Mrs. Keene prepared us months in advance. Week after week our 6th grade class studied and took tests about sailors’ lives and terminology. We learned about the different jobs aboard ships in the 1800’s and hoped we’d get put in our first choice group. On the day we were to find out our placement and begin training in earnest for our overnight trip on a real 1800’s ship docked in the San Francisco bay, I wondered, “Will I have to throw those heavy ropes? Will I have to slave away in the kitchen?”
It didn’t occur to me that I might get the highest score on all the tests combined, thereby earning the rank of First Mate. But that is what happened. Kids still go on this field trip 30 years later, and what I have to say to the teachers is this: DO NOT test for First Mate with vocabulary words. Test each child by taking her into the custodian’s closet, telling her she’s a failure, and seeing who will stand up for herself and who will cower behind the mops and cry.
I don’t think I’d ever been to San Francisco before. But do I remember my first lungfull of salty, smog-free air? The happy cry of seagulls? No. Read on.
Part of my First Mate duty was to draw a chart of where the groups would sleep. Below deck, on either side, were wooden bunks built right into the hull. I didn’t see much I could do besides keeping each group together. Each group would have to wake up for a two hour night watch shift. When it came time to end our work for the day and go down below for storytelling and opening mail from our families, the captain pulled me aside. The captain was a man who worked on the boat, hosting schoolkids from all over – a different group each night. I don’t remember his name, but that’s okay. He’d sue me for libel anyway. I’ll just call him Captain Bligh.
He handed me my bunk chart. “Do you see anything wrong with this?” He asked.
The rest of the kids, except for the galley crew making our soup a few feet away in their hot little kitchen, filed downstairs for the festivities. “No,” I said honestly.
“Well,” he said, “Why don’t you sit up here until you figure out what’s wrong with it.” And he left to entertain down in the bunk room.
I sat down and stared at my paper. What more could I do? I had no idea. Cozy, Christmas party-like sounds wafted up to me, and I cried. I cried hard. Angelic Kelly with the flame-red hair came out of the galley to bring me a snack and say “Aww.” (Wherever you are today, Kelly, thank you!)
Finally Captain Bligh returned. “Did you figure out what was wrong?”*
“No.” It’s possible I felt more alone with him than I really was, with the galley crew nearby. But it felt like it was just me and Bligh and the great big sea.
“Is there any little thing you could change?”
“I guess I could leave a little more space between the groups.”
“Yes. Okay, you can go down.” (Seriously? That was it?)
But I didn’t have any fun.
At 2:00 I had to wake for my night watch. I suppose it was an honor that I got to steer with the big steering wheel (you’ll pardon me if I’ve blocked all ship terminology from my memory) but all I could think about was that I had to pee.
“Captain Bligh, may I go to the bathroom?” We weren’t allowed to use the word “bathroom,” and I do remember the correct word, but I’m out from under your thumb, Bligh, and I’ll use the word “bathroom” whenever I darn well please.
“No.” He explained that a real First Mate wouldn’t be able to leave his post.
I stayed. I cried. I wet my pants.
And that is the story of how I came to be an underachiever. I never studied hard enough to get the top marks in my class again.
*These days a strange man would not be alone with an eleven-year-old girl. Nor, I think, would he have the kids sing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Tie him to the mast and let the gulls pick his eyes out.”