limit."
In the air, some of them weren't so sure about the sky part. "At first I was scared but now I'm as calm as I don't know what," allowed Javon Tatum, five minutes into his first-ever flight. He then shifted nervously in his seat and tried to speak reassuringly -- at least to himself. "The doors aren't going to open. I know that."
Once on the ground in Cleveland a group of teachers -- including Ms. Galloway -- who had been bumped for space considerations to a cooperating USAir flight, held a brief, teary reunion with their students from the Southwest flight.
But then the trek was on to the zoo. This was, after all, the purpose of the trip. They had been studying about rain forests and conservation for the past month.
But the bus had no sooner arrived at the zoo than a security staffer relayed word that two children had been left behind at the airport.
"That was my other nightmare," groaned Ms. Galloway. "That someone would be left behind."
A bus and teacher were dispatched for the two students -- who were brought safely to the zoo -- while the others began their tour.
Knowing that Cleveland would likely be much colder than Baltimore -- indeed it was -- most of the children had worn heavy clothing. Once inside the steamy rain forest though, one of the fifth-graders, Richard Silver, fell ill. An ambulance was summoned and he was taken to a nearby hospital, accompanied by Ms. Galloway. While many of the students seemed oblivious to the situation, the concern was obvious in the tears on the faces of several teachers. "The thing is not to get discouraged," said Mr. McNeil, who is also a Baptist preacher. "Let's see if we still can't get some learning out of this."
Yet some worried that Richard would need to remain in a hospital in Cleveland. Word circulated that he had been a very close friend of Tauris Johnson, the Madison Square fifth-grader shot and killed last year by a stray bullet from a drug dealer. Richard had grieved heavily for his friend and some thought that perhaps this spell at the rain forest was an emotional reaction.
But that was not the case after all. Seems Richard had put on five shirts that morning, along with heavy long underwear and had simply gotten too hot. He was declared by doctors fit enough to take a quick tour of the rain forest, where a highlight was a pair of handsome, giant anteaters -- something you don't see every day, even in Cleveland. Then the bus whisked everybody back to the airport.
"This has been a learning experience," sighed Donna Money, admitting something that seemed unlikely an hour earlier: "I'll probably be laughing about it tonight."
They were certainly all laughing by the time their Southwest flight touched down at 5:30 p.m. at BWI. Another roar of applause and sustained cheering. Across the aisle from her daughter, Lissa Riley whispered her happiness: "One piece!"
"For a moment there," Ms. Galloway said to the planeload of students, "I didn't think we would get through this trip."
And though she didn't say it, the lesson was clear.
The anteaters were neat, but what is likely to remain with these children for a long time has less to do with the rain forest at the Cleveland Zoo than with Murphy's Law. Because just about anything that could have happened on this roller coaster ride, did.