Quick - Count heads!
Yesterday Sapphire's class - and the other two reception/year 1 classes - went to the zoo for their end-of-school-year excursion. All day. The teachers put out a plea for helper parents to accompany them, so I put my name down on the list, feeling as though I should put in an effort to be a helpful 'presence' during Sapphire's early school years.
At the morning drop off time it was already evident just how excited the 75 little five and six year olds were. They all were wearing their broad-brimmed sun hats inside the classroom and proudly shouldering their mini backpacks holding their drinks and lunch.
"Sapphire's Mum..!" (as I am mostly known at the school) ".......are you coming with us today?"
"Yes, I sure am," I said, beaming at the child's smiling face. "I don't know yet who'll I'll be looking after. Your teacher will tell me."
"Ooooh pick me! Pick me! I wanna be in your group!"
I felt absurdly flattered. Kids always like to hover around teachers and parents and sort of idolise them for brief periods and they were also doing the same to Jay and Sarina's mothers, but it made me feel secretly special anyway. Admittedly having four of them fight to hold my one free hand wasn't looking like it was going to end happily until three of them decided that grabbing the loose toggle straps on my backpack would suffice. Great for them, but rather annoying for me - I was afraid I'd be yanked to the ground like a marooned beetle.
"The bus is here - line up in a neat row until I tell you to get on," yelled out Ms B, their teacher. My ears were already ringing and it had just turned 9am - how on earth was I going to last an entire day?
Surprisingly the bus ride was a smooth one as they were all too keen to look out of the window and be the first ones to spot the first signs of the zoo rather than wrestle or work up a nice whine. Sarina's mother, Nancy and I decided to buddy up, figuring that nine kids between the two of us might not be so intimidating.
"Let's go see the chickens - Hey LOOK everybody, I've caught one!"
"Omigod - Oh dear, umm that's very clever of you, Matthew, but I think you'd better put it down in case it gets scared --- whoah Dannielle - you're not supposed to climb the fence into the goat enclosure! I know - let's go and see the gorillas." The reclusive primates were behind glass thank goodness; but only interested the children for about one minute, unfortunately.
"How about the sealions?" asked Nancy, her eyes darting about in a constant count of blue-hatted heads. That idea was a winner as they all eagerly raced up to the top of the viewing ramp. I couldn't believe that kids still said this: Last one there's a rotten egg, but they do.
At the top, the sight of a mother swimming with her calf wasn't quite so compelling.
"Phewww, they STINK!" said Alex, dramatically holding his nose.
"Who fart--- sorry, who popped off?" said Isobel.
"No-one did - it's the sealions' fish they left behind, silly," said my Sapphire in a rather Hermoine Grangerish know-it-all voice.
"You don't need to say 'silly' - that's why we're at the zoo - to learn things," I said determined to be cheerful and sneaking a look at my watch. 9:45am.
"Wanna know what I've learned already?" asked Matthew, tugging at my backpack.
"I've learned....." (he took a deep breath and waited until he got the entire of everyone in our group), "....that you have to LIKE the smell of poo if you want to work here." All nine giggled in appreciation.
"That's nice. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine, good. How about we go through the Asian rainforest walk?"
"Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhhh!" Any suggestion was a valid one it seemed, just as long as we kept walking, didn't linger for longer than a minute and they were given ample time to sample the water from every fountain we came across.
After seeing the enclosed bird exhibits, baby penguins, meerkats, giraffe and kangaroos lunchtime eventually rolled around. Frankly it was impossible to say who was more hungry, hot and exhausted - us mums or the kids. "Sapphire's Mum, Sarina's Mum - the grass is too wet to sit on!"
"No it isn't. And if it is, you'll dry out." I wasn't going to move anywhere for at least the next half an hour, whingeing or no whingeing, and Nancy was shattered enough to risk whipping out her packet of cigarettes for a calming lungful.
The metamorphosis of a flat inflatable mattress to one that is fully puffed up with air is not unlike the transformation of children after they've eaten their lunch. The zoo's rotunda area hosted at least seven different junior primary schools and all of them seemed to be running around in a deranged form of chasey. Through all of this chatter, chaos, movement and noise, the nearby pelicans slept soundly, waking only to peck at an itchy spot in their feathers which was most admirable and made me feel pretty bloody envious at such a skill. My forehead was pounding, and sharing sympathetic looks with Nancy and other crumpled parents wasn't making the day move along any faster.
All too soon, it was time to refill water bottles, find Maria and Danielle, put the rubbish in the bin and hold a group vote on what to see next - the lions or the zebras? "LIONS." Of course, except that I explained to the now rather reluctant 4-feet-nothing walkers that it was on the other side of the zoo. "Let's go then - Quick!" said Alex, always 50 metres ahead of us.
"Are we there yet?" "Are we there yet?" was a whining refrain that was asked by each child in turn at least twice every minute; almost as if they'd planned how they could pepper Nancy and I with a Wall-Of-Whine which rendered us incapable of answering one kid's question before it was asked again.
Shit - the bloody lions weren't there - friggin' Adelaide zoo had packed them all off to Monarto for a rest. The written sign was read out to the children and Olivia's eyes filled with tears of disappointment. The time - 1:30pm. Another one and a half hours to go.
"I tell you what, Olivia - would you like to go and see the nocturnal house?"
"Wha- what is it," she sniffed.
"It's where the lizards, frogs and snakes live. Behind glass, so you'll be very safe."
This suggestion dried her tears, re-energised the others and it was just next door.
"HELP! Where are you!" Olivia screamed. It was pitch black in there and in my haste to stop her crying I'd forgotten that she was as blind as a bat herself, which wasn't going to help her see the bats on display in such a dimly lit enclosure.
"Hang on to my hand and we'll find the others," I said, doing my best to sound in control as I used my right hand to frenziedly feel around in the dark for any other heads.
"Nancy, I'll go to the exit and get the kids to meet me there, alright? SAPPHIRE, ALEX, MARIA, MATTHEW, DANIELLA, ISOBEL, JENNIFER and SARINA! Meet us at the exit! Yes yes you too Olivia, but I've got your hand so I didn't need to call out your name."
It was a relief to find that they were all impressed with the zebras, especially the baby one who had brown stripes intead of black ones. The pygmy hippopotamus was also a source of interest, mostly due to their wondering why he poops in his own water when it stinks so much; and the cavys from South America were subjected to much debate as to whether they were wallabies, guinea pigs or rats. To me they looked like genetically-modified rabbits trying to get used to walking around on meerkat legs.
The otters' pond was where we lingered the longest as the kids (and, let's face it, me too) were fascinated with their adept swimming and high-pitched barks. When I suggested that one of them looked like Alex and then named the rest of the otters with the kids' names, I kicked myself for not thinking of it earlier. This basic appeal to their egos meant that they loved it and all watched with increased fascination as their aquatic counterparts frolicked, groomed and barked. Their entire enclosure was pungent with old fish and pond slime, but not one child commented on it.
On our way out we had enough time for a quick pat of the reindeer in the petting zoo, with Matthew insisting that he saw Rudolph run off into the 'Zoo Personnel Only' area to hide. Counting heads for one last time, we clambered on to the bus, Nancy and I exchanging exhausted 'Thank god it's over' glances.
"So kids, what were your favourite parts about the zoo," I asked them as the bus chugged up Magill Road.
- "When you shared your chips with me."
- "When Nancy picked me up and carried me in the nocturnal house."
- "When the monkey did a wee right in front of us."
- "Catching Matthew when we played chasey after lunch."