Early in my career I had the displeasure of working with a very prestigious private school in Southern California. I say displeasure because the teachers had absolutely no control over the students, who were running the show. (I was to find out that the teachers and administration were actually afraid to discipline the students because the parents would complain and send their children elsewhere!) It was impossible to have fun with these students as I was always in a crisis management mode.
It had become a dangerous and intolerable situation, but I couldn’t get the head teacher, who was on my bus, to acknowledge that his charges were little miscreants and vandals. Safety is a major consideration with me and I could envision several liability issues. Each destination that we visited was followed by several complaints from the venues and vendors. We were even thrown out of a restaurant as a result of a food fight and disrespectful behavior towards the waitstaff! I was particularly vexed when they were running around, willy-nilly, trying to catch chickens at Stratford Hall. Stratford Hall, the home of the Lees, is close to where my parents lived and I knew everyone there! More importantly, it’s bad for the chickens!
The evenings at the hotel were horrors and we had to employ extra guards after the first night!
We were visiting Washington, DC at a time when there was relatively light security and more accessibility inside the Capitol and other buildings. (Ah! The good old days!) I’m from New York City and don’t like to stand on line and I prefer to take shortcuts! I knew almost every tunnel and passageway to and through the Capitol and used it to my advantage; my groups benefited from it. (I still take a great deal of pride in the quality of my tours, and I had a good reputation where the Capitol Police and Doorkeepers were concerned.) As a result, I was never stopped from going through corridors and bypassing other groups! In fact, most staff working in the Capitol thought I was a Legislative Aide from California since I dressed professionally and never wore my tour company’s badge! The other 80 eighth graders from the school had already lined up in the noonday sun and would be entering within two hours, standing the whole time!
The working relationship that I had with the head teacher was rapidly deteriorating; I had lost all respect for him. And let’s not even talk of the students’ attitudes! But things really came to a head when I was on my way to the new Hart Senate Office Building, so we could get to some restrooms, an air-conditioned area, and a ride on the Senate Subway.
But they were so obnoxious! They ran across the street against the light, and continued to skip and shout halfway down the block in front of me. Clueless lemmings! I stopped, looked at them, assessed the situation, realized that desperate measures were warrented, and promptly sat down on a dirty, hot sidewalk in front of the Dirksen Building while crossing my arms in defiance!
You see, my daddy taught me that if you are having trouble with a group of people, do something outrageous to get their attention. He used to tell a story about an obstinate donkey that wouldn’t move. Everyone tried his hand, but the animal was not about to budge. Finally, a man came up with a 2x4 and hit the poor donkey right between the eyes!. The startled animal quickly got up and moved. The moral: first you have to get its attention! (I don’t advocate that action on animals or children; it’s just a parable.)
Imagine seeing a middle-aged woman wearing a strand of pearls, a linen suit, hose, and high heels sitting on a public sidewalk on Capitol Hill during a hot summer day! After a while the lemmings realized there was no leader and turned back to see this odd sight. (The teacher was still strolling far behind and had not even crossed the street!) Soon a crowd of students surrounded me. I didn’t move, and I didn’t speak.
There was absolute silence! It seemed like an eternity!
Finally, one of the students summoned enough courage to ask me why I was sitting on the sidewalk.
I expressed my resentment and embarrassment; I simply did not want to be seen with them. Association with them would ruin my good reputation! And they weren’t worth it!
Because I believe that every moment can be a teaching moment, I told them what a sit down strike was and that I was protesting, as is my right!
By now the teacher caught up to us and went 'ballistic' when he saw me! I suggested very calmly that he ought to go to the Library of Congress and do some research! He stormed off and called my tour company to have me replaced. (This was before cell phones and I was glad to get rid of him!)
The students and I entered into a series of negotiations. (It became obvious to me that many of their parents must have been lawyers, agents and producers by the quality of the exchange!) I told them of my plan to give them a more comfortable tour experience, and best of all, to cut in front of the other two busloads from their school. (If truth be told, I was doing it for my comfort and convenience. Who wants to stand outside in ninety degree weather and high humidity with 147 eighth graders for two hours, when there is a better option? It would be insanity not to go for the other option!)
What did they have to do to achieve that? I explained very succinctly and in detail what would be expected of them, otherwise, I would simply stick them in line for the public tour, while I went off somewhere to put up my feet and enjoy a couple of iced teas.
It was put to a vote. Unanimous! I cautioned that one infraction would cancel the deal. They understood that I meant business! Two fellows politely helped me up. I had collected a wad of hot, oozing gum on the back of my skirt!
We entered efficiently and they stood inside quietly. That, in itself, saved one and a half hours of waiting time. I immediately noticed my senior Senator from Virginia, John Warner, standing with three other Senators. John Warner knew me professionally and that my brother was attending VMI with the intention of going intro the Navy. (My brother has since retired as a full Commander!) I introduced him, as well as the other Senators, to the students. One of the students knew that Senator Warner was married to Elizabeth Taylor and thought that was so cool! Senator Warmer asked me about my brother and the kids were extremely impressed! Senator Warner's colleagues complimented the group and offered to get us into the Senate Gallery to hear them speak on the floor before a vote! We walked the narrow, air conditioned passages under the Capitol after our Senate Subway ride. That saved another 45 minutes because we got in front of several groups!
After the speeches and two votes, we took the connecting hall from the Senate to the House side and we had a lively discussion in the House Chamber concerning government and bills. They were marvelously quiet climbing up and down the interior staircases. Now, onto the Old House/Statuary Hall/Whispering Stones and then into the Rotunda, and Old Senate, for all the art, architecture, and history! (I preferred visiting the Rotunda last because it is a spectacular climax!) Gosh! I could even relax a bit and tell a joke!
The Vice President approached us and I introduced myself and asked how Tipper and their daughters were doing? He was warm and gracious and put his hand on my shoulder while he told the students how lucky they were to have me as a guide! But the effect on the students was incredible! (The Vice President knew their tour guide!) There was a quick Q&A as well as a photo op. (By-the-way, I had never met any of the Gores up to that point!)
As we entered the crypt for another restroom break, I noticed the head teacher inquiring about us! I approached him and he informed me that I was being replaced. The other two busloads were just entering the Capitol and the teacher had not seen nor heard from us for two and a half hours and wanted to rejoin us! (He stood in line with the other two buses, after completing his phone call.)
I had no further problems with my students after that, but on the last day, the students who were on the other two buses, were asked to leave the Washington National Cathedral before their tour even began!