Garry, meet Grace

26th September 2003 at 01:00
For many teachers the holidays are a rare opportunity to get to know their own children a bit better. Garry Burnett learned plenty about his five-year-old daughter on a family trip to Florida

Day 1. As the air-hostess demonstrates the emergency procedures, the only person listening is my five-year-old daughter, Grace, who apparently believes the nice smiling lady at the front is playing some kind of head-shoulders-knees-and-toes game. Grace copies the woman's arm movements as she shows us how to operate the life-jackets and oxygen masks. When she finishes, Grace shouts "again", and the hostess obliges, this time in French. Once again my daughter copies her every movement. So she should be all right in an emergency.

As our plane flies high above Nova Scotia, my son asks if Canada will "count" as one of the countries he has visited. I say "probably not" because his feet haven't touched the ground. "So when we went through Holland in the car to Germany last year," he reasons "and my feet never touched the ground there, that means I haven't been to Holland either."

As I can't be bothered to argue, I say: "I suppose so, yes."

"So if I'd gone on my bike through Holland," he adds, "and never put my feet down. Or what if I'd kept my shoes on?" Socratic logic in the hands of a 12-year-old could lead anywhere.

Getting our suitcases takes longer than the journey from Greenland to Atlanta, where we now impatiently queue. Grace asks repeatedly if we are "on holiday yet". I try to apply the same arguments my globetrotting son did for visiting Canada, but she is unconvinced.

She is going through an annoying hitting phase, which we try to ignore in the hope it will soon pass, especially as we are entering a country with a culture of lawsuits. Her main victims are her elder brother and sister, so I try to reason with her.

"Please don't do that."


"Because hitting isn't kind."

"Yes it is."

"Good girls don't hit."

"Yes they do."

"You are a good girl" "No, I'm a naughty girl."

"Naughty girls don't hit either."

"They do too."

So much for all the positive affirmations.

Bored with the long wait for passport check and immigration control, she decides to entertain the crowd with a Sex Pistols number. "I don't want a holiday in the sun," she sings. I tell my wife we should perhaps reconsider our choice of playgroup but she points out that Grace learned the song from our son, who has just discovered punk rock.

Day 3

Seizing the opportunity to fill the silence at the dinner table in our rather posh hotel, Grace decides to engage me in adult conversation. "When I'm a big girl, I'm going to grow hairs on my bottom. Grandma's got hairs on her bottom, hasn't she?"

"Yes," I agree, hoping the subject will change once she realises she has gone down a conversational cul-de-sac. "Mummy," she calls across the restaurant as my wife arrives, "Daddy says Grandma has hairs on her bottom." I can't win. Nor do I want to. Just to survive the next two weeks will be enough.

Day 4

Twenty-six chattering Japanese businessmen in navy blue blazers, ties and black plastic Mickey Mouse ears are waiting to check in at the hotel reception as we arrive back. "I guess you guys have been to Disney," says the desk-clerk in a masterstroke of irony.

Earlier in the day at Seaworld, Grace is drenched by Shamu, the 30-tonne performing killer whale, and immediately bursts into tears as she receives a face-full of cold, salty water.

"Aw, what's the matter?" asks my son, who I'm sure is secretly enjoying the moment after patient weeks of being on the receiving end of "hitting". "The fish splashed me," she garbles between sobs.

Day 5

"I just love your English accent," says the rather attractive gas station attendant at Wal-Mart in Monroeville, Florida, as I fill up the hire car.

"You come along an' talk to me any time you're in town. Next time I'll call my sister so's she can come along an' listen too." (We have a strong link with Monroeville. In 1998 I brought a group of Year 10 pupils here as it's the home town of Harper Lee and the thinly disguised setting of her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.) "Oh, thenk you," I reply, sounding like a cross between Leslie Phillips and Hugh Grant. "I didn't realise my eccent was seh strong."

Day 7

Some people take the "all-you-can-eat" aspect of the breakfast buffet literally and return to their seats several times with piled-high plates.

There does seem to be an awful lot of obesity around. And why do these people always seem to wear the most immaculate designer shorts and trainers?

In Seaworld some people are driving what I mistake for electric buggies for disabled people, but which turn out to be chariots for people who just can't be bothered to walk. In the long queue for the rollercoaster, a very stout man waits more than 25 minutes for a special front seat with two very thin children, only to find he is too wide for the safety harness. His humiliated children ride alone.

I breathe a huge sigh of relief as the harness fits comfortably around me.

From behind the safety fence the stout man's head looks as if it is resting on the top of a pile of ironing.

Day 8

The parade at Disney lives up to all our expectations. Grace jumps up and down with glee as her favourites, "the 'warfs", dance into view. Something is obviously wrong though, when Snow White signals to a security guard and then points to Grumpy, who appears to be suffering from the heat. Grumpy is led away by the hand, presumably for a drink and a cool-down, his sullen look and drooping shoulders fitting the moment perfectly.

"Why is he going away?"

"He's probably too hot in his suit," I reassure Grace.

"What suit?"

Day 12

We are invited by Robert Champion, the chief of police in Monroeville, where we're staying, to visit police headquarters so the children can take a ride in a real American police car. As he writes out directions, he tells us we must turn left at a "caution" sign but struggles to spell the word "caution".

It might be worrying that a gun-carrying police officer is so unfamiliar with the word "caution" that he can't spell it, but this is Robert Champion, our buddy, who arrives to work late and leaves early and whose main responsibility as chief in this small town, it seems, is "the doughnut run".

When I tell Robert that he has a namesake in England who was a famous jockey he immediately invites us to his "ranch" so the children can ride his horse, Chuck, who accompanies him on Civil War re-enactments. It becomes Grace's favourite day, more talked about even than the $200-a-time theme-park excursions.

Day 14

The taxi journey home from Seaworld is, at no extra charge, in a glossy stretch limo. As Grace begins to sing "The Wheels on the Bus", my son asks if the driver has ever had anybody famous in the car.

"Only you."

"Cool," says my son.

In another fortuitous lull in the conversation and general noise in the hotel restaurant, Grace sees an opportunity to entertain the audience with her latest song. "God save the Queen..." she sings amid a chorus of smiles, "Aaws" and "Ain't she cutes".

"...the fascist regime."

So she's on to punk and politics now.

Day 17

Off Pensacola's sugar-white beach, the Gulf of Mexico shimmers like a sparkling, sunlit swimming pool. A little girl nearby flies a rainbow kite shaped like an arrow-head in the clear sky.

I try to avoid thinking "this time next week" and feel sure I imagined the breath of cool air that blows from the Atlantic.

Garry Burnett teaches English at Malet Lambert school, Hull. He is also the author of Learning to Learn - making learning work for all students (Crownhouse 2003)

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