TARPON SPRINGS — For a man who would soon be responsible for 50 people traveling throughout France this week, most of whom aren’t even old enough to drive, Robert Knable seemed unusually calm as he boarded a charter bus Sunday morning.
Knable, choir director for East Lake High School, has taken students to the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Mormon Tabernacle and Disney World, and corralling students onto planes and busses has become a science.
He’s also spent nearly twenty years dreaming of the day he would take the 31 students and 19 adults on a commemorative tour for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. Knable made the same trip for the 50th anniversary of June 6, 1944, the turning point of World War II when 150,000 allied troops invaded Nazi-occupied France.
So at 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning, as his bleary-eyed, loungewear-clad singers filtered into the choir room full of excitement, nerves and Starbucks, Knable set his carefully engineered dominoes into motion. Bags were weighed and checked for flight regulations before they were even loaded onto the charter bus bound for Miami, the only airport that offers direct flights to Paris. Each student was given a number, matching navy T-shirts, luggage tags and a “surrogate parent” to make sure they stay with the group. Plastic bags were provided for toiletries to make sure they pass airport security. Plane tickets weren’t left to chance, every one, including his own, kept digitally in his wife’s iPad. Even parents staying behind were provided with extra printout’s of the group’s itinerary, emailed beforehand.
“We have been working on this all year long. It’s been so much work, so now just drink in everything,” Knable said to his class before they boarded their bus. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so just enjoy it as much as you possibly can.”
The students will perform four concerts in Paris, two in local cathedrals, one at the Normandy American Cemetery where more than 9,000 soldiers are buried, and one in the Notre Dame Cathedral.
“I can’t wait to see her sing in Notre Dame,” said Jennifer Lash, who is continuing her tradition of chaperoning every field trip her 15-year-old daughter Megan Goodell has attended. “This is the mother of all field trips so I had to go, and it’s exciting to see all those landmarks and learn about American History from another country’s perspective.”
After school practices and fund raising efforts began last year with concerts, candy and candle sales, car washes, and even, as Goodell put it, “standing in front of Walgreens and CVS begging for money.”
All fund raising went solely to the $3,287 it would cost each student, including everything down to gratuities. To make sure students understood the importance of the sights they visit, Advanced Placement World History teacher Alan Kay, who is also chaperoning the trip, has spent the year giving parents and students history lessons. WWII veterans, 90- and 92-year-olds who jumped with 101st Airborne the night before the invasion and pilots of planes who dropped paratroopers, spoke to students during a spaghetti dinner fundraiser and history night.
“The death toll was just amazing, and the thing that really struck me is that it’s not like the Army went away,” said 15-year-old Bobby Johnson. “My whole life we’ve been at war, and my uncle has been a medic in Afghanistan for two years. This trip means the world to me, I’ll never get another chance to do this.”
Their one-hour set list includes sacred hymns, French pieces and popular 1940’s songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Don’t sit under the Apple Tree.” Another piece was written by Knable for the 50th D-Day anniversary, a combination of the United States’ national anthem and the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” sung at the same time.
“The friendship of France and America goes back nearly 400 years and the French people are still very indebted to us for what we did in World War II,” Knable said. “I’ve gotten calls from French people wanting to contribute to our trip, and calls from people saying if it weren’t for our country they feel like their country would be speaking a different language. This has been a huge history lesson for all of us, and it’s going to be an amazing trip.”
And for 16-year-old Clarisse Fres, one of three graduating seniors on the trip, it will also provide the perfect ending to her own history at East Lake High. The young senior will enroll at the University of South Tampa in the fall to study biomedical sciences, and the trip provides the “perfect graduation gift,” she said.
“It’s a little sad to think about leaving, but it’s also cool to go on this trip with the other grades to keep that friendship alive and I get to have one last big bonding experience with my mom,” Fres said as she clutched her USF sweatshirt. “This is already going to be an emotional trip, but going to college next year makes it even more meaningful.”