The late Appalachian writer James Still was noted for challenging people to “learn at least one thing new every day.” Around 90 at the time of his death, his advice was definitely worth taking. One of the things I hope to instill in my students is that they would become lifelong learners.
Whether we plan on it or not, we all continue to learn over the course of our lifetime. I recently flew to Boston to be a guest speaker at Harvard for an educational class taught by Berea native Dr. Sky Brosi Marietta. It was probably a situation where I, as a teacher, learned more lessons than I expected.
First of all, I hadn’t flown anywhere by myself since before the infamous date of Sept. 11, when the World Trade Center came down. Airport security has definitely changed in the years since I last flew. Not having the television on for days during the trip, I had no idea that security had been increased due to all of the mayhem happening in the Middle East against the United States foreign diplomats because of the video which was released on YouTube by an independent film maker.
No one was allowed to walk me to or from the flight gates. Once I made it through the security checkpoint, I was totally on my own. Shuttle cars, escalators and moving sidewalks ferried me to my departure gates with security guards at attention all over the place. Officials were helpful when I had to ask for directions, but it was in a very “no nonsense” kind of way.
My flight took two hours. I hadn’t realized that Boston is 500 miles north of Chicago. I guess I hadn’t realized it before and had no reason to wonder about the distance, until it started getting dark between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. That much further north does make a difference in daylight hours.
The man sitting next to me pointed out Cape Cod as we were headed in for a landing in Boston. It looked as if we were going to sit right down in the middle of all the sailboats on the water. I also hadn’t realized that the ocean water temperature stays at about 55 degrees year round. Living on the beach in Cape Cod is entirely different than living on the beach of North Carolina, Georgia or Florida. People don’t go to the beach to swim because the water is too cold year round.
Boston is a small city. There were smaller skyscrapers and not that many of them along the seaboard. Traffic is as crazy as anywhere I’ve ever been with exits pointing three opposite directions at one time. I was glad not to be the one driving!
The Harvard campus is not at all what I had expected. There are historic campus buildings all along the way, but new ones have filled up empty spaces in recent times. Harvard Yard is literally the green space between the buildings and sidewalks where grass and ancient trees grow. Students and tourists alike are allowed to sit on the lawn, bring chairs, or blankets to study and enjoy the atmosphere.
I was amazed at the number of tourist groups constantly patrolling the campus with cameras in hand. They were there from the time we got up early in the mornings until well after dark. The pitter patter of tourist feet and their excited chatter (in many languages) was constant. I had never thought of a university campus anywhere being a major tourist attraction.
I was the guest of Drs. Sky and Geoff Marietta and their two year old son, Harlan (named appropriately for Harlan, Ky. where Sky has done much of her educational investigation at both Yale and Harvard). They serve as dormitory directors on campus with a variety of interesting students under their care. Their 570 foot square apartment was the most efficient use of space I have ever seen. Twelve foot ceilings with many shelves made the space seem much larger and allowed them storage space for all of their personal needs.
We walked everywhere across campus. Parking spaces are so hard to come by that they often had to park their vehicle many blocks away from the dorm. But life in the city is different and driving not as necessary for them as it would be for us in southeastern Kentucky. Within a two block radius of their dorm, there were 50 restaurants to choose from and a variety of shops. They even walk their son to daycare. Healthcare is also available on campus. They both work and teach on campus. Most of the time, their life is very compacted.
However, that doesn’t mean that what they do is compacted in any way. There was a melting pot of humanity to behold. Walking down the sidewalks and through the crowds, we probably passed people from 20 or more countries on any given stroll. Whether by custom or time constraints, people don’t make eye contact, and only speak to people they know as they bustle along through the busy sidewalks.
I couldn’t help noticing faces and eyes of individuals we met or passed along the way. It is possible to be surrounded by people on every side, even be in the middle of a tourist group, and still be totally alone. I could see the loneliness on many faces, and feel the isolation of certain strangers as we passed.
Basically, we all have the same human needs whether on a bustling Harvard Campus or a back road in Harlan County. People need food and water, shelter and purpose. People need to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to feel accepted and valued for who they are, what they believe and hold dear.
My purpose in going was to speak to Sky’s class, Rural Schools, Rural Communities. The day’s instruction in particular was about Identity, Culture, and the Goals of Schooling. With this being my 30th year in the Harlan County School System (all having been spent at Wallins Elementary), I suppose she felt I definitely represented what they were studying. The class was three hours long on a Friday and when the class time was up, we had to relocate for the next class to come in. She told her students we would relocate to a group of tables near another building for more questions and answers, but they were excused if they needed to go. Every single one of them followed us there, like little ducks in a row and stayed an extra 40 minutes! It was the fastest three hours and forty minutes of my life!
On Saturday, we took a boat ride out into Boston Harbor and walked around downtown. It was a typical downtown area with street vendors, restaurants, shops and offices. It was a whole different world and I enjoyed every minute of it. From going into the church that George Washington attended, to walking down the path of the historic Minute Men riding to warn that the British were coming, to eating in the Harvard Dining Hall (much like the one portrayed in Harry Potter movies, I’ve been told), to navigating the airport, I had an amazing, wonderful experience with plenty to learn.
In the end, it seems like a dream, and I am glad to be back in southeastern Kentucky until my next adventure.