If you can believe Wikipedia, the term “Hell on Wheels” was “…used to describe the itinerant collection of flimsily assembled gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that sprung up as Union Pacific railroad workers… constructed the American transcontinental railroad back in the 1860s.” I am not sure I believe this. I think the term was coined by a mother like me who got roped into chaperoning a preschool class on a trip to a roller skating rink.
And take my advice, if you too get roped into something like this, by all means bring your video camera. I wish I had remembered to bring mine.
I could have, and probably should have, driven my son to the roller rink myself, in my own car and with relative peace and quiet, but it turned out that one of the preschool vans (we needed three vans to transport all of the children) had an extra seat available and my son wanted us to “ride with his friends.” The extra seat turned out to be the one spot where only an adult could sit because the teachers couldn’t put a booster seat there as the seatbelt in that spot was broken. And that wouldn’t be safe for a child, but the teachers thought it was perfectly fine for a grown up like me. Although my son was certain we should ride in the van he wasn’t entirely convinced of the safety of me being without a seatbelt and insisted on holding my hand the entire way there. If we crashed, he was going to hold me in place. I imagine his reasoning was not unlike that of my mother’s long ago and how she used to throw her arm out across my chest when she was driving and had to slam on the brakes. When I was a kid, mothers’ arms were the precursor to today’s air bags and my mom’s right arm kept me, (yes I was sitting in the front seat, but hey, we didn’t know any better back then) from hitting the windshield when she had to brake suddenly. Or at least it did most of the time. And so I found myself relying upon my son to keep me secure and in place if the van crashed and rolled. But luckily, it didn’t.
Have you ever ridden in a van with 13 five year olds? Thirteen 5 year olds who won’t shut up? (“Awwww,” I can hear my son saying. “You said shut up. That’s a bad word…”)
Preschool has a system for this. The kids in the van are allowed to talk for five minutes to get the talking “out of their system,” then the teacher (in this case, Ms. K!) who is driving the van, turns on the radio. When the music plays, the kids are supposed to “make a bubble” which is code for “shut your mouth.” Only on this particular day, the kids weren’t exactly following this rule, and the teacher wasn’t exactly enforcing it. And I didn’t have any Tylenol or earplugs with me.
If you haven’t
enjoyed suffered the privilege of riding in a van with 13 children at once, I will tell you it was like traveling back in time to witness a dozen times over the bickering of my brother and I in our youth as we sat fought in the back seat of the car for 17 hours straight on our summer vacations to Florida.
Conversations in the van swirled in the air like smoky complaints and accusations (because they were) and they sounded like this:
“Ms. K! Derek touched me!”
“I did not!”
“Yes you did!”
“Ms. K! Victoria is looking out the back window! She’s not looking forward!”
“No, you stop!”
“Hey Snags’ Mom! Josh stuck his tongue out at me!”
“I said stop it!”
“Ms. K! Jenny is looking at me!”
“Snags’ Mom! Paul put his shoe on me!”
“Ms. K! Victoria poked me!”
“Did not! Did so!”
“Stop touching me!”
But unlike my parents all those years ago, Ms. K! did not threaten to turn the van around and go back home. She just kept sighing and driving while I sat hostage in the broken seat belt spot half hoping the van would roll so I could be thrown out a window to somewhere quiet.
Eventually, even the children got tired of their bickering and they decided to play a rousing game called “Yellow Car” of which the sole object was to scream “YELLOW CAR!” any time they spotted a yellow car. And here I’d just like to say “Thank you, Jesus!” and “Praise the Lord!” to all of the car makers who rightly decided yellow wasn’t that great a color for cars and for only making a few of them at best. But woe to you Ford with your Mustangs… This could be worse, I kept telling myself. We could be playing “blue car” or “red car” or simply “CAR!”
Somewhere in the middle of Yellow Car the children got bored and decided the road was hilly enough to remind them of roller coasters and all at once (as a collective!) they all threw their hands into the air and yelled “Hands Up!” before leaning rapidly and swaying violently from side to side, as if attempting to tip the van. Then, as the road began a descent they’d scream, “Hands Down!” and put their hands down. Only this, in my mind, was reverse of what you might actually do on a roller coaster. I thought anyone who’d actually been on a roller coaster would keep their hands up on the descent, because that’s where the thrill is. But I didn’t argue the point because I was starting to feel a bit sick from the small space and the yelling and the hands flying everywhere.
After what seemed like years off my life, but was probably only 30 minutes or so, we arrived at the skating rink.
As we entered the building each child was handed a little blue ticket, the kind of ticket you might be given at a carnival and that you’d turn over to the ride attendant as you got on the tilt-a-whirl, perhaps. Immediately, the teacher took the tickets from the children and traded them (the tickets, not the children, but imagine how different this story would be if that were the case…) in for pairs of roller skates at the rental desk. I stayed with the children and helped them put on their skates and tie their laces.
Tying laces… whoever planned this field trip must have forgotten that five year olds today don’t know how to tie laces because they don’t wear shoes that have laces. Their shoes have Velcro. But roller skates don’t have Velcro. They have laces. And I had to tie them. All um… let’s see… 3 vans with 13 kids each… that’s yes, 39 pairs of skates or 78 individual roller skates (one for each foot) to tie… Make that 76. Sydney brought her own skates. She could work them herself, because they didn’t have laces. They had buckles.
I went down the row and tied the laces. And then the children stood up.
And then they fell down.
And then they stood up again and somehow maneuvered their way onto the rink. Where they fell down…. again. SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT!
It was surreal. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn there was a sniper hiding behind one of the trashcans in the snack bar. A sniper with rubber bullets, taking out each child, one by one as soon as they stepped off the carpeting and onto the smooth polished floor of the rink. Because they ALL WENT DOWN. Each and every one of them. Except Sydney. Her skates, the ones with the buckles, also had wheels that could be locked in one direction. She could only march forward, but that was good because she didn’t fall. It was like watching cartoon characters slip on a banana peel, over and over and over and over again. And again.
At one point I surveyed the rink and saw a sea of splayed bodies down for the count. A few lone survivors, mostly teachers, myself, and Sydney, were left skating around the fallen.
Whose idea was this? I wondered. And why isn’t anybody filming this? I should have brought my video camera. At the very least, this scene, this giant accident of roller skating crashes needed to be investigated by Eye Team on our News at Eleven. They needed to uncover the truth behind the trip. Who was responsible? Shouldn’t someone have inquired if the children knew how to skate before turning them loose on a slippery floor without proper medical supervision?
But we were lucky. There were a few scrapes, a few bruises, a few kisses and band aids needed, but nothing broken. It could have been worse. I could have been on this trip with the senior citizens from the retirement home down the street. There would have been broken hips with that crowd for sure.
But the preschoolers, they were pretty game. They fell down or got knocked down or skated down and they got back up again and again. It was like hanging out with Chumbawamba, except the only thing around to drink was bottled water.
And then there was my son. He, along with one or two other children, found it much easier to simply crawl around the rink on their hands and knees. My son chased after Sydney this way. It was pathetic. It was like watching a legless stalker drag himself thru the weeds after a pretty woman walking a dog. “Get up!” I told him whenever I skated past. But he would have none of it.
After a time, Sydney took pity on him. She offered to teach him how to skate. And somehow she’d managed to retain her blue ticket, probably because she brought her own skates. She told my son if he did as she instructed and learned to skate, she’d give him the blue ticket. She convinced him the ticket had value. It was, she told him, a ticket that would enable him to play the video games in the rink’s arcade. And ALL the children wanted to play the video games. Only none of them had quarters. Many of them took to moping and frowning. They couldn’t skate well, and now they couldn’t play video games either. But for Snags, there was the promise of Sydney and that blue ticket…
So my son bravely stood up and readied himself for Sydney’s skating lessons. From what I could tell, the lessons required that Snags follow Sydney around the carpeted area that surrounded the rink floor and then across the slick divide of linoleum by the snack bar before the carpeting began again.
“Help me, mom!” Snags cried. “Sydney said I have to do this FIVE times before she’ll give me the ticket. I’m tired!”
“So stop,” I said.
“Can’t. Must. Have. That. Ticket!” he spluttered, somewhat out of breath as he desperately tried to keep up with his instructor.
I tried to convince him that he didn’t need the ticket, that it was not the key to the video games, and that he needed quarters for those, but he wouldn’t listen.
After their third time around like this, Sydney marched up to me and announced, pointedly, “He’s a Level One!” and then, over her shoulder to Snags she demanded, “Come ON!”
Another child on the field trip thought it important to come and tell me whenever a song had a dirty word in it. Hollaback Girl he told me, had a “bad word with the letter H in it.” He claimed to know all of the bad words in each song that played through the rink’s sound system, but he said he wasn’t going to tell me what they were. I guess he didn’t want to get in trouble. “Sometimes they beep the word out,” he explained. “And sometimes,” he continued “my dad sings the bad words in the car when they play the songs on the radio. That’s how I know what all the bad words are.”
We spent four hours at the rink during which time I too learned all the songs that had bad words in them. Those words came in handy later because I needed something to mutter under my breath when nearly all 39 children decided they needed to use the bathroom. Have you ever helped a child who cannot skate, no let me clarify that, who cannot even stand on skates, make their way to the bathroom while they (and you) are wearing skates? It’s not an easy task, and it’s not a pretty sight. Especially the puddle of pee that covered the floor inside one stall of the ladies room. I’m not sure how it got there. But boys were using the ladies room too, so that might explain it. I imagine more than a few of them rolled backwards while urinating. I don’t really know. I also don’t know why we didn’t think to have them remove their skates before using the bathroom. Probably we didn’t want their socks to get wet with pee.
What I do know is once the kids made their way out of the stalls I had to hold their hands and help them skate to the sinks and OMG! YUCK! YUCK! YUCK! I was touching hands of children who had just used the bathroom and most likely had peed upon themselves. And it turned out there wasn’t any soap. And only one sink worked, and on that, only the HOT water worked. So the children cried about the hot water. And then there weren’t any paper towels. So I had dirty hot little wet pee germy hands on roller skates gripping my highly superior germ phobic hands as I helped navigate them out of the bathroom and back onto the carpeted floor so they could go back out onto the rink and fall down again.
In the end, Snags got that blue ticket. He managed to complete his “skating lessons” per Sydney’s approval and she did as she had promised: she gave him the coveted ticket. It was wrinkled and wet and she handed it over along with a broken rubber band that I fear she might have found on the floor of the bathroom. I shuddered to think that’s why the ticket was wet. I have to say though, Snags was very proud of himself as he climbed into the van for the ride back to preschool. And my hands were itching furiously with some kind of skating rink dirty bathroom germs. But the return trip was quiet. All 13 children fell blessedly asleep. Until the van pulled into the preschool’s parking lot…