The saga continues...
Philadelphia. I've been to the city a number of times, but always as a tourist, never a tour guide. I really have no idea how the day is going to go, but I say a little prayer and climb aboard the bus.
Immediately, circumstances beyond our control attempt to disrupt us. We're initially scheduled to arrive in the city sometime before 11 AM in order to make an 11:20 AM appointment at Independence Hall, but traffic is awful. In light of our glacial pace, I get on the phone and begin calling our different scheduled appointments in Philly to see if we can get our in-times moved back. Being the charmer that I am (*eye roll*), I'm able to recalibrate Independence Hall and our dinner appointment at the Hard Rock Cafe. At long last, we make it to the city.
Luckily for me, Philadelphia is a town which is easily walked, so I don't have to worry about orchestrating a bunch of bus pickups and drop-offs throughout the day. The flip side, however, is that our journey on foot is left entirely up to me. Gulp.
We exit the bus at the Constitution Center and I lead the group to the Liberty Bell Pavilion to see one of America's great artifacts. Standing atop a small wall near the entrance I cry out to the assembled mass of teenagers the word's inscribed atop the bell, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof!" I then briefly recap the bell's story (how the crack came to be, etc.) before leading them inside. Some good pictures are taken, then we head down Market Street for lunch. Our Independence appointment looms.
We arrive at Terminal Market - possibly the coolest lunch destination a group could ask for. It's a dizzying array of local eateries (each with a ton of character) crammed underneath a gigantic, old train shed. It's easy to get lost, so the group is given clear instructions before dispersal. I jog over to a German food stand get a fried bologna sandwich dubbed the 'Lyoner'.
So. Darn. Good. The best thing to come out of Germany since Marlene Dietrich.
The kids & adults take longer to reassemble then I would like (nature of the beast) - which is bad because we're in a time crunch to make our recently rescheduled Independence Hall appointment. Once the last stragglers arrive, I announce that everyone needs to stay tight to me and walk fast. Like Washington leading the Continental Army, we make a forced march to Independence Hall.
We manage to get ourselves in line at the appointed hour, but the ranger still gives me the hairy eyeball and scolds me (my group is oblivious). At Independence Hall, it can take sometime to process everyone through security and they need you there as early as possible (we're about ten minutes later then we should be). I apologize and hold my tongue, while inside my brain is screaming, "You're absolutely right Ranger Rick! I should have denied these kids lunch after our hellish bus journey and scurried over here sooner in an effort to please you. Next time I'll make sure to magically leapfrog the traffic getting up here."
My frustration is all over nothing, because the group gets inside without a hitch. I'm left to my own devices for 35 minutes. I now stare directly into the abyss as I'm forced to figure out how I'm going to entertain these kids once the ranger staff is done with them.
You see, even though I've shadowed a group around Philadelphia the week prior, we didn't really do much around the Independence Hall area. This is problematic because once I reunite with the group, it's a full TWO AND A HALF HOURS of just us. I'm in uncharted waters. My mind races.
Now, in the lead up to this tour, it had been suggested to me that (given my level of Philadelphia experience) I should just hand the group a bunch of national park maps and send them off on their own. Perfectly reasonable - happens all the time. This is when my gut-check decides to arrive and my inner Jiminy Cricket admonishes, "Aaron, you've loved learning about the Founding Era as far back as you can remember. It's one of your great passions - what good is any of it if you can't translate your knowledge into a presentation for these kids? Lead your group. Talk to these folks. Be a f***ing tour guide."
Victory or death. Over the next thirty minutes I literally jog around Independence National Park with a reference map in hand going: Alright, there's the 2nd Bank of the United States, so I should tell them this story here, and here's a statue of Robert Morris, so I should tell them this fact, and here's where Benjamin Franklin lived, so I should ask them this question ... and so on.
I get back just as the rangers are turning them loose. It's an-out-of-body experience as I proceed to take my group all over hither and yon - slinging anecdotes, cracking jokes, generating responses, truly guiding my tail off. It's a bright, shiny, enjoyable blur. During a brief pause for a gift shop stop, I even take a few minutes with my iPad to concoct a game called "Kanye West or Benjamin Franklin" which basically entails me throwing out random quotes from these two American legends and having the kids guess who said what. The kids love it - and actually learn something! A fiesty little girl named Nya comes up to me afterwards and says (like a Hollywood talent scout), "That was good, you should do more of that."
Finally, we board the bus and journey to the Philly Art Museum to run up "the Rocky Steps" before dinner. First, I have to explain Rocky to the kids (the reference is lost on them) and I then use my bluetooth speaker to play the iconic theme song over the bus mic system while we are en route. The kids are pumped, the energy is building. Enthusiasm abounds as they charge up the steps and a very fleet-of-foot girl named Madison crushes the competition. Dinner time.
As we're heading back to our hotel after a looooong day on the road, Robin (the lead teacher) says to me, "That's the best day I've ever had with a group in Philly, and I've been doing this for ten years."
Thank you God.
A breeze. After the Philly triumph, I'm riding high. We knock out Vietnam, Lincoln and Korea followed by a Smithsonian stop (American and Natural History are on the menu). Post Smithsonian, I walk them over to Ford's Theater and talk Lincoln assassination. They have a good tour and I meet them outside. We then make one last souvenir run and head over to lunch. Afterwards, they rendezvous with the bus and head home.
There are a healthy amount of high fives, waves and hugs as we part company. I'm left with the distinct feeling that I've done good. One parent even buys me a really nice pen and then hands me a postcard with a note which reads (in part),
As I'm journeying back to pickup my car from the hotel, I reflect back on where I was six months ago as opposed to where I am currently, and I actually feel a tightness in my throat and chest. It's the difference between night and day. Before I allow my eyes to get too hot, I manage to push it all down again. I can't help but think about what a terrifically fun and subtly profound job this is. I tell my folks all about it on the phone.
Part of me can't help but wish I'd have found this work sooner, but God does things on his own timetable. I'm just glad I'm here now.