“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” Pat Conroy
Seven blank, impressionable faces stared at Julie. The faces belonged to her high school students, who were sitting quietly in their chairs, copybooks open and pencil cases set, ready to be told what to do. She didn’t just see them staring at her, she felt their stares; they were like sponges ready to absorb whatever she might say or do next.
Out of the corner of her eye, Julie watched them too while she wrote down the names of the absentees in the attendance book. She shuffled through her handouts she was about to pass out, and noticed that some of them were actually whispering to each other. They were whispering. Was she too intimidating that they wouldn’t speak at a normal decibel?
Some of the pencil-cases were covered in graffiti-style lettering, with the names of celebrities or boyfriends or girlfriends tattooed on them. They had glue-sticks and little bottles of white-out too, with which they used to paste loose pages in their notebooks and meticulously cover up mistakes. All the supplies of a student handy, they sat there quietly, ready to copy something down, glue, or white out a misspelling.
Julie was just as much afraid of them, maybe even more afraid than they were of her. She was outnumbered, whereas they swam in the safety of being in the same boat. If they all thought her weird, then it was so; she was just some freak foreigner who had been appointed to stand before them babbling on in English.
“Today we’re going to talk about cultural exchanges,” Julie said, not entirely believing this statement. It was more likely that she would talk, presumably to herself, and fourteen eyes would stare at her absently, while glancing at the clock, counting the minutes until they were released from jail. Once, when standing in front of the room, facing the class to give a presentation, one boy, Marvin, had turned around one hundred and eighty degrees, mid-sentence, to check the clock. Apparently he had been turned off by the sound of his own voice, having been forced to speak for five minutes on “the notion of progress.”
“What are the challenges of visiting other cultures?” said Julie, commencing the discussion. She hoped that a hand would raise so she wouldn’t have to call on someone. Whenever she did this the kid would begrudgingly read their answer in a barely-audible monotone, sounding and looking as if they’d rather be anywhere else in the world. Then Julie would say something encouraging like “great answer” in a voice that was too fake which she despised.
“We have to adapt,” said one of the girls, Léa, timidly, “When you visit other countries, it’s always more interesting than where you are from, but it’s harder too.”
“Everything is new and exciting; it’s not the daily routine that we’re used to,” added Mégan.
These kids were from the tiny town, or perhaps even the surrounding countryside. A girl, Louise, had told Julie that her village consisted in three hundred inhabitants who did not even have a Boulangerie at their disposal. Perhaps this made travel all the more impressive to them. Their daily realities were sheltered from instability and risk; safely tucked away on the outskirts of the beautiful, the interesting, perhaps even the dangerous sides of life. That’s what the suburbs essentially were: communities whose purposes were to facilitate the daily routine.
“Yes, I agree,” said Yann, “Other places are always more cool than where we’re from. Like Canada. Or America.”
“I don’t think so,” says Nolan, “I’m French but I still love Paris and her monuments. Big Ben, puhh,” he fills his cheeks with air and let’s out a short puff, in an expression of London’s less-than-thrilling effect on him, “but the Eiffel Tower… That’s spectacular.” He said the word spectacular with such conviction that it was impossible to forget it.
And it was spectacular. There were not so many things which measured up to the shimmering, glittering Eiffel Tower after dark. In a city where there was still poverty, ugliness and stress, there was also a bit of magic that awaited one at the end of his day. The glistening lights droned out every hassle and made each person and his quandaries insignificant.
“But we see it all the time,” Florestan jumped in, “After a while it’s not that exciting to us anymore, like the same way it would be to some tourist.”
“I don’t agree,” said Nolan, “It’s magnifique. I don’t ever get tired of it.”
It wasn’t difficult to see his point of view. When the lights began, there was nothing else to do but stare for the first minute, and somehow they consumed all of the other senses as well. Maybe that was what is was to truly appreciate something: to still sit and marvel at what had already wowed you tens or hundreds or thousands of times before.
“So what can we learn from cultural exchanges?” Julie asks the next discussion question.
“I think we realize how lucky we are in our lives compared with some other people,” Yann blurts out.
A generic version of this answer echoes around the classroom; everyone else repeats a variant of taking things for granted, not appreciating the rights we are lucky to have. Julie senses that the first boy to speak has something else to say.
“So who are you talking about specifically?” she asks, “Can you give us an example?”
“My older brothers are soldiers in Djibouti. Over there, men have to pay to love a woman.”
“Yes. It’s very common, but the girls don’t like it. Some of the men have three or four girls. If he doesn’t have any money to pay for one, he has to love another boy.”
This wasn’t exactly part of the lesson plan. No, it was better: a rare, pure occurrence was the moment when a student said something real rather than a sentence read out of a copybook. Julie could picture his brothers coming home in all the heroic glamour of soldiers. They were already the prized, older siblings idolized by their kid brother, and then they would tell him something like this, shattering all illusions that real life was just a cool pursuit of not having to do homework. Horrific stories weren’t always a few degrees removed by the pages of a newspaper or a plasma screen TV: somewhere far away, they were actually happening. These first-hand accounts from relatives or friends carried more weight. They did not compare to the objective tone of a news reporter or emotionless black and white letters which bore the facts.
These kids weren’t so fragile; they were sixteen and seventeen years old. Some of them worked hard, some were smart and original, but nonetheless they were limited in experience. Spending one’s days in a gated-in school, in the middle of the forest, in a town which probably wasn’t even marked on most maps, was certainly a limiting, sheltered way of life.
Maybe she should say something more on comment, she wasn’t sure what, but it seemed like heavy thought to just allow to hang in the air. Instead, she let the discussion continue as an entire two volunteers were already raising their hands to speak again. Perhaps it was enough for these kids to recognize some of the injustices of the world. As long as they remembered that they were lucky, they could do something to help later on. For now, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to being going to school in the forest, living in a teeny town.