Several months ago, the book Senior Trip by Marjorie Holmes was handed to me with the words “Read this. It’s fun–you’ll like it!” So I dutifully put in on my “to read” shelf in the bedroom, and there it sat for several months.
A few weeks ago, I had run out of library books so I picked it up. Immediately, I liked it–loved Fran, loved the spirit of a small town working together, loved the magic with which these kids saw Washington D. C.
But then there was a moment where my jaw dropped, and I almost stopped reading. The set-up is this–the kids have gathered, with signs, to persuade the school board to let them take their trip to DC. Almost the entire thing has been Fran, the class president’s idea. It’s her voice that tells the story. And then she says this: “I encouraged him and the other boys to plan the attack. While women should be active in politics and all that, it seems to me there are times when it’s more appropriate to let men handle things.” The feminist in me roared. It was her idea! It was her organizational skills that got the signs made, and the protestors together. She and her friends (girls, I might add) had done everything that got their classmates to this point. The books suddenly felt dated, and not in a good way.
But I kept reading, in part to see if there were any other moments like that and in part to see what their DC trip was like. And though I enjoyed the rest of the book, that one little sentence dampened my enthusiasm.
The museum nerd in me wishes there had been more descriptions of the museums. Fran does fall completely in love with the National Portrait Gallery, but stolen moments with a boy get more words than her awe at the art. But throughout the portion that occurs in DC, there’s this optimism and patriotism and love of our country that is becoming harder and harder to find. This book was published in 1962; before Kennedy’s assassination, before Vietnam, before Watergate, before 9/11. Before patriotism changed. It became dated on an entirely different level.
I finished my read of Senior Trip on September 9, just days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Reminders of the 10th anniversary were everywhere, and as I read, I couldn’t help but think of my second trip to DC, in late September 2001. I had been to DC a few years before, as a college student visiting my boyfriend who was doing summer research in DC (he got to hang out at the Library of Congress on a regular basis. I still envy that summer of his!) This was a very different trip.
I had won a fellowship, so others were paying for my travel and lodging. Regan was still closed, so they got me on a plane that routed me from Raleigh to Chicago to Dulles. This seemed very, very silly. Mom really didn’t like the idea of me driving to DC by myself (I had just moved 1500 miles away, plus the 9/11 thing, so she was sensitive), so I booked travel on Amtrak. As soon as I arrived in Union Station, the city felt different. I skipped one day of the conference to do museum things. The National Mall was deserted. There were barricades and security everywhere. I got to the National Museum of American History early and waited on the museum’s broad steps. There were a handful of people waiting with me, along with a security guard. Someone asked him what attendance had been like in the weeks since 9/11. He replied that they were lucky to see in a day what they normally see in an hour. My jaw dropped.
That visit to the history museum was unlike any other. For one thing, I was almost entirely alone. I was able to stand in front of the ruby slippers all by myself and just stare. I was able to go through an exhibit on the Presidency almost completely alone. It was eerie and moving and not quite right.
So, it was strange to read this optimistic, glowing account of visiting our national capitol as I was reminded of that trip 10 years ago. Senior Trip captures emotions that seem almost foreign in today’s climate. It’s a snapshot of yesterday.
But already the fabled city seemed to come running out to meet us with its million messengers of light. The traffic had thickened; taillights made a winking necklace of red rubies strung before us straight ahead. The suburbs blazed and sparkled their welcome on either side of the highway, and drawing deeper and deeper into the lights, you were in a veritable fairyland, a blazing garden, and facing a river where the lights were golden stripes upon the water far below. Suddenly you were in the city proper, sufficiently penetrated into their very core for the lights to melt aside in favor of the sky. And there, serenely crowning in its solitary splendor, we saw the white and shining thing we all had been watching for.
“There she is, the dome, the dome, the Capitol dome!” The cry went up as it to hail some celestial mother. And in the next gasp: “The Monument! The Washington Monument!” For beyond, clean and sharp and clear, that tall white finger stood.
As long as I live, no sight will ever equal that moment for me–that moment of that night when we first saw Washington. —Senior Trip p. 122 & 123
Today, it’s hard to imagine students entering the city with the same enthusiasm. But perhaps the last 10 years have made me cynical.