The Risk of Indifference

Throughout the Conquest, I’ve written some blog posts in some pretty unique places. From hostels to airports, sleeper buses to open air riverside cafes, I’ve gotten the chance to interact with quite a large cross-section of life.

Today I’m writing from a high school cafeteria on a Sunday morning, but the smile on my face is at least equivalent to when I wrote from a bar overlooking the gorgeous Bali Barrels two years ago.

The high school is Bryan High in Omaha, NE. Named for the populist figure who seemed to pop up week after week in my post-Civil War US History Class, William Jennings Bryan, I’d like to think that that friend of the farmer would be proud of why we are here. Last week, Rubicon Agriculture delivered our first AgroBox, an L3 Unit (Living Learning Lab.)

Eight months ago, I jumped in the Impala and drove the 9.5 hours from my side of the Great Plains to nearly the other, in the hopes of convincing the administrators of Bryan High that Rubicon could build the STEAM education tool of their dreams. Armed with nothing but a rendering and my own tenuous dreams, I was met at the door by a tiny raspy voiced woman and her 13 year old daughter.

Toba Cohen-Dunning has had a career committed to serving others, both during her time in DC to coming back to run the Omaha Public Schools Foundation, the charitable wing committed to enriching the lives of the students of Omaha.  Having heard that I’d be coming out, she pulled her daughter out of school for the day so that she could hear about the AgroBox project. The excitement in her eyes was in no way obscured by her glasses, and poor Eleanor had no equal for her mother’s enthusiasm.

She then took me in to meet Mary Miller and Principal Robert Aranda. I have since talked to them just about as much as my own girlfriend trying to coordinate the funds, logistics and delivery of this AgroBox.

Principal Aranda is, unequivocally, a rare breed. One of 6 kids, he was an Mexican Army brat who grew up in a town of 1500 people in New Mexico. As he speaks of his hometown, he talks of the changing paths of the Rio Grande through history, and how this moving border was used to separate “the Mexicans” from the others. Even in a town this small, where everyone had some mix of Indian, Spanish, and resulting Mexican blood, he talked about the way that some made racial distinctions of “proper Spanish” from the mixed blood of those “other Mexicans.” Hearing his stories reminded me of the history of Bolivar and Latin American independence, and the way that race was used always as a means of separating neighbor from neighbor even in the universal dream of freedom.

He went to New Mexico State for education, and after he completed his degree, he took the unique path of teaching on an Indian reservation for his first two years. Hearing him talk about it nearly 25 years later, you can still hear the passion in his voice for his students, and the sadness for those whose paths were limited by the expectations of family instead of the limitless dreams of most. An outsider separated little by blood but leagues by upbringing, there is still pain in his voice for those high achieving students that were pulled out of “Anglo” school to be trained in the traditional ways. There was no moral judgement about this path or that, merely a frustration with students not being allowed to choose their own destinies.

Fast forwarding the subsequent years, Aranda was given his current principal position at 6:30 AM on a school day. Anyone who has ever worked in a school setting knows that this is the educational equivalent of being asked to jump on a grenade. As he took over, Bryan was beset with gangs, low test scores, and that most corrosive of all conditions, indifference.20160808_111530

Aranda never learned the meaning of indifference. Beneath his shiny bald scalp is the brain of a man who has found his vocation, and pursues it with a near limitless zeal. He speaks with true pride about the fact that there has not been gang-related graffiti on his school in years. He talks about the achievements of individual students, the ones who could have easily fallen onto a path of drugs, hopelessness and crime. He talks about his wrestlers, kids who he considered to be real problem children, being the politest you’ll ever meet when he brought them into his home before meets, all because someone cared.

Having been around town a bit with Aranda, he is looked at as a genial mayor emeritus. At the restaurant where we got lunch, he joked with the girl behind the counter about “Now where do you go to school?” She playfully glared at him before saying, “Mr. Aranda, you know that.” He jerked his head towards me and said, “Do you know who this guy is?” She obviously didn’t, and then he said, “This is Chris, and he brought the AgroBox.”

Over the past year, Jesse, Erik, Pat and myself have given countless hours, weekends and more than an insignificant portion of our sanity and hair to making the AgroBox a reality. In the moment when her brown eyes flashed with excitement, it all became worth it.

Aranda gives the greatest gift that an educator ever can, that of self-determination and the knowledge to accomplish it. I hope that his students realize the gift they’ve been given by a man who could have just as easily packed it in.

Jesse, Erik and I went to a school where enthusiasm of any kind was in short supply. Built in the shadow of a 70s energy crisis, BNL was a grim, near-windowless place, and the attitudes of the students and educators largely matched the decor. Education as we knew it was not about ideals and dreams, it was about begrudging endurance. The teachers saw a population of students that declined year over year both economically and emotionally. Rust Belt economics were an undeniable reality, and as parents lost good paying jobs at GM and Ford for those with little room for advancement at Wal-Mart and Lowes, the spirit of their children mirrored their own suffocating realities.

As time dragged on, more and more of our teachers saw themselves as porters shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. This sad fact meant that hope was in short supply, and education without hope is merely an exercise in futility.

Education is supposed to be about the attainment of dreams. We do not learn calculus because we suppose that someday we will be forced to figure the shaded area under a curved tent, we learn it because it allows us to know that a methodical approach to a problem, regardless of complexity, has steps that allow it to be solved. We don’t learn about the Gettysburg Address to memorize a date, but to understand that the rhetoric of great men and women can soothe the horrors of war, can free entire populations to pursue their dreams, and to know that the scars of battle echo throughout the lives of those who participated, as well as those who never saw the field.

Education is about opportunity, empowerment and actualization, not test scores. As Aranda rubbed his eyes with the frustration of a system which tells him that a data-only look at Bryan puts it in the lower ranks of schools, I told him that Jesse looked longingly around at Bryan and said, “I wish we could’ve gone to a school this good.” I laughed and said that the world thinks that BNL was a better high school than this. He looked at me with the incredulity of a man whose ears have betrayed reality.

In terms of that all important scoreboard of education, standardized test scores, BNL is quantitatively “better” than Bryan. In the qualitative reality of those who have actually stepped foot into a school instead of judging on the basis of an Excel spreadsheet, there is no comparison.

I envy those students at Bryan having a team of educators that shows up every day ready to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow. I just hope that our AgroBox can be a useful tool in that worthy endeavor.

An American Lazarus

Good morning from Singapore.

Waking up curled over two chairs in the Singapore airport, contorted into a fetal position far too compact for my size, I’m thankful again of my “superpower.”

I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. And it doesn’t matter if a freight train or a hurricane is coming, you’ll have to send someone to roust me.

Spiderman can keep his webs, and I never really wanted X-ray vision anyway, Superman. I’ll keep my weaponized narcolepsy. It has served me incredibly well, especially in the always fluid sleeping conditions of Southeast Asia. Whether a dorm full of incredibly drunk 19 year old shouting Brits or the coffin berth of a 12 hour sleeper bus, I slap on a history podcast and I’m out faster than a fat kid in dodgeball.

The older I get the more I realize how fantastic this ability is.

I’m leaving Southeast Asia tonight, headed onto South Africa. I’ve spent the last 3.5 months on the adventure of a lifetime. I experienced the horrors of war, as well as came to a better understanding of America’s legacy in Vietnam. I got an up close view the charismatic, maniacal and efficient evil of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

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I saw some of the most beautiful natural places on earth, from 5 mile long caves to pristine waterfalls, untouched and underdeveloped.

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I got to walk in the ruins of one of the ancient wonders of the world, Angkor Wat.

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I played with monkeys and rode on elephants.

 

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I wrecked motorbikes and taught monks English.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

 

I got to see a military coup first hand, and debate political issues with people from a half dozen countries almost nightly. In three weeks I developed a bond with a man who taught me a lot about addiction and even more about the human condition. I saw a girl who was incredibly lucky to “only” have 40 stitches in her head, and I saw a surfer who was not so lucky as his lifeless body was pulled from the Bali barrels.

I agreed to travel hundreds of miles with people I’d met mere minutes before and “evaded” organ snatchers in remote Laotian towns. I learned to communicate with only hand gestures and a smile to bridge a language gap. I learned the art of Thai boxing at the hands of gentle madmen, and learned to cook the cuisines of a half dozen nations.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

In short, I lived life. Frankly, a helluva lot of it. I grew more than I would have in the next 5 years of my “normal” life. I was in more uncomfortable situations in 100 days than I can count, but I managed to make it out of all of them with barely a scratch.

They say the best journeys are the ones where you find something you didn’t know you were missing. I found something better.

I found a man that I thought died years ago. A guy who laughed first and frowned rarely. The one who looked at the world with the endless optimism of the boy taken to a barn full of horseshit, started smiling before saying, “There must be a pony around here somewhere.”

He looked a lot like a guy who had become a nasty cynic. One who had been paid well to delude himself into thinking that he was smarter than everyone else in the room. One who thought that a growing number on a bank account was going to magically fix an unfulfilling life. One who had put a reckless love of risk before an awful lot of things that actually mattered in this life. One who’d forgotten that the happiest moments really are free, or damn near to it.

It isn’t very often that someone crawls out of an unmarked grave, but I’m glad I came across it.

That’s what meaningful travel does. It reacquaints you with the best versions of yourself. It shows you overcoming obstacles to reveal a character and mental fortitude you didn’t realize that you’d had.

And thank God it does. Otherwise I wouldn’t have found that man I thought had died. And he’s a helluva lot better than the one who got on a plane in Chicago in March.

Farewell Southeast Asia. You’ve done more for me than you’ll ever know.