Thursday, June 7, 2018

Field Tripping

With summer vacation perched promisingly on the horizon, it is school field trip season. This was apparent last week in Boston, where I traveled with my older two children and their class for a full day of city exploration – and where around every corner we found a new group of school kids following some similar agenda.

Not Franconia's skyline.
Whether it’s touring the big city or taking a closer look at a local landmark, the kids always look forward to field trips. Partly, I think, this is because they are sprung from the confines and routines of school. Mostly, though, it’s because they get to explore some new place – or a familiar place in a new way.

Over the years, the kids have been on an interesting mix of school trips, and I’ve been lucky to tag along on lots of them. Among their favorites they list the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, with its engaging planetarium discussions and eclectic range of displays; the state house in Concord, where they sat in the Senate chambers and high-fived the governor; and the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, where they’ve learned about animal habits and habitats.

Last week, my younger daughter’s class visited the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park. While the Flume is just down the road from school, many of the kids had not been here before the field trip.

Caught up in the excitement of being outside on a gorgeous day, the kids seemed somewhat oblivious to the natural beauty that attracts people from all over the world to this place virtually in our back yard. These kids are, after all, growing up surrounded by green things and mountain views. But trips like this give them a chance to learn a bit more about the natural history around them.

Between scrambling across the many glacial erratics along the path, feeling the cool mist from water spilling over the 45-foot-high Avalanche Falls, and clambering through the Bear Cave and the Wolf Den, the children paused – ever so briefly – to notice wildflowers blooming on the forest floor, chipmunks scampering near the trail, woodpecker holes drilled in neat rows into a birch tree, and the calling of a barred owl from somewhere nearby.

The next day, this chaperone went from meandering through the natural wonders of the Flume to pounding the pavement – and cobblestones – of Bean Town. The Boston trip is an annual tradition at my kids’ school, and one the fifth and sixth graders look forward to all year. It’s a long day – starting with boarding the coach bus just after 6 a.m. and ending some 15 hours later when the bus pulls back into the school lot.

This year’s Boston trip included a walk along the Freedom Trail. The students toured Paul Revere’s house and listened to the tale of Revere’s midnight ride at the Old North Church, wandered through Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, scaled the 294 steps to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument, and even got to climb aboard the USS Constitution before returning to Faneuil Hall Marketplace for dinner.

Any one of those places holds enough historical import to fill a book.

Beyond the history, though, and the chance to take a first-person look at some of the things they’ve learned at school, the Boston trip is an experience these country kids – and their chaperoning parents – don’t have every day. The busyness and noise of the city, with all the unfamiliar smells and its skyline of tall buildings rather than tall mountains, is so starkly different than the pace of home.

Just as city life seems distant from our more rural existence, so does history often seem distant when considered from the pages of a book. But walking along the route of that history makes it a bit more real. It is easier, then, to notice the connections between the past and the present, this place and other places.

One of these is that the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. Lafayette, though French, was a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and when he toured this country five decades after the United States had declared its independence, he was met everywhere he went by adoring Americans.

The day after he visited what would become the Bunker Hill monument, Lafayette headed north, to New Hampshire. The mountain that occupies a large portion of the horizon here in Franconia is named in the Marquis’ honor – Mount Lafayette. My children’s school is named for the mountain, which they can see from the playground. Mount Lafayette stands at the northern end of the Franconia Range, which traverses south across Mount Lincoln to reach Mount Liberty and then Mount Flume, down which Flume Brook flows to reach the Flume Gorge.

How fun to join field trips to a place close to home and one farther away – places connected, even if obscurely, through the threads of history that wind from city to town, over mountains and along rivers, from long ago to now. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the June 8, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Spring Sing

Tuesday night was the annual Spring Concert at my kids’ elementary school. Students dressed up, many to a degree reserved for very special occasions in an increasingly casual world – button-down shirts, pretty dresses, fancy shoes. Parents snapped pre-show photos, and an adoring audience filed in to find seats as the band warmed up behind the curtain.

It’s a scene repeated at countless schools in myriad places, and one my children look forward to each May.

During my their first ever school concert, my oldest daughter, the girl who clung to me tearfully each morning of kindergarten, stood front and center on the stage risers, singing and shimmying to the “Penguin Polka” with big confidence. I considered this transformation of shy little girl to happy performer some kind of school concert miracle.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been the mom of kindergarteners (although I can still sing the Penguin Polka). The big kids from my children’s first concert are high schoolers now, my kids are among the older ones on stage, and the kindergarteners seem tiny – and adorable.

Because this is such a small school, we get to watch the children – our own and everybody else’s – grow from wide-eyed, baby-teethed kindergarteners into self-assured pre-teenagers. The difference between the school’s oldest students and its youngest is perhaps nowhere more apparent than when they are all gathered together at the spring concert, just before those sixth-graders head off to middle school.

School concerts are a combination of excited voices and singing ones, well-played instruments and squeaks, charmed laughter from the audience and heartfelt applause. It is perfect – and only occasionally painful – imperfection.

The audience, though the faces change from year to year, is always a mix of parents and grandparents, older siblings who were on the stage not so long ago and younger ones whose turn is still to come, and a medley of other friends and family and teachers.

The concert hall is the school’s gymnasium, which is also the cafeteria. For concert night, lunch tables are folded up and put away next to the kitchen. Folding chairs are rolled out and set up over the markings of the basketball court.

This year’s event featured contemporary songs and old favorites, along with a sword dance, a wild Irish reel, and the weaving of long ribbons around a May pole. The theme was welcoming the arrival of spring, and it seemed apt to celebrate growing, blooming things in a place dedicated to helping growing children find their own ways to bloom.

At every school concert, there is a song that gives me goosebumps – music will do that to a person – and at least one that makes my eyes go all watery. Tuesday, that latter song was Simple Gifts, a Shaker dance tune written 170 years ago and sung Tuesday by the younger children at school. The lyrics are of the joy and simplicity of being free and finding ourselves in just the right place.

In a world that seems so often gone mad, what better, simpler gift, I thought, than to listen to children’s voices singing to a room full of people who love them?

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 25, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Suddenly Summer

Summer, it seems, has come suddenly this year. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for feeling like I’m far behind where I should be this second week of May. For that, I’ll blame the April showers, which were of the snow variety right up to the last day of the month.

Two days after April’s last snow, we had beach weather: sunny and 80 degrees. It feels like we skipped spring and went straight from winter to summer. There was hardly even a Mud Season this year!

Suddenly, the lilac leaves have popped, the bright green shoots of the daylilies along the west side of the house are 10 inches high, and the lawn needs mowing.

I’ve taken advantage of this week’s warmth and sunshine to try to catch up, but most of the house – and yard – is in that between-seasons flux of disarray. My heaviest sweaters are put away, but I still have to dig through the summer bin to find my shorts. I’ve started turning the soil in the garden, but haven’t planned out which veggies I’ll plant where.

Everywhere I look there is something to be done. In some ways, I like this – I can pick which chore or task to tackle based on my mood and the time I have to devote to it on a given day. There are no deadlines, but plenty of work.

This week I have carried the snowshoes and sleds up the narrow stairs in the garage to store them until whenever next winter’s first snow arrives. Skis have been, finally, waxed and strapped together and stored out of sight.

The garage has been swept out and rearranged, allowing easier access to gardening tools and bikes. Soccer balls have taken the place of snow sleds, and golf clubs have replaced skis. I even found the beach towels the other day as I was rearranging the storage area to stow away the winter gear.

Snow shovels have been put away, replaced by rakes to clean up winter’s deposit of fallen twigs and grass thatch. The pea trellis is loaded into the garden cart, waiting for me to stake it into the ground and drop those first seeds of the season into the warming, waiting earth. There are, of course, plenty of weeds to be pulled from the perennial bed.

Summer may have arrived all of a sudden, but I’m still getting there one step – and one task – at a time.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 11, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.