As anyone who has ever lived near a tourist spot knows, the beginning of May brings the hordes of school groups on their school trips - all sizes, ages, and personalities. I remember when we lived in DC, most people were used to school groups, but there were many mornings on the escalators leading down into the Metro when witnessing a murder seemed to be a real possibility (because who can understand a sign that says something vague like "Please stand to the right" ...)
Anyway, Eastern State is no different, and last week seemed especially crowded with school kids. I had several different groups that I took around on a tour, and they ran the gamut - from 5th graders were well-behaved and paid attention (from the Philadelphia public school system, no less!), to the bored high school kids ("Is there a gift shop? Can we just go there and skip the tour?"), to the junior high group with the chaperone who was annoyed that: a) we had split the entire group into smaller, more manageable sizes for different tour guides to take around, and b) that in doing so, we added GIRLS to his group! (The boys didn't seem to care one way or another, they were too busy waiting to find out how many prisoners were executed on Death Row ...). It was quite the experience to watch him act like an immature little boy while the kids just followed what I was saying and asked reasonable questions.
I do have to say that the one group was quite memorable, mostly because of one kid in the group. This was a group of 7th graders from a private school, and I'll just call the kid Donald (to protect the innocent). From the first word out of my mouth, to the last stop on the tour, Donald always had at least one question, and usually two. Most of the time they were questions that I was more than happy to answer, since he was clearly paying attention. But I knew before I had even finished the next part of the tour, that Donald would raise his hand as soon as I asked if there were any questions from the group. So much so, that at some points, I felt like it was a game - how much could I actually tell them, before he had an urgent question ...
My personal favorite was while we were on the baseball field, and I was talking about how the prisoners had several teams that played a regular season, and that one of the prisoner-created publications, The Umpire, reported game details and statistics in such a thorough manner that they could put The Sporting News to shame.
Donald: I have two questions.
Me (in my brain): Of course you do.
Me: OK, go ahead.
Donald: Well ... if they were outside and playing baseball, that meant that they had bats, right?
Donald: What would happen if a prisoner took the bat and started beating the guards to death?
Me: Well, I'm guessing that other guards would try to stop the prisoner, and that he would be punished. However, as far as I know, that never happened here.
Donald: Oh. Well, my other question is, did Al Capone ever play baseball?
Me: Not here at Eastern State. Though he did buy the sports teams new uniforms while he was here.
Donald: He probably dressed up in one of the new uniforms and played as someone else. Because he probably wouldn't spend all of his money on new uniforms if he couldn't even wear one once.
Me (in my brain): Wow. I didn't see that one coming ...
At the end of the tour, after all of the students had filed past to get back on their buses, one of the teachers pulled me aside to say thank you, and to thank me especially for answering all of Donald's questions, as he is apparently sometimes "a real challenge" (wow, I hadn't noticed). Then she said, "I hope you can at least get a really strong cup of coffee now." (I was thinking of a strong drink, but it wasn't coffee ...)
My other favorite moment was when a young couple who were visiting asked me to take a picture of them together. As I handed back the camera, the guy said, "It's really cool how you have those recorded sounds playing for atmosphere." When I asked what sounds, he paused for a minute, and then said, "That one - did you hear it?" I listened for another minute, and realized the source of those recorded sounds:
Real, live mourning doves.
You know, seriously - I don't think I could make this stuff up if I tried ...
**By the way - for anyone who is interested, and in the Philadelphia area, this coming Sunday (May 17), is Alumni Reunion weekend, where former guards and inmates will be around to talk to the public about life when they were at Eastern State. (Boy, I'll bet Donald could keep them busy.)**