Thursday, March 17, 2011

What a day

Last Friday we woke up in the Laurels section of Pennsylvania in the tiny town of Confluence, PA. We had gone there to spend the weekend with dear friends. Before getting out of bed, we turned on the Today Show, (just as we do every morning) and learned that there had been an earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan. Our son is studying this year at University of Tokyo. We were to say the least concerned. While he hadn't sent us an email he had posted on Facebook what his experience of the quake was in Tokyo. Being the twenty-one year old male that his is and at the time not realizing the extent of the damage north of him he didn't bother to email us until 12 hours later. Needless to say once we expressed our concern and he had heard from his friends that their parents were also concerned, he has stayed in contact since then.

After breakfast we decided to visit the Johnstown Flood National Park. On the way, we saw signs for the Flight 93 memorial and went to take a look. Right now phase one of the memorial construction is underway. The current viewing area is on top of a hill, an old strip mined surface in fact. As the day was cloudy and snowy, we could just make out the flag marking the crater from the crash. In an old corrugated and cold building on the site are displays describing the events and providing pictures. Probably most powerful for me were the notebooks containing pictures and short biographies of the 40 crew and passengers on the flight. These were ordinary people who had gotten up in the morning, proceeded with their daily routines, boarded a plane and expected to get off after an uneventful flight across the country.

The Johnstown Flood National Park visitor center tells another tale of people getting up, greeting neighbors, opening shops and looking forward to an ordinary day in a bustling city. The visitor center has an excellent movie that captures this sense of unknown foreboding as the day proceeds. Then in slow motion, black and white film the devastating flood is re-enacted and the power of water is apparent. This lake behind a dam where the rich from Pittsburgh came to recreate and relax became an unfeeling force for destruction. The death toll was 2209 and is the third highest civilian death toll behind the Galvestan Hurricane and 9/11. 2209 people didn't come home, thousands others lost everything and had no homes to return to.

Last Friday, the people of the Tohoku Region of Japan were well into their day when the 9.0 earthquake hit. Within all too short a time the quake was followed by the tsunami. As everyone who has seen the images knows, the waves were implacable and powerful. You were either on high enough ground or you weren't. And now hundreds of thousands are without homes, thousands are missing and thousands are dead.

We finished our day (having spoken with our son via email) thinking about the things each of these events have in common and the ways in which we take for granted that when we wake up, we will return at the end of the day to our homes, our families, our beds. How much of who we are depends on that routine.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

21st Century Education or service learning in Washington DC

I spent last week at the William Penn House in Washington, DC. My job was to chaperone ten high school seniors involved in a two week experiential learning project combining service and urban living. William Penn House staff had arranged for us to work at Street Church, DC Central Kitchen, Food and Friends, and meet with a representative from Friends Committee on National Legislation. Along with learning to navigate a complex public transportation system, find restaurants that were good and kept within our per diem food allowance, and get along with each other, we did real work for the organizations we went to. My colleague Whitney is with the students the second week.

Seven hours after saying goodbye to the students,  I sat down with my family and we watched the movie " The Social Network". I wonder if my strong reaction to the movie wasn't heightened by my experience in DC the previous week. By the end of the movie, I was sure there were no heroes or even anti-heroes in the entire film. Instead, the best and brightest at our top universities were depicted as cheats, vapid partyers, amoral people out for cheap thrills or scads of easily acquired money. Apparently, young women in these colleges are there to provide young men with willing participants in table dancing, strip poker and to proivde warm bellies for snorting coke.  The adults in the movie were no better, they were largely absent, only showing up as a paranoid svengali type, lawyers and removed academics. Is this the best we have to hope for?

I would like to think the young people I traveled with last week are better than the characters in the movie. Certainly, the past week they have had experiences working alongside men and women whose lifes' journeys are very different from their own. At Street Church one of the their fellow workers was a homeless man, a schizophrenic who had managed to stay on his medication for sixth months and was looking to transition into a half way house. At DC Central Kitchen our supervisor was an imposing women who had worked her way through DCCK's job training program to the point that she was now responsible for breakfast preparation for several thousand meals a day. When we visited with the FCNL representative two of my students shared with the group their vision for serving their communities through creating their own businesses and thus creating jobs. Two other students shared their own sense of satisfaction in the work we had been doing and connecting its necessity with their own academic aspirations. These are ambitious kids, with high academic and professional goals for themselves as future entrepreneurs, marine biologists, economists, public health workers. They have their eye on the prize so to speak. One of the other aha moments may have come when the aspiring marine biologist wondered aloud if learning to lobby Congress wasn't going to be important to his long term career aspirations.

I would like to believe that after these students have experienced the empty, pointless, gross partying that goes on at every college campus, they will fall back on their own well developed skills of better entertainment and relaxation. While here in DC in their free time they chose to go to Arlington Cemetary, play cards with each other, visit the homes of friends, attend basketball games, explore sections of the city we hadn't yet gone to. They were never bored. AND I hope they will remain focused on the purpose filled lives they have each described in some detail that they aspire to living.