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Field Trip Fiasco+

Every day may not be good, but there's something good in every day.
~Author Unknown

When I accepted the teaching position at the small private school in the Green Mountains of Vermont, I expected to be passing on my love of language to middle-school children with learning disabilities. I did not expect to be standing in a parking lot with a bleeding little girl surrounded by Vermont state troopers, hands at their holsters. But that was exactly my position at 11:25 AM one August day.

At seven years old, Sabrina was on her third set of adoptive parents when she showed up at Autumn Acres. Our little school only housed about sixty kids, but they were sixty kids who'd already seen more horrible things than most people ever see. Sabrina had it worst of all.

I wasn't with them at recess when it happened, but Sabrina managed to climb fifteen feet up a tree and then fall. When I came into work Monday morning, teachers huddled in corners, from which I could hear snatches of conversation: "... wasn't being watched... shouldn't be left alone... bit her tongue completely in half...."

Sabrina showed up for school on Friday with her jaw wired shut. They were able to re-attach the tongue, but there had been significant nerve damage, and it was questionable that she'd ever be able to speak normally again. Mr. Garrity, the principal, pulled me aside as I was warming up the van to take the kids on a field trip.

"Mr. Kaiser, we really want to get Sabrina reintegrated into the population as quickly as possible."

"Sabrina? I don't know if bringing her is a good idea. We'll be walking a couple of miles. If something should happen..."

"Look, Mr. Kaiser. Rather than punish her even more, I'd like you to take her along on the field trip today."

Of course they wanted Sabrina to go on the field trip. That way none of the administrators would have to deal with her back at the school.

I parked the raucous student-packed van in the handicapped spot at the Green Mountain Animal Sanctuary. Mrs. Bourne, the science teacher, got out of the van, and opened the back door to let the kids out to stretch their legs and eat the orange slices we'd brought for snack. The seven other teachers walked over with their lists. Each teacher would have eight students.

I heard a cough behind me, and there sat Sabrina alone in the van. I looked at my clipboard; she was not mine. Her blue eyes looked even bigger than usual, her face drawn and her jaw sticking out as if she was angry. I couldn't tell if she truly was, or if the wiring made her look so. I stepped into the van and extended my hand to her, and her big eyes became narrow slits. She shook her head vigorously. She didn't know me. To someone who'd experienced terrible things at the hands of those closest to her, a stranger must have looked like another predator. I stepped back and Sabrina extended a white, skinny arm to Mrs. Bourne.

Mrs. Bourne took her group straight to the skunk pen, outside of which was a table holding little metal cans. Each can had a perforated top, and everyone was invited to pick up a can and smell the skunk's musk. The badger pen was located near the skunk pen and the badger musk smelled like the worst armpit in the world according to one boy. He was right. I gagged after I lifted the can to my nose.

We continued on the winding tarmac to the hut housing the moles. When I stepped through the doorway I saw Sabrina standing perfectly still and staring up at a mole burrow behind the glass. Behind her was what looked like a giant captain's wheel, but with badgers and moles and skunks and mountain lions and other animals painted on it. When the wheel stopped, the animals would be lined up with either what they preyed on, or what preyed on them. But it was the wheel itself that preyed on little Sabrina, because when she took a step back, the wheel's wooden handle slammed right down on top of her head. She collapsed to her knees and I heard the haunting, muted cry of a child trying to scream through a wired jaw. Sabrina's lips were drawn back as far as they would go and her teeth were bared to expose the thin strips of metal running across her teeth, and blood seeped from between her teeth. She'd bitten her tongue stitches.

I radioed for help, and fearing she might choke on her blood, I stooped and in one motion tipped her over into my arms and stood. She immediately began kicking her feet wildly and thrashing and screaming as if she had a gag in her mouth. I began running the mile or so back to the van.

Sabrina was still kicking as I ran, and her attempts at screaming had jetted blood from between her teeth all over the right side of my head and face. Sabrina was only sixty pounds, but she began to get heavy as I plodded along, fetching strange looks from bystanders who saw a man running away with a screaming, bloody girl who sounded as if she'd been gagged.

The science teacher Catharine had heard my radio transmission and she was waiting at the van, with a little boy named Derek.

She said, "Do you want me to drive her to the hospital?"

"I can drive her. Can you just get her in the van for me? She doesn't trust me." I put Sabrina down and Catharine took both her hands and bent down, whispered something to her. Surprisingly, Sabrina stepped into the van and sat in the very back. Derek climbed in and even snapped her seatbelt on, then belted himself in too.

"Can I come?"

"Oh, um, actually that's not a bad idea, Derek." I started the van and heard movement behind me -- Sabrina was trying to unbuckle her seatbelt, and Derek was holding her hands so she couldn't.

"Hip-hop!" cried Derek. "She likes hip-hop!" I tuned the radio to a rap station.

"Turn it up! Loud!" he cried. In the rearview mirror, I could see Sabrina smiling in her blood-sprayed white T-shirt, bouncing to the rhythm.

I called the school on my way to the hospital, but they gave me other instructions. Sabrina's parents did not want her brought to the small local hospital, but to Children's Hospital Boston, where she had her tongue sewed back on in the first place. I started to protest, but she did seem okay back there with Derek, so I agreed to meet Sabrina's parents in a parking lot on Main Street.

And it was there, with hip-hop music blasting, blood-covered Sabrina and Derek dancing, leaning against the driver's door myself covered with blood, that the three Vermont state police cruisers arrived and surrounded me.

They exited their vehicles and, gun hands at their hips, slowly began walking toward me. I was leaning on the car watching this unfold, thinking this was just what I needed to top off this wonderful day.

"I've got a hurt kid here -- I'm waiting for her parents to pick her up!" I yelled. They closed in, and I handed over my license. They seemed to think they'd caught me at something. Then I saw an older woman standing on her porch, peeking out from behind a post with a cordless phone in her hand. Of course I would probably have thought it suspicious too if I saw a man in his late twenties hanging out with a bloody little girl, having a hip-hop dance party in a parking lot. As it turned out, they thought I was a pedophile luring children with music.

When I look back at that day, my most stressful ever of teaching, what sticks in my mind is not being mistaken for a pedophile, or any animosity toward poor wounded Sabrina, but the kindness of that little boy Derek, who like so many good people who pass briefly through our lives, touched me with his goodwill and moved on before I let him know how grateful I was.