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Bester class learns the joy of travel

May 23, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Eleven-year-old Jeremy Caldwell swings an imaginary bat - hard - to punctuate the fact that a professional baseball player is one of his three preferred careers.

The other two, air traffic controller and train engineer, were directly inspired by trips to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and to the Roundhouse Museum here in Hagerstown.

That travel can have such a profound impact on young lives should come as no surprise. The new-and-different always makes more of an impression that the routine-and-mundane. But it is conversely true that a life lacking in travel is one that, in at least some ways, has been shortchanged.

Paige Fishack, a fifth-grade teacher at Bester Elementary, knows that travel "starts the dreaming process" in kids, planting seeds of bigger and brighter futures.

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So for the second year, she packed up her class and took them to Washington for a whirlwind zoo, museum, dining and theater tour that most of them are unlikely to forget.

Jeremy is one of the lucky ones. His family knows the value of travel and has plans and the means to set out on adventures.

But Bester also casts its enrollment net over some of the city's poorer neighborhoods, where the prospects of venturing much past county lines are slim. These are the kids who are sheltered from things to which they should be exposed and exposed to things from which they should be sheltered. One student, Fishack said, had no concept of farming. When she explained where food came from, "He looked at me dumbfounded; he didn't even know what a tractor was."

Field trips these days must generally be financed by the kid's parents, but at Bester, that's a problem. So Fishack's class got to work, selling pencils and erasers, poinsettias and Christmas crafts. By this spring they had raised close to $3,000, enough to fund the $75-per-kid cost of a day and night on the town.

Jeremy says the trip meant even more because they had earned the cash to pay for it. So along with travel, they learned the fine art of making money and - because they had a surplus - the finer art of giving it away. "They picked two charities to donate the rest of the money to. This was the first time many of them were able to give to people instead of having people give to them. They were so excited to be able to give," Fishack said.

And needless to say, they were excited about the trip. The upscale restaurant was huge because many of these kids had never eaten at an establishment where a waiter actually brings out your food.

Some of these students - maybe as many as half, Fishack estimates - will never have another chance to return to the world of theater and fine dining. "But it gives them the idea there is something out there besides downtown Hagerstown."

It's not just the new sights, of course, it's new people, new ideas and new cultures. If the world can be so radically different just a few miles down the interstate, what wonders must there be beyond Washington, in New York, London and Hong Kong, or in Yellowstone, Machu Picchu or the Himalayas?

Millions of words will be spoken at graduation ceremonies across the land in a few weeks, but to me only one word of advice is necessary: Travel. Grab a backpack and go. If you're on a budget, avoid the tourist spots and head for, say, the backwaters of Asia, where you can bunk in a teahouse for 75 cents (If you wish to splurge for a private room they will fleece you for $2).

Television and the Internet distort more than they enlighten. A picture of Mount Everest tells more lies than truth. You can't understand the scope until you stand in its shadow, or fly across Nepal at 25,000 feet and look out the window to see mountains that are higher than the aircraft.

A downloaded photo of third- world children cannot convey the reality that if you give each of them part of a broken crayon, you will have made friends for life and done more for world-American relations than most high-level envoys.

Talking-heads on TV babbling about the rudeness of the French almost certainly have never visited the French countryside where the people are kind and warm. In Norway, people will like you, although it would be far too demonstrative in their quiet culture to come out and say so. A happy, laughing group of Americans playing charades will attract wide-eyed stares and a Norwegian guide may lean over and whisper in your ear, "We would never do this." In Asia they will like you too, and the teenagers will come out and say so in curious ways, such as happy shouts of "Ama-whri-ca! Steve Austin, WWF!"

You haven't lived until you've been stopped by Federales in the middle of nowhere in Mexico on Christmas Eve because they are suspicious you might be carrying drugs. Or until you have snuck across the border into Nicaragua at night and listened to an American expatriate calmly point out folks in a Managua bar, saying you can tell their politics by the automatic weapons they're carrying - AK-47s for the Sandinistas, M-16s for the Contras.

Fishack, whom Jeremy describes as "awesome," knows that travel and education are synonymous. Most important, perhaps, it is hard to hate people and cultures to which you have been exposed.

Jeremy prudently says that taking a trip "is so much better than being in school." Ah, but when you travel, you are in school, Jeremy. But maybe it's best that we keep that our little secret.

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