I arrived at my place of employment at precisely 8:45 pm on June 16, 2012, where a rented car was waiting for me just outside of the door.
“Are you… Brittany?” said the driver of the vehicle. He opened the door and I climbed into the backseat, which contained all of the modern conveniences. Peppermints, bottled water. I tightly hugged my tote full of folders and lanyards as we embarked upon our adventure.
The driver and I talked about pistachio ice cream, train rides through Eastern Europe, and the meat industry. I confessed my worries about getting twenty-one Vietnamese kids through the airport terminal.
“You’re selling yourself too short, Brittany,” said the driver. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Maybe I am. What’s the worst that can happen, anyways?”
The drive went quickly and I took my bag and my clipboards to the terminal. I looked for Hanoi on the board of arriving flights and only saw Paris, Istanbul, and Taipei. At that point I was absolutely certain that I was already in the wrong place. A French woman in a headscarf approached me asking me, in French, the best way to get into Manhattan. Soon I was playing the role of the translator as she discussed the least expensive mode of transportation with an airport employee. It was exhilarating.
I raced back to the gate, which was just as barren as I’d left it. Employees in suits and bellboy uniforms paced around leisurely in the proximity of some unclaimed baggage. I must have missed the group. The Vietnamese kids came and left and were probably taking scam artist taxis all the way to the school for a meager $500 per student. I bugged the employees again and they assured me the plane had been late and the kids were probably just getting to customs.
A flood of people who looked like they might be from Taiwan flooded through, dragging bags and embracing their families beyond the gate. Time passed. Suddenly everyone was Turkish and I did the only thing I could do: I whined to the airport employees again. Are there any more Vietnamese people back there? Are you sure? Am I really in the right terminal? They comforted me by saying that my group was probably still in customs and it could take a long time if they’ve never been to the US before. I called the emergency number to inform the school that my group was very late.
About an hour and a half later I was approached by a woman who appeared to be of Middle Eastern decent and two kids, all wearing tee-shirts from my school. She pointed at my clipboard from the international school and waved to me. This cannot be, I thought. They don’t look Vietnamese at all. Who do these people think they are, pretending to be Vietnamese? But then again, just because they don’t look Vietnamese doesn’t mean they don’t live in Vietnam. Perhaps they emigrated. There is nothing wrong with emigrating. People emigrate every day. I handed her a folder labeled “Group Leader” and welcomed her to New York.
“Are there twenty-two of you?” I asked urgently.
They smiled and nodded and I quickly determined that they didn’t actually speak English. Maybe they weren’t part of my group after all. Then I took back the folder and I called the emergency number.
“Hello, is part of my group Turkish? I haven’t found a large group of Vietnamese kids, but I do have three Turks and… they seem to want to go with me.”
Just then a beeline of Vietnamese kids in blue and pink tee-shirts emerged from the crowd, waving enthusiastically.
“Uh, hold on, I think I found the Vietnamese group. I’m just going to go greet them now. I’ll call you back,” I told the emergency contact and hung up. “Welcome to New York!”
The leader of the group explained that one girl was still detained in customs. A Vietnamese person with the same name had come through JFK earlier that day and airport security deemed her suspicious. They were going to hold on to her indefinitely.
From across the room, the Middle Eastern family gave me a wave and indicated that they had found their ride, a man with a black driver’s hat and a sign. I was relieved that they weren’t my responsibility after all.
I introduced myself to clusters of drowsy kids who rolled around on baggage carts and wandered off to the bathrooms without any supervision. I attempted to learn their names. Every once and a while a man would come from customs and tell us we had to keep waiting. A little before one in the morning the girl we were waiting for finally emerged from customs – not an imposter after all, it turns out. I called the emergency number again to tell them that everything was finally okay.
Once we boarded the bus, I handed out their student I.D. cards. Every time I read a name, the bus erupted with muffled giggles. Am I saying something dirty? I asked myself after each name. After four names, I passed the load of name tags off to the group leader.
I explained the rules of the school, such trivialities as why they can’t drink, why they can’t smoke in their rooms, why they can’t pull the fire alarm at their leisure. Sometime after I tackled the subject of urinating in public areas, the group leader told me that a student realized his passport was missing. We were halfway to the school and it was one in the morning. I whipped out my cell phone and dialed the emergency number. They said we would just have to turn the bus around and find it. A collective sigh rose from the bus seats, mine among them.
A half hour later we were at JFK airport once again. I paced the bus aisles while the student and group leader rummaged through the luggage compartment of the bus and the bus driver scoured the pavement in search of scattered documents. After a long search, they returned with a passport.
“It was in the back of the bus all along,” the group leader announced.
I called the emergency number.
“We found the passport. We’re on our way. For real, this time.”
When I lead the army of half-asleep students with rolling suitcases into their dormitory at 2:30 in the morning, a crowd of students smoking outside of the door greeted us with applause. I didn’t get home myself until 3:00.