Ten Hours: Students of Rural America?

[This is the second installment in a series I’m calling Ten Hours, about my trip with students to a college in upstate NY. These are a few moments of ten hours we spent on the bus that’ll hopefully give you a sense of the whole 36 hours we spent on the trip and about all the things rattling around in my brain. Enjoy!] 

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When we first told the kids about the trip, many of them thought we meant a school in New York City. Some were still confused when we got on the bus about why it was going to take so long and why were still in Massachusetts.

“We’re going long-ways or length-wise,” I explained.

“Why are we going the long way?” one student asked. Apparently we need to review geography, I thought. I tried to shape it out with my hands but there wasn’t much interest in my geography lesson so I turned back to my book.

I mostly read on the bus (new update to Reading on the Bus coming soon) but I also spent time just staring out the window, watching the land roll by.

Much of the drive had us hurtling through rural Massachusetts and New York, which is blanketed in poverty. In the grey pre-spring, towns whose factories stood idle looked beyond depressed. With no snow to blanket them in a sparkly veil and no green leaves to hide their blemishes these towns looked miserable. When it started snowing mid-way through our drive, the landscape only looked more foreboding — it seemed we were driving away from April back into February.

Past my window quarries, coffee roasters, mills, stood at a standstill.

Shopping centers with empty store fronts.

Rusting railway bridges.

Abandoned trailers.

Who lives in these towns and how?

A few 8th grade students from Utica joined our 8th graders at the college. Apparently there is a sizable refugee population there, though not all of the students who joined us were refugees. One college student we met was from their town and made an offhand comment about its poverty. The students were taken aback. Poor? Us? It seemed to rattle their sense of world order.

Before coming to work with my 8th graders I was offered a job in the hills of Appalachia. I turned it down for a lot of reasons but one of those was  that I didn’t want to move there at this point in my life. I wanted to be in a city, with museums and libraries and restaurants and dance classes. I wanted to be around other progressive people who I could relate to. I wanted to be away from cigarets and drugs. Which is not to say that I wanted an easy job or an easy life. I wasn’t bent on moving to Palo Alto, with its manicured lawns, or Williamsburg, with its overabundance of hipster, or Boulder, with its unaffordable ease. I wanted to move to a place I could sink my teeth into, roll up my sleeves and work on, but also enjoy as the millennial that I am.

But students in Troy, Utica, and Springfield all deserve the same opportunities as students in Boston, Chicago, and Brooklyn even though (and maybe because) they live in places with less caché. What does it look like to provide opportunities to these students? How do we get people like me (young, energetic on my good days, BA-holding) to go to these places too? Are we the ones needed there?

There was a refrain in one of my urban studies courses that we used to joke about. Jacob and I would giggle, “Meds and Eds! That’ll save us! The panacea for New Haven and all of America!” Not a panacea, but noticeably hospitals and institutions of higher learning are the thrust of our economy here in Boston, with R&D tacking on because of the concentration of PhDs among other incentives. What does it look like to revitalize rural America? How do we link students in Roxbury and Dorchester, Troy and Utica to this economy? Or do we need a new economy entirely?

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