A teacher’s diary: The school trip to New York.
Stats: 16 students (16-18 years old), 2 staff
- Pack: more clothes than necessary, first aid kit, 3x chargers, school phone, personal phone
- Hand luggage: two sets of headphones (a student will forget theirs), first aid kit, iPad, a book, dollars
- Pack ‘The Bible’: a folder containing all passengers’ plane tickets, hotel reservations, tourist attraction entry passes, theatre tickets, ATOL certificates, emergency numbers, student allergy information etc
- Take iPad screenshots of walking routes from hotel to every destination on our itinerary, in case of no Wifi
- Save all important numbers in my school phone
9am: Get to Heathrow Terminal 3 an hour and a half before the children. Find Virgin Atlantic member of staff, immediately change my seat from a seat which is inbetween two students, to a window seat three rows away from the nearest student. Smile. Get coffee
10.30am: Meet all students and my colleague, and pretend to be a lot more angry than I actually am when a few arrive late, in the hope that this will prevent further lateness.
2pm: Board flight. Lend my colleague my spare headphones. Watch Frozen. Start to watch Blackfish but am all film-ed out. Students watch films and play card games (online, via the in-flight entertainment). I stare out of the window for the rest of the flight, marvelling at the miracle of flight.
The rest of the times are New York time
5pm: Land at JFK! Tweet that we’ve landed safely. Party is split into ESTA/US National queues. The ESTA queue is 20mins faster than the US National queue. Go figure. The American who allows me into the country uses the phrase ‘Do me a courtesy’ when asking for my fingerprints, which I love and comment on. I say we don’t say that in the UK. He says ‘Do me a courtesy’ in a London accent. We laugh.
6pm: I phone the number of the coach company taking us from JFK to our hotel, the Hotel Walcott. It arrives minutes after I tell the dispatch that we’ve landed.
7.30pm: Arrive at the hotel. Tip the coach driver. Approach the front desk of the hotel – ‘You must be the teacher with the students from London’. We are given our room keys and I give the students half an hour to dump their bags, freshen up and meet in the lobby. I collect their passports and put them in the hotel safe, and ask the concierge if there is anywhere to eat locally that can accommodate 18 people. ‘No problem Sir, I know just the place around the corner. I’ll let them know to expect you’.
8.15pm: Eat at Bella Napoli on the corner of East 31st and Madison. Proper New York Italian diner whose proprietor Carlo sorts us out with pizza pies and sodas.
10pm: Back to the hotel. Ground rules established. Bed time, meet in the foyer at 8.20am.
7am: I wake up early and go for a walk to get my bearings. Get coffee and a bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts. For the fifteenth time in a week I check to make sure I know who is allergic to what, and where their epipens are. Get back to the hotel to meet the students.
8.20am: Meet the students for the start of the first day! We walk from the Hotel Walcott to our Broadway Stage Combat Workshop on the corner of W36th and 8th. En route, 16 different students want to stop at 16 different places for coffee. We stop for coffee at a place I hope will satisfy most, and get to the workshops early – students are given a two-block radius to go off and explore, meeting back here in 20 mins.
10am: Broadway Stage Combat Workshop. A truly fantastic workshop led by Jayson and Eric, who make the students laugh and work hard, resulting in a mini stage combat routine which they learn and perform to each other. I phone Bubba Gump NYC to make sure our reservation for later is confirmed.
11am: We are surprised by the arrival of Nikki Renée Daniels, the lead female in Book of Mormon, who talks to us about what it’s like to work on Broadway. We are seeing Mormon later, so this is a lovely touch.
11.30am The Q&A ends and we walk to Times Square.
12pm We arrive at Times Square. I give the students a two-block radius and an hour to grab lunch. My colleague and I go for a burger. We meet back at the designated meeting point, and do the sixth headcount of the day. Two students are missing. After 5 minutes I’m irritated, after 10 I’m angry, after 15 I’m worried, and after 20 I’m really worried and starting to get the Bible out for their mobile numbers. No need – they turn up. I bollock them, and we walk to Top of the Rock.
1.30pm Top of the Rock – 69th floor views of Manhattan. Very humbling to see the Freedom Tower in place of the Twin Towers. The Statue of Liberty looks tiny. Is Hyde Park bigger or smaller than Central Park? Were there people standing where I’m standing when the planes hit? There must have been. Top of the Rock was much more humbling and sentimental than I had bargained for. I chat with my students about how crazy it is that they have no living memory of 9/11. They were two years old when it happened, and for them is a Thing In History. I try to explain to them now the world literally changed overnight, and fail. I check my school phone for the fifteenth time today – no contact from parents. Good. Lots of selfies.
2.30pm: The Bat Phone rings. It’s a relative of a student on the trip. They’re in New York, can they meet up? I have had advance warning of this and have the transfer of in loco parentis in writing so it’s fine. I ask them to make sure the student gets to Bubba Gump in time for our meal later.
The rest of us have the option of free time (in groups of three) or can come to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) with me. Most come to MoMA. Art isn’t really my thing so I see some Picasso, Van Gogh and a big red square and then go for a coffee with my colleague to argue about how a big red square isn’t art.
5pm Bubba Gump restaurant! Shrimp. Fun. I have a martini.
5.30pm I hand out an ice pack from my first aid kid to a student who hurt his hand in stage combat earlier
7pm The Book of Mormon. One of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. An over-zealous box office clerk almost refuses to let us have our tickets because I don’t know the last four digits of the credit card used to book the tickets (a travel company booked the tickets). The martini I had earlier has gone to my head and I am the only person in the theatre who gives a standing ovation. I dance during the curtain call. My students are mortified.
1o.30pm We get back to the hotel. The students go to bed, knowing that they have to be in reception at 8.20am the next morning, unless they want to go for a walk and breakfast with me at 7am. My colleague and I investigate a cocktail bar opposite the hotel. I stare at the Bat Phone for the whole night, hoping that it doesn’t go off. It doesn’t.
12am I get back to my hotel room. The toilet has overflowed and there is sewage on the floor. There are no spare rooms so I wait whilst it is cleaned.
6am I wake up, review the day ahead and have a shower in my clean bathroom. I haven’t slept a wink because of the smell of smoke in my hotel room, SewageGate and general New York Noise.
7am Seven students are waiting for me in the lobby for our breakfast walk. We go to Tasty’s on E31st and have bacon pancakes. The bacon is weird.
8.20am The whole group reunites in the lobby and we walk to our second Broadway Workshop: Stage Make-up. We stop for breakfast on the way at TickTock Diner. Those of us who have already eaten just have coffee.
10am We meet Brian Strumwasser, a Broadway make-up professional who talks to the students about his incredible CV, shares Broadway gossip and does practical demonstrations with the students. I tweet, check my emails for emergencies and check our ferry reservation.
11.30am We thank Brian and walk West to 83rd Pier. We cross about 20 streets, I do a silent headcount at each. The students eventually acquiesce to the obeyance of Walk/Don’t Walk signs.
12pm Students have an hour for lunch – two-block radius. I make sure my sick bags are at the top of my luggage.
1pm We board for the Circle Line Ferry Cruise. It’s a beautiful day and the cruise is lovely. We smile when we pass under the Brooklyn Bridge, the bridge of A View from the Bridge, which the students have been studying. The Statue of Liberty is smaller than I thought. It is a relaxing hour and a half for me because I know the students can’t go anywhere – apart from overboard, which is unlikely.
2.30pm We walk to Times Square, establish a meeting point, then students have free time until 5pm. Myself and a student don’t fancy shopping, which most people go for, so we go for a coffee and put the world to rights.
5pm Planet Hollywood. I stupidly order a salad and blame my decision on a student.
6.30pm A bit more free time
8pm We take our seats to watch AL PACINO in a new Mamet play, China Doll. It’s a fantastic performance by Al but the play itself divides opinion.
11pm Back at the hotel I offer students two options: meet me at 7am to see if we can squeeze in Central Park, which is not officially on the itinerary, or meet in the lobby at 10am.
7am I am met by six students who have taken up my offer of Central Park. This turns out to be the highlight of the trip for me: coffee, students I get along with, and a stroll in autumnal Central Park at sunrise. We go on the swings. We get a cab there and back, but we can’t all fit in one. I say ‘follow that taxi!’, referring to the taxi ahead containing the other students, and the taxi driver says ‘no’.
10am After a two-hour jaunt in the park, we return to the hotel lobby and meet the others. We pack our bags and check out, leave our bags at the hotel, and head to the UN. Headcounts etc.
11.30am A brief tour of the United Nations Headquarters after clearing security. We get to go inside the General Assembly room. Our guide is admirable in that she can speak five languages including English, but is nevertheless unintelligible because of the strength of her accent.
12.30pm The students have two options: come with me for lunch at Grand Central Station, or go shopping with my colleague at Macy’s. The majority goes shopping; four come with me
1pm: We sit down and order food at a tapas restaurant. I’ve been emailing my childhood friend, Luke, since the beginning of the trip and he arrives for a beer. I am delighted to introduce him to my students. Luke takes us to AADA, the American Academy of Dramatic Art, and introduces us to his friends there.
We go to a bar and realise it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since the funeral of a friend, Joe, whom we lost last year. We cry and hug and reminisce. He shows me a tattoo of Joe’s initials, as well as a tattoo of the words ‘Cilla Black’. That’s Luke.
At this point my life turns into a movie.
6.30pm We arrive at JFK with three hours to spare. After unloading the bags, I watch the coach drive off with my hand luggage. It contains all our passports, the ‘Bible’, and my school phone with all the emergency contact numbers.
I manage to find the coach company’s phone number from Google, half an hour later. It’s now 7pm and the students are wondering why we haven’t checked in yet. After fiddling with dialling codes for a another 10 minutes, I eventually get through to the coach company. They refuse to send the coach driver back to the airport – we’ll have to meet him at the depot.
Which is based in New Jersey.
I run into the street and hail a taxi. ‘1500 Jefferson Street, New Jersey. Drive as fast as you can. This is an emergency’
Google maps says its 1h30 each way. It’s 2 hours until check in closes. The taxi hurtles towards Manhattan and comes to a grinding halt in the centre of it. I am in constant contact with the coach company and my colleague back at the airport who is investigating hotel rooms and new flights, should we miss ours. It’s not good news. $155 per person for a new flight.
As I sit in the back of a taxi, powerless and at the mercy of Manhattan traffic, I start to panic. What if we miss the flight? What will the parents say? What if the children have flights tomorrow for a family holiday? How are we going to pay for hotel rooms for 18 people?
Eventually, the traffic clears and we get through the Lincoln tunnel. I ask my colleague what the bottom-line latest check-in time is. She says 9.15pm is the absolute latest Virgin can do, and that’s only because, luckily, the flight has been delayed until 10pm. It’s 8.30pm and I’m in New Jersey. We get to the coach depot, I run to reception, grab my bag with the passports and return to the taxi. ‘Go go go!’. I’ve always wanted to say that.
The driver floors it, there is genuine wheelspin and I check my watch. It’s 8.33pm and we have 42 minutes to complete a journey which Google Maps reckons will take 1h07. Through Manhattan gridlock.
My heart sinks. I want to vomit. My colleague calls. ‘Where are you?’ I’m the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life, in the back of a taxi with 18 passports in my hand, an hour away from the airport with 40 minutes to get there. I’m not going to make it.
Suddenly the traffic starts moving. All the lights are green. My driver seems to be enjoying his mission and is weaving in and out of traffic. We get to the freeway and he puts his foot down again – ‘You’ll pay my fines right brother?’ he asks, and I will.
9.10pm Unbelievably, we get to JFK. I throw way too many dollars at the driver, thank him profusely and run. I run like I’ve never run before. I get to the check in desk at 9.13; two minutes to spare. What seems to be the whole airport gives me a round of applause – apparently the Virgin staff have been transfixed and entertained by my text updates over the past two hours – the most stressful of my life. We get escorted through security, and my relief is numbing. I’ve been from JFK to New Jersey to JFK in 2 hours and 11 minutes, and aged 10 years in the process.
We arrive at Heathrow, but at arrivals there’s a tap on my shoulder.
‘I’m really sorry sir. I’ve left my passport on the plane’.
My colleague deals with it. She’s the best. I have a taxi waiting for me (40 mins to home) but I elect to get the Piccadilly line from Terminal 3 to Oakwood (2 hours then a bus to home) because it will ‘give me more sleeping time’. Yep, that’s the logic of a tired man.
Disclaimer: I haven’t included all the times I took headcounts, gave speeches about The Plan For the Next Few Hours, fielded questions like ‘What are we doing next’ and ‘Can we go out on our own tonight’ from students, or liaised with my colleague (who was amazing from start to finish) for advice, all of which things happened very frequently.