Traveling Young by John Gifford, Head of Middle School

Occasionally, I get together with Middle School administrators from other independent schools. These gatherings are valuable opportunities to exchange notes and share opinions.  The conversation occasionally turns to the topic of school trips and many of my colleagues will aggressively dismiss the notion that students in grades seven and eight should travel internationally.   In regard to service travel specifically, these educators (who I respect a great deal, by the way) are quick to point out that there are problems that exist “in our own back yard” that are more appropriate for Middle School students to tackle. In that venue, I try to be as measured as I express an alternate viewpoint but I doubt that my calm inflection does much to hide the passion that is behind the words.

This much I’ll grant: A school that offers service travel to far off (and yes, often expensive) locations without having provided a foundation of service work that is local and important is not serving its students well. In addition, it is important that the school works to provide as much access, in the form of financial assistance, to the service learning opportunities as is possible so that the trips do not become only opportunities for those who can afford them. With that said, I wholeheartedly support international service learning trips for middle school aged students.

I should disclose that I started writing this piece while in South Africa and on the “N1,” the longest stretch of highway on the African continent, rolled under me.  Should I have chosen to do so, I could have driven the 20 students and two other faculty members from Cape Town to Cairo on this, the central artery of Africa. I know that this trip and others like it provide great benefits for young people that are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate on home soil. I’ll try to explain why:

It is not “either or,” it is “both and” 

Nobles Upper School Head, Ben Snyder, and I have been saying this for some time: When it comes to local and international service, it is not “either or,” it is “both and.”

Nobles is in a fortunate position to be able to offer and financially support international service travel in addition to a rich and established local-community service program.  In terms of the hours committed by members of the Nobles community, our local work far outweighs what we are able to accomplish outside of the greater Boston area. That local work serves as a healthy prerequisite to other service opportunities, but we work hard to not have the international work seem like the “advanced degree” version of service!  It is seen as a great success if a student’s work in Romania, for example, leads to work with foster children in Quincy.

That said, while citizens of no single country hold a monopoly on suffering, as members of a developed nation, most Americans are relatively secure in their well-being.  As the globe shrinks and the interconnectedness of economies and cultures become more tightly coiled, it is important that our graduates understand the plight of others. Service travel – full of problem solving conundrums – teaches young people that solutions that would prove effective in the United States may have no impact in a foreign culture. On these trips, young people learn that in unfamiliar environments they should listen and understand first, then strategize accordingly.

Understanding how vastly cultures can differ (and how to navigate it)

With the South Africa trip, which I’ve been leading off and on since 1996, we pluck ourselves up and out of Nobles, endure a monster plane flight and get plunked down into what is, in many ways, a parallel Nobles world.  It is true that St. Brendan’s School lacks our facilities.  Part of its mission is Catholic teachings, there are many more students in each classroom (and oh yes, all the students and teachers are black) but there are surprising similarities.  Like Nobles, St. Brendan’s is coeducational with an exceedingly strong academic program – all students aspire to go to college.  The school population is within 30 students of Nobles – also in grades seven through twelve.  Finally, it starts most days with an all school assembly.

Kids are kids! With all these similarities between our schools, how different could the students at St. Brendan’s be? In some ways this plays out and there are always points of easy and deep connection for the Nobles students and the St. Brendan’s students.  That said, it is immediately obvious that the sensibilities, sense of humor and the manner in which people relate to each other is also quite different.  Girls (and occasionally boys) will hold hands walking to and from class. Technology has yet to establish its grip so there are no laptops or phones but students are often found playing some invented game using a tennis ball with flagstone boundaries.

I find Middle School students remarkable adept at adjusting. Even more than the older students whom I have brought to South Africa they seem eager to learn different ways of doing things.  They seem more ready to learn than to teach and my theory is that it has to do with their developmental stage. As a culture (again a generalization) we tend to believe that we have figured out the “right” ways to get things done.  If we can take advantage of a time when students are receptive to alternate ideas I am all for it.  Time will tell if it allows individuals greater willingness to accept different ideas later in life, but that would be an achievement.

Lack of comfort leads to receptiveness.

When a situation is foreign, students are out of their comfort zone.  I believe that something, almost primal, happens when students are in a completely unfamiliar place.  Their senses heighten. Because everything is different, they consider everything more intensely.  Time seems to slow as they take in their new environment. Memories are chiseled rather than scribbled in their brain.

Kliptown South Africa, is a community of 44,000 in the space of a few city blocks.  Very few of the Kliptown citizens have work.  They have cobbled together shelters from scrap materials and are squatters on land that others didn’t want. There is (only recently) some electricity, there are a limited number of fresh water pumps that the 44 thousand share. The government recently scattered port-o-potties (which they rarely clean out) along the dirt roads. For our students, no matter their background, this is different.

Before we visit the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) for the first day our bus pauses at the top of a hill overlooking Kliptown.  It is a quilt of corrugated metal roofs veined with murky water and muddy paths. The Nobles students peer out the windows and get very quiet.

The walk to KYP is similarly subdued.  Within 100 yards of the youth organization we start to hear the drums. The realization slowly dons on the students that the drums are for them.  More than 50 young South Africans are welcoming them. Performing for them. In their journals, the students write about the experience vividly and with great detail.   And they ask themselves questions: Why do Americans not make music as a community? We felt so welcomed – why do we not greet visitors to Nobles the way we have been welcomed here? Perhaps most importantly: Can they truly be so happy when they have so little?

Later, they go on a home visit with a new friend from KYP.  They enter the dark 10’ by 10’ corrugated metal structures that serve as home for 8 extended family members.  They watch as children doing chores – sweeping dirt floors because they have the pride to maintain what is theirs no matter how humble.

While these experiences are new for most all Nobles students, they are particularly alien for young people.  Movies, books… no life experiences have prepared them for what they live through in Africa.  These images, these experiences, these people, they will always remember.

It isn’t life changing unless you make sure that you change your life

Invariably students come back from the South Africa trip (and others like it) saying that it was life-changing.  My response is always the same: No it isn’t. It isn’t life changing unless you make sure that you actively change your life. It is too easy to get sucked back completely into our day-to-day existence.  Indeed, in most ways we should become reinvested in our “normal” lives.  But it takes a conscientious effort and commitment to have the experience impact your life back home.

Students have come returned and pledged to do everything from raising money in support of the organizations we visited to taking shorter showers.  Both efforts are laudable. A credible indication that the experience has created change is when it leads to a healthy habit or lasting commitment.

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