Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Teachers are People, too!

Picture this:  Fifty Donegalites board a plane in Philadelphia.  The last advice given is to "Get as much sleep on the plane as you possibly can.  Tomorrow is going to be a looooong day!"

We were assigned to board the plane in GROUP 8.  Translate that to be, the plane was already full, the overhead compartments were stuffed, and I was assigned to row 34 of a 36 row plane, two seats, next to the window, greeted me.  Apparently, the tickets were issued in alphabetical order in our group, placing me next to Liam Hershey, with whom until today, I had never had a conversation.  His goal was a window seat, and my goal was to not fall asleep and drool all over his shoulder while rocketing across the Atlantic.  I offered the window seat on my ticket to him, which he readily accepted.  And then I said,

"So, what's your story?"  

It seemed like I should have at least SOME knowledge of this guy before the inevitable snoring slumber commenced.  Suffice it to say that it was a short and awkward conversation, but was enough to break the ice. Ironically, it would be two lonely suitcases that would prove to be our bonding moment.

We sat on the runway for much longer than expected, and noticed two suitcases sitting, unattended, on the tarmac.  We watched as airport employees and various flashing-light-adorned vehicles seemed unconcerned about their presence, while silently wondering whether someone in our group was currently wearing THE single outfit that they'd be wearing for the duration of the trip, sans luggage.

Despite a couple of guys in a white truck, nobody ever moved the luggage and the suitcases were still there, as we taxied out onto the runway.

For the record, Liam and I came full circle, sitting next to each other again on the trip home -- but in middle seats, with no window view.  After fourteen days, we had more in common than we had on the ground in Philadelphia, despite our initial evening together.  And, for all we know, there may still be suitcases sitting on the tarmac in Philadelphia, awaiting final transfer to points unknown.

No phones at dinner!
Fourteen days is a long time.  It is even longer, when trying to make small talk with kids who basically interact with teachers in a fairly structured manner, seeking information to complete a task.  Over fourteen days, teachers depended on students as much as students depended on teachers, as we explored new sights, braided hair, shared personal stories,  commiserated over blisters and lost wallets, and explored Europe with unadorned wonder on all of our faces.  The number of kind offers by students I barely knew to lift my 48 pound suitcase, carry luggage upstairs, and basically checking on my daily well-being are too numerous to mention, yet I hold the kindness of these kids in my heart.

If you are wondering about the future of the world, I am here to attest that there are at least forty four kids ready to change it, for the better.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Planes, Trains...

Heathrow Airport
Planes, trains and automobiles... subways, undergrounds, boats, (including a ferry that rivaled a cruise ship!), moving airport sidewalks,  the London Eye, an occasional slide on the 360 degree wheel rolling luggage, a fleet of taxis in Berlin, and the feet.  (OHHH the feet!) The Donegal Indians' invasion of Europe, through EF Tours, tracing the historical locations of World War II from London to Normandy to Caen  to Paris to Versailles to Bastongne to Malmedy to Berlin to Munich to Salzburg and back to Munich and home was a whirlwind.  We all functioned on very little sleep and very many giggles as we navigated through both the continent and the various modes of transport, with 51 of us in tow.

Some wonder what teachers do with their summers, and teachers get pretty attacked this time of year as they stock up on bonbons and romance novels for the beach of the pool.  (NOT!). I know that 10% of the Donegal High School teachers spent the last two weeks traipsing around Europe, becoming better friends, and connecting with groups of students in a non-traditional setting.  Up to this point in my teaching career, my most adventurous field trips included overnight leadership conferences in State College at the Ramada Inn, and once, in an insane moment, the "Overnight at the Museum" experience in the Franklin Institute, where we slept in the shadow of the giant beating heart.

London Underground
  No professional development can ever prepare one for the challenges of navigating nearly daily reports of terrorism in Europe.  We intentionally tightened up our schedule, and the amount of free time the students had in public places, knowing that westerners -- particularly Americans -- were targets.    Dave sent email updates every night, and the early part of the trip's content seemed to always include "there was an incident in ...., and we're aware of it and fine."   Flexibility proved to be our greatest ally, as our tour guide navigated delays, closed roads - who could have predicted we'd be in Paris the very night they were trying to impress the Olympic Committee in their quest to be awarded the 2024 Olympics?  There was certainly no forecasting that the bus picking us up at the train station in Berlin would go to the wrong station, the driver never answering his cellphone.  Approximately eighteen taxis later, we were all safely at the most beautiful - and largest - hotel in Germany.

It's tough for high school kids to understand the mental exhaustion that comes with no sleep and constantly locating 8 heads in a crowd of 44 that are assigned to the chaperones who are constantly reassuring oneself that all are present, while reminding all of them that they are hyper vulnerable to gypsies, pickpockets, and other unsavory characters.  Within a few days, we'd organically developed hand signals for each of the six groups of seven or eight students assigned to each chaperone, and the kids could sort themselves within seconds.  The kids were troopers -- watching out for each other, protecting their backpacks, and the backs of their fellow travellers.

My friends who know me well are aware of my intense fear of being responsible for tickets to shows, or important paperwork that must be delivered.  I get sidetracked, I put things in those very precious"safe spaces", never to be located again in a timely manner. In addition to the eight students assigned to me on this trip, I was also personally responsible for 9 passports, including my own.  Nerve wracking, to say the least.

Two bus drivers are worthy of mention - Hedo, the amazing dude who drove the bus to our hotel in Paris down the smallest street I have ever seen, necessitating members of our group EXIT the VEHICLE, and move to motorcycles parked on the side of the road in the path of the bus.  It was all for naught, as the end of the road was not conducive to the 13 meter bus's need to turn the corner.  Hedo backed that bus up like the pro that he obviously is!

Dennis having words with the toll machine
Dennis, ah, Dennis.  He loved his pet goose, owns 40 birds that he sleeps with, was born in Turkey but lives in Frankfurt, and has an intense hatred of German veterinarians.   (One, who apparently killed his beloved goose, Martin, was at the top of his list.). He scolded me for killing a bug on the bus.  Apparently I am as guilty as Martin's vet.  He argued with toll machines, as if they could respond, told jokes like a professional comedian, and genuinely seemed to enjoy his job.  (Which was not the case for all of our bus drivers!) 

After receiving doctor's orders to stay out of the sun in Bastogne, Tim and I spent nearly an entire day sitting on the bus with Dennis while the rest of the group toured significant locations of the Battle of the Bulge, listening to his commentary about all that is wrong with Germany - in his humble opinion.  Parents in Germany should spend time with their kids, co-sleep with them, and have more of them.  ("The Germans, they need to do more 'Hee Haw, He Haw,', you know?" he said with an impish grin.  "All de Germans are moving to the U.S. and they will all be gone soon!")  Suffice it to say that Youtube has had a powerful impact on Dennis -- that's where he learned that UFOs are real.  Somewhere, there's a selfie with Tim and Dennis, and I'm certain that we'll never forget his name!

Yes, journeys begin with a single step.  Fortunately for us, we had some trained professionals operating vehicles and making decisions to safely get us to every destination, and home, safely.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Truth, Love, and Honor

"Truth, love, and honor, making our lives complete.."

The Donegal High School Alma Mater echoed, loudly, from inside the yellow school bus as it passed the Milanof Schock Library, less than a mile from the high school.  This busload of girls represented half of the group of 44 students and six adults who had spent the last 14 days chasing the history of World War II through five countries, and was following the "Boys' Bus" to our final destination as a group, where their parents were anxiously awaiting their return.

The fact that these girls -- whose bodies thought it was one in the morning, and had been up since six am, packing and dragging luggage and souvenirs through customs in two international airports -- had the desire, energy, and fortitude to salute the unity of this group as students of Donegal High School serves as a testimony to the entire European tour.  

And made me shed a tear both for having had the privilege to have been part of the adventure, and wishing that I could somehow capture the magic of the last two weeks for all students seeking knowledge.

Our tour guide for all but the last three days, Lisa Richardson, posted on Facebook, reaffirming what I was thinking:

This group was incredible! Never would I have thought that taking a group of American teenagers around Europe would be fun (I always assumed it would be the opposite)! I witnessed with this group something I have never seen before. The child like wonder and un prompted emotion in which these young adults viewed Europe was incomparable to anything else. Parents if you can read this - be very proud! They were the most well mannered and polite group of individuals anyone could of asked for! Dave Dunsavage, Susan Heydt, Gretchen Michelle, Heidi Witmer, Chris and Justin - what can I say! I have left with 6 new amazing friends. Thank you for all you have taught me and making me feel so welcomed in your group. Your love for these kids is an inspiration and I feel so honored to of been part of this adventure that you took them on. I know for sure we will cross paths again - a trip to Amish country has never sounded more fun!

This morning, I awoke after only five hours of sleep, with more blog inspiration from the last two weeks than I've had all year.  (Maybe my body has adjusted to surviving on five hours, or less, of sleep these past two weeks.)  It's easy to be inspired by the enthusiasm and wonder of students facing realities of the world on the very soil on which history has happened.  We've stood, as a group, on the beach at Normandy and in the Alps at the Eagle's Nest in Austria,  we've hugged each other, standing in the center of Dachau, and looked closely at the often-overlooked tributes to the Holocaust on the streets of Berlin. There are 27,000 such stones in the city, in front of the homes once occupied by victims of the Holocaust.

My head is still processing, yet my heart knows that allowing and encouraging students of today to face the possibilities of tomorrow is best taught by looking backwards, to the realities of history.  The Facing History School in New York does just that, encouraging and inspiring students to question, connecting ideas through interdisciplinary exploration.  My world this morning is once again suggesting that perspective changes every lesson, and every experience.  Viewing the Alps with Chris Talbert, who majored in Geology in college, was vastly different than with literature-loving English teacher, Heidi, who was envisioning a personal experience twirling on a mountaintop.  

So on this holiday weekend, I celebrate the goodness that is this country, the privilege of knowing these students, and the incredible relationships enhanced by these two weeks of discovery, as I upload photos and sort through ephemera stuffed in my suitcase during the trip.

And smiling, remembering the sounds of a group of kids who stepped out for two weeks, in truth, love and honor -- making my life complete.