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The Recipe for Wonder

In last week’s post, The Importance of Being You, I asked a few hard questions related to how we are inspired early in our growing up years to be filled with life-long curiosity and a natural sense of wonder. In brilliant response to that post, my new smart friend Jessica Gestwicki pointed out the importance of hands-on experiences versus interacting virtually with YouTube videos or photographs. She said, “We’ll always become our best by doing and experiencing, and I think young kids are ripe for this sort of adventure.”

I know she’s right, and I agree wholeheartedly. There is something gnawing at me that I hope might stir you too: due to continued decreases in school funding combined with the massive pressure to improve standardized test scores, school field trips are at an all-time low. When I think back to my own childhood, the most unique and inspirational experiences I had were typically the result of a school field trip. Even though my parents did expose my older brother and I to some pretty amazing things, we were not a family with a lot of disposable income. Field trips were the vehicle that delivered my brother and I into new experiences my family simply could not have otherwise afforded.

The very first school trip I can remember taking was in the fourth grade. We traveled on buses from Eaton, Indiana to someplace I think in Illinois where we stayed for what seemed like four months, but was probably no more than three days. This trip was simply called "Lincoln." The whole purpose of the trip was to learn about Abraham Lincoln, see his log cabin, tour a museum, and also experience living away from home for more than one night in a cabin with a bunch of classmates. This involved learning several different character skills, such as how to get along with five other girls in our tiny room of bunk beds, trusting that the adults on the trip truly did care enough about me that if I were to start bleeding from the eyes they would get me medical attention, and believing my parents were right when they insisted that I not only go on the trip, but also attempt to do my very best to learn from and enjoy every moment of it.

I remember dreading it. I was so fearful, but I don’t know why. Nothing terrible had ever happened to me. I was that oversensitive weird kid who couldn’t handle being away from home for more than one night at a friend’s house, the one who was painfully aware of being different than, but with no explanation or understanding of why I felt that way other than the persistent evidence that I was typically not the girl in the room getting in trouble for laughing or passing notes. I was an intense, serious little girl. I am forever thankful that my parents did not coddle me in that state, that they pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me onto the school bus.

While the trip was meant to teach me something about Abraham Lincoln, the experience of being away from home taught me two things far more important: I could handle being away just fine once I got going; and if you are willing to join in and try rolling down a muddy hill after a rainstorm with the other kids, you might accidentally find yourself having fun and making new friends. To this day, I remember that sensation of euphoria I felt as the mud splashed on my face and wetted my sweatshirt. I knew then as much as I know now that at least 95% of that feeling in my heart was attributable to a sense of reward at having climbed on top of the intimidation, conquering my I can’ts forever and allowing my disdain for silliness to waver. It surely helped fuel my moxie to get on the big roller coaster I was finally tall enough to ride the following summer.

That tumble down the hill unlocked me in a way in which nothing in the classroom nor my home life had yet been capable, and this experience required that specific complex mix of circumstances. Had I been in my own backyard, no fear would have preceded it. There would have been nothing unknown to conquer. If my parents had been on that trip, I don't believe I would have felt the same autonomy to try being a little different than I’d always been, probably wouldn’t have felt so free to join in with the other giggling girls; not because of anything my parents were or weren’t doing, but because we all tend to behave how we are expected to behave. (Cervantes understood this.) This silliness was out of character for me. And had I not already been pushed beyond my comfort zone of being so far away from home for an extended period of time, I don’t think I would have opened up enough inside of my own head and heart to try out being a little different. I found myself out of my element, and that was a tremendous blessing.

In doing some research to find out if elementary schools still do this sort of thing, I came across more than a few forums in which today’s parents seem to be in total agreement with one another that this overnight field trip business is an absolute nonsensical idea. Many reasons were cited, not the least of which being the fervent belief that any and every adult who might be left alone with a child must be persistently suspected of pedophilia, the ugly suspicion itself acting as some magical spell of protection for one’s own child. I feel sorry for chaperones. You’re damned if you leave children unattended and damned if you are attending to them! Most parents said fourth or fifth grade was just “too young” for any type of overnight away from parents, but with no real reasons for why. Shockingly, nearly all of the parents agreed that the money that would be spent on the trip would be better spent inside the classroom in some way, justifying that stance by arguing that poorer kids who probably needed the experience the most wouldn’t be able to afford the trip anyhow.

I obviously disagree.

When I was in middle school, the annual seventh grade school trip to Washington, D.C. put me on an airplane for the first time. We had a school fundraiser to help out with the cost, and although I always hated doing those, it was a fine way for folks in the community to support us all going. No child was left behind. I got to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, felt the tears hot in my eyes in the sobriety of standing there in a small crowd watching silently while those stoic soldiers performed the honors. It was my first experience of feeling pride and gratitude for all that had been sacrificed in order for me to have the freedoms and prosperity of which I am an undeserving beneficiary. I saw Lincoln’s Memorial, remembering the humble cabin I’d seen just four years prior. I saw an uncountable number of wonders at the Smithsonian. I saw where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood to give his famous speech. All of it made me appreciate at a much deeper level the importance of serving others, of being aware that I live in unbelievable privilege simply because I was born in the USA. The experience of being there, of seeing the capital of our country and the graves at Arlington and that awful Vietnam wall where I saw people weeping as their fingers massaged a cherished name, opened the eyes of my heart to a world outside of my tiny town. I’d seen photos of these things and been taught about these things in my social studies class. They were ineffective at achieving the same change in my perspective.

On a recent trip to the Indianapolis Repertory Theater, the audience was reminded to consider donating to the fund the theater uses to help support field trips to the theater for underprivileged students. Thanks to the generous support of the Alan and Linda Cohen Education Fund, the IRT is able to offer some financial assistance, but the need is greater than any one fund can support. I was immediately taken back to the high school field trip my French Class took to the IRT. It was the first time I’d ever been there, and we had French cuisine after the show. We saw Cyrano de Bergerac. I remember it being magnificent, and it remains a favorite of mine to this day. There was a unique quality to watching the play unfold without my parents sitting next to me. My mom took us to see performances at Ball State’s Emens Auditorium as we were growing up, but being in this theater with my classmates made me feel independently sophisticated. I was autonomous that day, drawn into the scenes created on stage, blissfully and utterly in the moment. I had a vision of my future, of experiencing the freedom to make my own choices about the plays I would attend, that this was something I could do for myself rather than being taken along by others. I grew up a little more that day.

When I was seventeen, I earned an opportunity to go to Denver, Colorado for a national competition. I traveled for some 20+ hours in a van with four other girls who I knew didn’t much care for me. We drove across Kansas, east to west and back again on the return trip. If you’ve never had this experience, I cannot explain in words the sheer test of willpower required to not leap from the moving vehicle in sheer agony of monotony, the thump thump thump every couple of seconds from sectioned concrete highway ramping up the trip to a form of torture. On that trip was the first time I rode a train a mile high up into the Rocky Mountains, then road a chair lift still further up a face that seemed to be at a 90 degree incline, breathed in stillness and majesty as I would not experience again until being on the Atlantic Ocean on a transatlantic crossing. I was thankful those girls didn’t want to chat. I was alone, miles high above sea level, hanging in midair with nothing but a slatted wooden seat under me. Exhilarating. Freeing. Forever unlocked.

These are only a few examples of the fieldtrips I experienced that helped shape who I am today. I believe school trips are, for quite a few of our young people, the only avenue available to them whereby they have a chance to experience something other than. Without those formative experiences, it is nearly impossible to spark new ideas, new ways of thinking, new perspectives inside young minds. I believe providing these opportunities have a far greater bang for the public education buck than any standardized test could ever hope to have! Many families cannot afford to travel, won’t ever be able to take their children to a museum or a theater, much less get on an airplane. I steadfastly believe we must not allow these opportunities to be stolen from future generations of public school children. This is not a funding issue. It is a priorities issue. Thank you, Delaware Community School Corporation and Mom and Dad, for making fieldtrips an important part of my curriculum!

One more story in closing….When I was in college, I worked at a pizza joint popular on midwestern campuses called Flying Tomato. As an advertising campaign, the owners purchased a hot air balloon with their logo on it along with a professional pilot to manage the thing. I had no idea this existed until the pilot showed up at our location one spring afternoon. I just happened to be working that day, and I begged my manager to let me be one of the two people chosen who would help unpack the balloon and then navigate on the ground as balloon chasers.

I can’t help but wonder now if some of my previous field trip experiences instilled in me the natural impulse to leap at a chance like this. We weren’t going to get paid for this work. It was a volunteer sort of opportunity. I asked for a slice of pizza as payment and was gleefully off to be a rookie crew member. I remember thinking, "This is one of the full-circle moments of my life!" because I grew up in a rural area where on more than one occasion a hot air balloon had floated to a stop in a nearby cornfield!

It did end up being a lot of hot work that sunny day, pulling and tugging the balloon into its shape flat on the ground so that it could be inflated. The work certainly paid off. After all, I had the incredible experience of being hands-on in the mechanics of making a hot air balloon take off! The pilot expertly orchestrated his helpers. I was terrified I’d do something wrong. Fire is involved, and he warned us just as much about what not to do. After some tense moments in the process of getting the balloon to lift up off the ground to a vertical position, the pilot climbed in the basket and prepared to take off. At the end of the flight, he landed in an open area near the fairgrounds, but he kept the balloon inflated offering each of us a tethered ride. Until I was inside the basket lifting off the ground, I never knew how unstable it was. I couldn’t discern that from the ground watching, and certainly could not have known from watching a video or seeing photos. I was afraid of spilling out over the edge at first.

I was unprepared for how strange the city looked from that vantage point. Everything seems so simple from that height, so unimportant and quaint. Because of that experience, I have an apt description for how I’ve felt most of my life: safely tethered to the ground, yet afloat, breezy, quiet and observing everything from an outside vantage point, full of wonder. What a gift it truly is to be a someone who was afforded so many unique experiences as a child, to have all of the knobs of curiosity and wonder turned to 10 as a result! I pray I can pass it along to my grandchildren.


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