My job smells like mildewing cushions, Axe deodorant, and stale urine. It sounds like Drake over cell phone speakers, tastes like maple syrup and instant coffee and looks like a goofball dressed in bright colours leading 40 preteens through Quebec City.
For the past two springs I have been employed as an educational tour guide. Basically, almost every week from mid-April to late June I hop on a coach bus and take kids on end-of-year grade 8 graduation trips. I’ve done trips to Toronto, Montreal and Niagara Falls, but 80 per cent of the time I’m taking kids from small-town Ontario to Quebec City.
It is a pretty cool job. I get to travel, stay in hotels, and eat at restaurants for free. I get to learn about this nation’s history, and sometimes I get free maple merchandise.
If you ask any guide their preference for tour groups, small town schools are usually at the top. Urban schools are hard to generalize, but suburban kids are definitely the least preferred. Suburban kids tend to be bored and spoiled and spend most of their time talking about shit they want their parents to buy them: iPods, wristbands that say ‘I <3 Boobies’, and snapback hats. Suburban kids also buy dumb T-shirts that cause a crisis of moral decency if they go to a Catholic school (in Ontario, Catholic schools are publicly funded).
The first trip I ever did was with a suburban group from Brampton, Ont. and it went to Montreal and Quebec City. All three of the teachers were under 30, had no idea how to control the group and couldn’t wait to go drinking once the students were asleep. And in the morning they were hungover. During guided tours they wandered off and went shopping. They set a horrible example and weren’t supportive, which sucked because it was my first trip and I had no idea what to do. Considering there is a shortage of teaching jobs for education graduates, I’m surprised that those three won the employment lottery. Also, a kid barfed on the drive back. Total bummer.
Kids from small towns and rural places are awesome. Most of the time they think I’m infallible. Some of them had never been outside of the province, stayed in a hotel or used an escalator. On trips, their minds are blown at least thrice daily. Some of them freak out when I jokingly tell them they need a passport to get into Quebec. Some rural kids are afraid to drink tap water because at home water comes from a well.
The only downside of being a tour guide for rural kids is the actual guiding part. Again, some of these kids have never walked around in a city and aren’t used to obeying traffic lights or using a sidewalk. Also, rural kids are super nice and usually make sure to buy a keychain for a younger sibling or their grandmother. Rural teachers are really relaxed and are usually happy if the guide does anything they don’t have to do. One small-town teacher had sewn a Grateful Dead patch on his backpack and followed the band around as a teen. He also bought pet ferrets for his kids. Even if he didn’t he currently holds the title of coolest teacher I’ve ever met.
Despite preteens being kind of annoying, sometimes they do extremely endearing things to garner the approval of the people they look up to. Once, for the sake of conversation, I told a kid that owls were my favourite animals. We went to the Toronto Zoo the next day and she actually bought me a stuffed owl. Owls are now my favourite animal. Moments like these happen often on trip and reassure me that not all preteens are as vacant and selfish as I was. During the same visit to the zoo, a different kid had a panic attack and fainted while looking at a baby gorilla; a day in the life.
On most of the Quebec trips, breakfast is included, students buy lunch on their own (“OMG POUTINE!”), and then they’re taken out for dinner. On almost every trip they’re taken to a sugar shack, where maple syrup is made. Usually, the same stuff happens each time a group visits.
First, a staff member welcomes the students and explains to them how maple syrup is made. The sugar shack guide is usually wearing token Quebecer stuff, like a toque and a flannel shirt and he/she speaks in a thick French Canadian accent. The guide explains that it takes 40 buckets of sap to make one bucket of syrup (metric/imperial systems of measurement aren’t necessary), and he/she says that maple syrup is really healthy and good for you because it’s natural.
The meal begins with an appetizer of pea soup, which is followed by baked beans, various pork products (ham, bacon, sausage, rinds), scrambled eggs, potatoes, bread, and other things that aren’t vegetables. During this time, an old dude is playing French Canadian folk songs on the fiddle or acoustic guitar. Sometimes he’ll invite students to play the spoons and teachers will take photos of them for the end-of-year slideshow. Square dancing lessons ensue. Pancakes or crepes are served for dessert.
Throughout the meal, there are bottles of maple syrup on the table. This is the childhood equivalent of an open bar at a wedding and the kids take to the bottle like a single bridesmaid in a romantic comedy.
Keep in mind, they’ve spent their entire day walking around Quebec City (probably more than they walk in a week). They’re tired, their feet are sore, they’re excited, they’re homesick. This wide range of emotions is amplified by the unregulated consumption of Quebec’s number one natural health product.
At this point, things get crazy. The ADHD kids’ Adderall is wearing off and they’re playing with hand sanitizer or making weird cocktails out of table condiments. The sensitive kids are either crying or doing shit to get attention. The popular kids are stirring up drama because there’s a dance tomorrow and Alex and Maddy have been dating for a week and they should totally make it official by slow dancing together.
I take this microcosm of prepubescent emotions and put it into a 56 passenger Prevost motorcoach and proceed to put a mix CD on the bus PA that I titled Sugar Shack Hyphy. I do this because these kids still won’t shut up and the teachers want them to sleep when they get to the hotel. We have an air guitar championship and a brodown to Skrillex too. This event also shows pre-teens how cool I am because I downloaded a One Direction song.
The kids rock out and arrive to their accommodations tired and in good spirits. Except for the sensitive ones, who are homesick and lost their wallet or something. They’re usually crying at the front of the bus, but the teachers are cool with that because that kid cries all the time. The ends justify the means.
The kids are in their room and I’m finished working by 10 p.m. After that I watch CBC Montreal or go and have a few drinks with other guides. That’s my job in tourism.