Following the unspoken rule of tweens, we segregate ourselves: sixth graders in the back of the bus, middle-aged moms relegated to the front behind the near-retirement teacher, a few dads scattered between. Boxes of doughnuts ride a wave of hands up the right side, down the left as the balding driver pulls out into what awaits.
We arrive first at the Harrisburg capitol where our children click photos of each other. Inside, on marble staircases, they tier themselves beside the handsome state representative, who hands them packets on Pennsylvania they’ll toss by lunch.
The parents—except for Clint’s mom—listen obligingly. Newly divorced, she nevertheless has brought her boyfriend. Clasping and unclasping hands, they titter, stand apart from the rest, whisper only to each other. They hook their fingers into each other’s belt loops, make the field trip into a date. The students pretend not to see them. In every room, Clint studies the floor.
The rest smile their yearbook smiles, ask questions that would earn them an A in their uniform classrooms. Here they sport jeans and acceptable T-shirts, remember the definitions of single-file and listen. Room by room, they’re told the importance of man and community, who sits where to make what happen. They’re taught how all flags and people remain under God even when divisible, which, at this point, the students aren’t, moving as one, necks craning simultaneously to view the arched ceilings, the murals of founding fathers who peer down knowingly at the boys casting sideways glances at the girls’ temples of the Holy Ghosts.
Repeatedly, they are retold how each voice and vote counts. They accept it. They abandon all smirking. Claiming their new societal roles, they adjust their postures. By tour’s end, when the state representative asks them to recite all they remember, they spout statistics like pros. Shana McNierny, proud in her Abercrombie and Fitch T-Shirt, volunteers, “In 1911, Violet Oakley made all the murals. She wanted a better world. It was her ‘sacred challenge.’ Girls didn’t get to paint much back then.”
With equal pride, Sam Starneski adds, “Each chandelier is as heavy as a hippo.”
Obediently, we single-file to the next scheduled stop—the planetarium. Once there, away from the bright lights of our importance, we peer into darkness. Then, below the man-made-to-look-God-created sparkling stars, we grow small, then smaller still. Before it disappears entirely, the earth is the size of a fingernail. Mythology and its constellations move in and around us. We are part of the bear, the arrow, the dippers. Together teachers, parents, and sixth graders zoom in and out of the solar system, in and out of the universe, which, we are told, accidentally created itself. At this point, we become tinier yet.
But that doesn’t stop three boys star-struck by girls. The trio sits near a clique of the pony-tailed gigglers. With eyes wide, they watch the girls tilt their heads up into the painted sky of the planetarium. For thirty minutes in the dimmed room, the testosteroned males moon over their girls. They stare as the low glow of planets reflects in young, distinctly female faces. Then, seconds before the overhead lights reclaim florescence, the bravest boy leans in to touch the hand of the girl beside him. Later, in the reality of man-made day, neither student looks at the other.
Although last on the list of “educational activities,” it is the cathedral that balances the past, present, and future. Stepping in, we finally find both our world and the next: the here-and-now; history and forever. Neither too large nor too small, our images fit exactly beneath the sanctuary’s heavenly sphere. Gone is the capital’s overblown attention to accomplishment; vanquished is the planetarium’s too-distant impersonal view. Bowed down before the altar of the Holy, we are one-of-many yet still seen by the Omnipresent, still intimately known.
With a new guide, we move from one stained-glass story to another, repeating in unison, “Jesus, you were born to give hope to all. Remind us to love one another as you have loved us…. Jesus, you raised the widow’s son from the dead. Comfort all who are sorrowing…. Jesus, you love the little children. Let us be open to the children in our lives and in ourselves….” We travel the Body of Christ across the nave, the transept, and the apse. With marble, glass, and plaster, we both remain and transcend what we are. Throughout, the saints hover.
At the end, we return to the altar, where, beside a stone depiction of the Last Supper, Abraham prepares his child-sacrifice. Although neither father nor son looks afraid, parents automatically move closer to their children, tightly clasping outstretched hands. Together with the marble angels, we pause to survey all around us. I take a deep breath.
Even before I exhale, the boy behind me pinches his neighbor. The victim lets out an only slightly-muffled, “Owww!” Two girls giggle, then switch suddenly to discussing fortune cookies. As I’m wondering why, they begin their slow shuffle toward the cathedral door. Just after they pass the fourth station of the cross, the teacher rounds everyone up. “Now, students, what do we tell our guide?” The practiced thank you’s come out in rehearsed unison but so loudly that the echo is comical, “you, you, you.” Even so, the guide politely nods an acknowledgment. Standing alone now, to the side of the communion rail, he smiles and waves his goodbye. I imagine him opening his mouth each Mass for the Body of Christ. I imagine all of our waiting tongues.
Although it is only a few blocks to our earthly “breaking of bread,” within twenty minutes the crowded shopping center overpowers cathedral visions. The girls run in and out of each clothing store, swooning over sweaters and pre-washed jeans. The boys trail, feigning interest and wealth.
Afterwards, at the mall food court, the class clown mimics a Chinese clerk, “No cheeken. No cheeken.” The sixth grader doubles over in laughter, eggs on his classmates to order a Coke from the confused worker. Soon half the class is lined up to hear the “crazy” accents. The adults, lost in their own conversations, prefer not to notice.
On the bus ride home, my daughter returns to the back. This time, she abandons her best friend to sit beside the class clown. They share an iPod, laugh loudly, and argue over favorite stores. They discuss who should have a party and when. (The ride home, my daughter will tell me later, is her favorite part of the trip.) Outside the bus windows, the darkening world hurries by.
Marjorie Maddox is Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University.