Nobody could find Zack anywhere. All we had to do was give him a phone message. The message was cryptic - it just said "I'm home okay" - but nobody could locate the kid. I walked up and down the New York City dinner cruise boat looking for Zack, one of the 48 kids on my Wheels bus in 2002. It was only the second day of the trip and there were four buses (about 200 kids) on the boat - finding him was no easy task. I met up with one of my co-staff members and we both shrugged our shoulders. We tried to remember what he looked like but the only detail in my mind was that he was wearing a University of North Carolina hat. It takes a while to have every kids name and face memorized.
The boat docked and we put 97.9% of our kids back on the bus. The group leader stayed off for the time being, cell phone pressed against his ear. Next to him was the program director, also on her phone. All of the kids might as well have had their noses pressed against the glass watching this mess unfold.
Then the police showed up. It was logical - a group gets on a boat cruise with 48 kids and returns with 47. Though I probably couldn't pick him out of a line up, I hoped he wasn't dead.
Earlier that day Zack had pulled another vanishing act. During a visit to the Museum of Natural History we gave the kids free reign, provided they met back at a certain time. Zack, an NYC native, spent a little time in the museum before sliding out one of the side doors, hopped on a subway train and went to a friends house. He returned in time for check in none of us the wiser.
Confident over his afternoon success, he bragged to a few of the other kids, saying he could probably skip the boat cruise and nobody would notice. He went on to say he didn't even want to be on the trip and he was sent there as punishment. As prior to any activity, the kids lined up and we counted them, reaching our desired total of 48. We began to walk down the dock, but Zack dropped back, hid in the bathroom until we were gone and hopped a train uptown to his Uncle's house. Once there he phoned the office to let us know where he was and that he had arrived okay. Considering we might panic, this was a thoughtful gesture. Unfortunately the office heard this as a message to Zack, not from Zack, resulting in all the evenings events being set in motion.
As the cops showed up and discussed the very real idea of dragging the river, our group leader received a phone call from Zack's mom. She had originally had no idea where he was and was freaking out when we first contacted her. Eventually on her list of emergency contacts, she reached the same Uncle's house where fled to. We now had a dilemma: the group had to head back to our hotel in New Jersey and get ready to drive to Boston the next morning. What would happen to Zack - his status on the trip and his luggage that still resided in the Jersey hotel.
"Leave his stuff in Jersey," his mom said, "we'll come get it. He's not going on the trip."
Judging by her comments she had come to a realization that this trip would not serve as a good punishment for someone. If he didn't want to be there he would find a way not to be there. In the years that followed, the staff began to make ID cards with kids pictures and names. These are one of the first things made in the pre-trip week. Before they are distributed to the kids, the staff uses them as study aides to memorize who is who before actually meeting them for the first time. I think we might have played a big role in why the ID card studying became such common practice.