Thursday, November 14, 2013

Neue Kinder auf dem Block

If you want to know the truth, I don't remember the first time I left the country. I'm under the impression that I once ventured south of the border before my fifth birthday, and the second time involved lunch in Windsor, just across the northern border from Detroit, at a point in time when I could at least read. Neither of those count as foreign excursions in my book; you didn't even need a passport for them.

I'm not sure how I became interested in travel. I remember in high school wanting to go to UCLA to get as far away from Ohio as I could, but I don't recall harboring the notion that I could go to other countries. It just wasn't something people did in Southwest Ohio. Then the phone call came, the one that changed my outlook on the world. It came from a coach who wanted me to play in a softball tournament in Sydney, Australia.

I was only seventeen during that trip. The chaperones weren't exactly vigilant in their stewardship of a team of 17-18 year old girls, but they didn't exactly give us our freedom either. We participated in pre-planned activities, supposedly meant to experience the "culture" but in reality were designed to reinforce the stereotypes that tourists had of Australia. They took us to a zoo where we petted koalas, a farm where we watched sheep farmers throw boomerangs, and some caverns in the Blue Mountains. The mountains themselves were probably most interesting as a kid coming from the flat ennui of Ohio. I carried a camera that used 110 film; all of the pictures came out uncentered, most of them blurred. For whatever reason, I also decided to use up a whole roll of film taking pictures of the opera house while we were on a boat tour of the harbour. I was a terrible photographer.

I wish I could tell you how I felt being there and how I viewed my first "foreign" experience, but I just don't remember. They dropped us off at a mall twice, as if we couldn't get that experience back home. Malls were one thing Sydney and Southwest Ohio had in common, although racks of rugby shirts and soccer jerseys were something of an oddity. I believe the most exotic thing about the whole trip was that I was in a big city. I'd never been to a big city before - Cincinnati wasn't exactly a sprawling metropolis, and even those trips were just to the ballpark and home.

What I do know, however, is the mere act getting a passport, boarding a plane, and traveling to another country sparked a desire to see what else there was in the world. That's how I ended up going to Miami University. What had been a trip to Oxford merely to get out of a day of school turned into a life-altering experience. By a quirk of fate, the tour guide during my visit was doing the Luxembourg program the next year, and I knew instantly what I wanted to do.

And I did.

If I hadn't been a good athlete, I'm not sure I would have ever left the country. What if I had never received that phone call? Perhaps I would have gone to UCLA, or maybe I would have gone to Miami anyway, without that curiosity about those little yellow and green and orange spots on a map. But maybe that curiosity was always there. There was that presentation given by the school counselor in Mr. Rawers's fifth grade class. She had just returned from a vacation to Italy and Greece and showed us slides from her trip. I remember experiencing a profound sadness as I looked at the ruins of those once great civilizations. That was about the time I was reading Edith Hamilton's book on Greek mythology, which I found fascinating. And then there were Mr. Daugherty's eighth grade geography map drills, when I learned where on the map were every country, major city, river, body of water, mountain chain, etc. I excelled in those contests, when he'd call out a geographical place and students before two maps had to compete to point to it first. My mom even let me hang a map in the hallway so I could practice. So I guess there were clues.

Still, it was that opportunity to go to Australia that made me realize I could visit those places myself. I think that's a big problem in America - people just don't think they can go to those places. It doesn't occur to them to go to Paris instead of Disneyworld or to the Alps instead of the Rockies. I was talking to a guy last night who has lived in Germany for seven years who can't get his Floridian father to visit him unless he comes back to Washington, though for his father it's a nine hour flight to Munich and a twelve hour drive to Washington. It makes no sense to the well-traveled. That's why I'm reflecting upon my first venture beyond our nation's borders, trying to figure out a way to get more Americans out of their red, white, and blue cocoons. Only when you travel outside it can you see America for what it really is, and trust me, you undergo an awakening. Unless you choose not to (and there's plenty of that.)

The school counselor's slideshow was the only exposure to the world outside the US that I can remember in elementary school. I vaguely remember learning the countries of Western Europe, mostly because I was puzzled about why we stopped paying attention to the map at a line down the middle of the continent. We weren't really allowed to talk about those countries in Eastern Europe due to our mandatory hatred of the Soviet Union. I'm sure students these days have more exposure to the outside world than I did simply by virtue of technology. But with the state of our education system and the way we produce cultural zombies with our standardized tests and common core principles, I imagine that their exposure is far too limited. Worse, our vastly unequal school districts leave some schools without access to our grand new technological world. Heck, some of them can't even get updated textbooks, let alone new computers. My high school sophomore World History textbook was from 1960 - the Vietnam War hadn't even happened when it was published. That was twenty years ago, and the problem of outdated textbooks hasn't improved much.

One year during elementary school - I want to say it was in sixth grade - our class participated in a pen pal program with a school in Texas. What stands out in my memory the most are the repeated mentions of "New Kids on the Block" in their letters. NKOTB hadn't hit the radiowaves at that time in Southwest Ohio, so to us, these kids seemed exotic because they had something we didn't. (I realize that Texas acts like a foreign country, but since we still don't need a passport to travel there, we can still count it as part of USA.) Imagine kids being pen pals with students from other countries, how much they could learn from it. And just think - you could use Google Hangouts or some other video technology instead of pen and paper. Students could make videos of where they live and show each other. Can you imagine the look on a surburban USA kid's face when a kid in Ghana shows him what his town is like? What? You have McDonald's too?

This is my dream, of course. While so-called education experts are worsening US schools by implementing common core, they should be erasing archaic notions of schooling that see our students falling further and further behind others in the world. One horrifying example of our backwardness: some US schools don't even teach geography. Why why why why why why why? I know this country has a history of isolationism and xenophobia, but we can no longer afford to think that we don't need to know about anything beyond our nation's borders. Our flawed foreign policy and history of wars and 9/11 are a direct reflection of our collective ignorance.

The US State Department has many programs that bring US culture to students in other countries, such as the Sports Diplomacy program led by Cal Ripken, Jr. and other US athletes. I wonder if we can't work with embassies from other countries to implement programs that bring their cultures to US citizens in places like Southwest Ohio that don't get much exposure. Imagine South Africans teaching US students at Dayton Public Schools how to play rugby or Italians teaching opera basics at a rural school in Iowa or Egyptians teaching the history of ancient Egypt to kids in Mississippi or...I'm dreaming again...

Whether by fate or by accident, I've been fortunate enough to explore two regions of the world in depth. I want to see everything I've never seen and revisit every place I've already been. Everyone should have that chance, and they shouldn't be afraid to do it. An intellectual curiosity about the world and an understanding of global connectedness should be instilled in early childhood and continue even when we're wrinkled and gray. So go to and book a ticket!

*I don't speak German and I don't care if it's a bad translation. Google translate translates New Kids on the Block as New Kids on the Block.

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