A Teacher Travelogue: On What Travel Reminds Me

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

As teachers we never really stop teaching and learning. Sometimes the venue changes, but we are constantly thinking about how we can apply what we’re seeing and experiencing to our practice. This is true, especially during the summer.

Travel has become an essential part of my life and my travel contributes to my ever evolving worldview. In early spring 2007, halfway through my first year of teaching, my grad school roommate Pete (now a fourth grade teacher in Yakima, WA) and I hatched a plan to go abroad. As first-year teachers, our sole criteria for deciding our destination was cheap airfare. We found a sub-$700 flight to Bogota, on a now defunct travel site. At age 27, I secured my first passport and took my first (non-military) trip abroad. We spent four weeks traveling through Bogota, Santa Marta, Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast. I used my college Spanish for the first time. I sailed for the first time. I hitchhiked for the first time. I went SCUBA diving for the first time. I bathed in volcanic mud. I ate a fish so fresh out of the water, the fisherman was still unloading the rest of his haul when I began eating it.  

I was hooked.

For the last ten years, at the end of the school year, I have packed the same red & black backpack and headed abroad. My travel partner has changed, but the ritual remains the same. This summer I spent four weeks with my wife Hope, an English teacher, traveling through Western Europe: Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. Travel is essential to me. We have to forgo some “wants” during the year to afford it, but it’s worth it. My wife jokes about "Travel Nate," an alternate version of me, who is less harried, less tense, and more at ease. When I travel I get headspace to reflect on my practice. I get time to read all the books I wanted to read during the school year. I feel like a yoke of grading and obligation is removed from my neck. I feel peace: something that is far too rare for people in the US, especially people of color, people in poverty and even NFL quarterbacks.

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

Early in our trip, after I posted a photo online, a colleague and mentor in the profession, asked “what does it feel like to be black in Germany?”

I responded: I always feel “more free” when we travel… But knowing what's happening back home, right now even more so… It's hard to put into words... I feel black + carefree and I haven't felt that way in a long, long time.

When I travel, my brain works differently. I see things here differently. My understanding of America is sharpened by even a brief absence from it. I believe that if you want to be truly awake, you have to leave home. I think most importantly, travel provides me with distance to consider my life back home, what I prioritize, my habits, my consumption and my aspirations. Travel reminds me that there are better, smarter ways.

Travel reminds that US media coverage is problematic and I need to seek and encourage my students to pursue alternative sources. I spent this summer watching France 24 (their English language network), Deutsche Welle (Germany) and CNN International. I was struck by the expansive and nuanced nature of CNN International’s coverage of events in the US and abroad. Over the last year, in the US, CNN has “distinguished” itself with problematic coverage, commentary and HR choices. But this summer reminded me that CNN hasn’t forgotten how to “do news.” They choose to fill their US coverage with the likes of Wolf Blitzer, former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, and (jive) Don Lemon. CNN gives their international audiences investigative reporting, searing documentaries and in-depth analysis of events with historical context. We get clownish coverage: gigantic countdown clocks to trivial events, talking heads who are ideologues rather than experts and massive chyrons that fill ⅓ of the screen, but don’t actually tell you anything. We get louder, inferior, less informative coverage, because that’s what sells.

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

Travel reminds me of the proper role of law enforcement in a civil society. Police killings are a uniquely American problem—something I remind my students of while discussing civil liberties in government class. While we were abroad, at least 95 people were killed by US law enforcement. Victims 630 through 725 of this year. Travel reminds me that issues of race, justice and policing should be at the forefront of many of our classes this year.

Just before I left for Europe, Minneapolis school cafeteria worker Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police. Both were killed at the end of what should have been routine encounters with law enforcement. These encounters were routine alright—part of a routine that allows the normalized killing of unarmed Americans by people otherwise sworn to protect and serve them. This fall students will show up to school in Minneapolis wondering “where Mr. Castile went? This September, Castile and Sterling’s children will be in our schools. These children—fatherless because of the actions of other agents of the state—will be in our classrooms. What will we say to them? How will we comfort them?

Travel reminds me there is a better way. Traffic stops should not end in murder. People should not be incarcerated for profit. Other industrialized nations don’t fund local government programs through revenue from red light cameras, placed largely in their poorest neighborhoods. They do not allow civil asset forfeiture [the practice of police seizing private property (or funds) they allege have been used in criminal activity for department use and budgets]. These are our problems alone.

Travel reminds me I have nothing to fear from “the Other.” We arrived in Europe four days after the attack in Nice. We expected to find anxiety and fear. We found none. Despite a very real threat from international terrorism, they do not live in constant fear. I want my students to inherit a world where they don’t have to be afraid.

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Travel reminds me of the importance of our work. As an educator I get to teach my students a series of lessons, academic or otherwise about government, geography, character and life. As we prepare to return to school, my travel has reminded me that we have an obligation to prepare our students to be active participants in civil society. We must model for them how to thoughtfully question authority. We must implore them to question the underlying and unstated premises of arguments they’re presented with. We must push them to listen to understand, rather than listening to refute. We must teach them to believe more in discourse and less in debate. We must teach them to love to read and to read to grow.

This is the work of teaching. We get to help set students on their paths. We get to leave our cognitive fingerprints and habits of inquiry on the next generation. We get to plant seeds. Helping kids become curious about the world isn’t on my evaluation, but it's probably the most important thing I do. This work can’t be tested or assessed by the SBAC—it’s too important for that. It doesn’t fit neatly into an ELA standard, but it’s why we do what we do.

Travel reminds me of that.

What Teaching in China Reminded me about Being Black in America

For most of my life travel was something that other people did, other people who didn’t look like me. This isn’t a ‘hood movie--my family wasn’t poor or starving--but we didn’t have “oh, let’s go to Europe or Mazatlan money” like many of my white (read: non-black) friends in high school and college always seemed to have. For most of my life I told myself that traveling was stupid, a waste of money and time. I told myself a lie--a lie I needed to hear at the time--a lie that I told myself until I finished school and could afford to realize the truth.

I got my first passport at the age of 27. That summer, with two friends, I booked the cheapest int’l flight we could find and ended up traveling along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia for a month--I was hooked.

When I travel I feel accepted: I have found that as a black American abroad I am accepted and welcomed in ways and places that I simply am not here. My Spanish is decent and I can pass for a Panamanian, Dominicano or Colombiano in a crowded market. When I travel, especially in Latin America, I often feel more comfortable than I feel here at home. If you aren’t black or a part of some other group on the margins in American society, I can’t describe to you what it’s like to walk into a room, restaurant, cafe or an office building and feel despised, but it’s a feeling I am very familiar with.

When I travel I read and think more: My favorite saying from Mark Twain is about travel and prejudice. He said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one's lifetime.” I love this corner of Earth, but I love getting away from it too. Since 2007, I have traveled internationally each summer after school gets out. As I travel I can see from abroad the light that creeps between gaps in American myth and reality. I don’t take it for granted because I remember what it was like before. 

My father has encouraged me to travel, saying that a black man who travels exposes himself to the lies that America feeds him about itself and himself. When I travel I read more, often nearly a dozen books per trip. Some of the most transformative experiences I have had with literature were from reading while traveling: Gatsby while battling seasickness in the San Blas Archipelago, falling out of love with Phillip Roth's writing while on a bus in Guatemala, reading Human Smoke (the pacifist case against World War II) while in the Dominican Republic.

When I am away from home I have time to read and process the gravity of texts in a way that just isn’t practical when I am home. I specifically remember sitting in a cafe in Spain with my wife in 2013 with tears in my eyes as I read aloud from Ta-Nehisi Coates’, How Can We Toughen Our Children Without Frightening Them? It was his second dispatch from his travels in Paris and he was describing his fears for and over his son. These were the seeds of Between the World and Me and in hindsight, I was realizing everything the #BlackLivesMatter movement is now teaching the nation. We are not safe. We are not loved.

One simply does not have these moments in the comfort of home. One does not have these moments while mowing the lawn.

My travel has evolved: I now travel with my amazing wife. She grew up overseas and is a polyglot. She may slip Tagalog into her Spanish and vice versa, but making that mistake means you have access to both in your brain. The last two summers, rather than just traveling, we have taught. This summer we ventured to Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province for our second summer of learning in the city of 14 million. We were originally invited to China in 2014 to teach “American style” student leadership, college preparation & transition, and we have spent roughly eight weeks teaching and learning there over the last two summers.

Like most Americans, China fascinates me. It’s simultaneously very familiar and completely distant. When I was a kid, it was just a place in the textbooks and fantasy. My mental image was basically infinite people in karate shoes riding bicycles through massive, nearly car-less cities. I specifically remember in ninth grade when Mr. Wolfrom showed us a slideshow of the Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang in Xi’an. The idea that I would visit them (as I did last summer) was unimaginable. I remember when we learned about the looming handover of Hong Kong and how distant it seemed. He might as well have been talking about the handover of Jupiter’s Moon Titan to some Intergalactic Federation, yet we spent a week walking the streets of Kowloon this summer. 

Now I have a sense of intimacy with this place of mystery. The Chinese people are among the most hospitable I have ever encountered. This year we stayed with a generous host family, both parents employees of a Chinese telcom. My favorite person in all the nation was my Chinese grandmother or nainai who didn’t understand a word I said, but insisted on stuffing me full of some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted. And I found, even in China, an acceptance that I often find lacking here at home. When I walk the streets in China the children point at me and say “lowai” which translates loosely as “old outsider” or “foreigner”. I love this. Every time it happens, I reply “ni hao, xiao peng you” (hello, little friend). I love it when they call me laowai, because it’s the same term they call my wife in the streets. The don’t say “look, a black” they say “look, a foreigner”, to both of us. It’s equality. I can’t put it into words, but it is extremely satisfying to know that (for once) I am getting treated equally.

Our nǎinai in Chengdu: I never understood a single word she said, but she'd be an amazing partner for charades. 

Our nǎinai in Chengdu: I never understood a single word she said, but she'd be an amazing partner for charades. 

Travel provokes reflection: One of our last night’s in China, I sat with my host family watching the coverage of the Samuel Dubose shooting on CCTV, China’s state-run media. My host asked me what I thought about the situation. I couldn’t even reply. It created a dissonance that just made my jaw ache.

Travel puts the contradictions of American life, in stark contrast: from slave owning-liberty loving-founders to a black President who has spent five and a half years running from racial politics. America’s unwillingness to reckon with race is criminal. Yet, there is nowhere else in the world where people who look like me fare as well as they do in the US. I’m not trying to move to Norway nor Namibia anytime soon. There is no black President in the offing anywhere in Western Europe and if black America were a nation it’d be among the 20 wealthiest in the world (with an earned income hovering around $1 trillion). But, at the same time, armed white vigilantes are allowed to patrol the streets of Saint Louis while unarmed blacks live under a curfew in their own neighborhoods. We live in a nation where the army gives rural police departments APCs, but unarmed blacks are shot at a near daily clip because officers “fear for their lives”.

Travel is the ultimate #staywoke. Being away from America makes me love and appreciate everything I have back home and exposes me to her shortcomings at the same time. We all know that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I'd add to that the words of James Baldwin: "I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."