I’m not gonna lie…I’ve been avoiding writing about geography and education. It’s close to my heart because there is one defining experience for me that crystallized my geographical education. It was also the single most important event in my life. Any experience like that is, by it’s nature, going to be hard to put down into words and honestly I’m not sure I have ever really tried before to summarize on paper what Expedition Club and my trips to the village of Pha Pang, Thailand have meant to me. Needless to say…it’s a lot, and every time I sit down to write this month, I think about how to write on education and geography I inevitably end up with Expedition Club and the enormity of telling that story just engulfs me. It’s not an excuse for how little I posted but maybe gives you some insight into the why of it. Chey threw down the challenge by mentioning it this month, which I think is something we have both deliberately not done yet with this blog for fear that we would have to explain it, and when she did I realized that I had to write about it or I wouldn’t write a single meaningful word about geography and education this month. With that said, now feels like the time…
Some background is going to be a good place to start. Expedition Club was founded by Robbie Roberts in Port Townsend, Washington in 2001. Here is a link to their website with some basic info and this is the Club’s mission statement, “beyond fostering the many durable benefits of experiential learning and team building, the Expedition Club aims to assist young people in developing those perspectives and skills necessary to both honor their traditions and sustain their communities. We work diligently to continue to create a legacy of hope and understanding.” To put a word to it, I would call it an experiential learning project with a strong community focus (that is actually eight words, but considering the scope of Expedition Club I think I did pretty well). That’s what it is, but if you ask the kids who have been a part of it to tell you the club means to them, you’ll be hard pressed for an unambiguous answer. It’s just not something that can be told…only experienced. The Club is best known for it’s annual trip to Pha Pang–a small farming village in northern Thailand with a population of about 500. Groups of about 24 students spend one month teaching English, farming rice, living in the community as well as building a community within themselves, learning Thai dance, eating Thai food, living on Thai time and generally just having great trip. This is how I got involved in the Club, looking for those surface aspects of the trip. I was 17, eager for an adventure, and damn sure of what I knew about myself and the world around me when I first came to Pha Pang. Six years and three trips later I can say that, though I learn more everyday, I am in a constant state of realization about just how little I know about the world and all its beauties and intricacies. This, more than anything, is what the educational experience with Expedition Club gave me—the humility to recognize that this world is bigger than myself, what I thought I knew about it, and my place within it.
I want to be very clear about this point: Expedition Club did not in any way make my life any easier. In fact, I can say positively that it made my life harder. I question myself more, approach problems from too many angles, always sure there was another way to look at it; I am less sure of my opinion, always ready to hear the argument from a different perspective. None of these changes were easy. But those things that are most worth doing—most important in shaping you as a person—never are. Going to Pha Pang, having that encounter, gave me the tools I needed to question my world and the freedom to find the answers to those questions for myself. And this is where we get to education. As I was recently quoted as saying in an article about Expedition Club in the Port Townsend Leader written by Anna Stern, herself an alumnus of the first trip, “Expedition Club helps shape kids into more aware people—more self-aware and more world aware. Isn’t that what we want from our kids? Isn’t that what education should be?”
To answer my own question in a word: yes. That is what education should be. But it’s not what it is at the moment for a huge majority of children, here and abroad. I don’t have big answers, don’t claim any big insights. I’m not going to tell you charter schools are the answer or that teachers unions are the problem or that No Child Left Behind is horrible legislation. I could give you opinions on all of those subjects but what I would rather do it tell you what worked for me and that was experiential learning, great teachers pushing my limits, creating a community within the classroom where all felt welcome to fail and learn from those failures, expansion of personal geography, exposure to the world, and Expedition Club—Expedition Club above all.
And at the heart of Expedition Club is Robbie, who more than anybody I have ever met is just an educator through and through. He’s not perfect, nor is he the best professor I’ve ever had; I’m not nominating him for teacher of the year or putting him on a pedestal, but he is, without doubt, the most important teacher I’ve ever had. He pushed me more than any other and taught me how to educate myself, which to me is the most important lesson one can learn, because teachers come and go but you will always remain.
This is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to Robbie once when he and the group were leaving the village and I was staying to spend more time in the village and travel in Southeast Asia:
“I am glad I had the chance to spend the first month on this trip with you and the group. It has, I think, set the tone for a meaningful, purposeful trip. With everyday, I feel my life at home and my life here converging into just my life. The separation now lies only in my future, how I choose to make my experience here into a path that continually leads back here. The more time I spend in Southeast Asia, the more I realize that it and I are linked now, twisting up from the root like a banyon. Two trees in one, growing together. And that tree has, at its root, you and for that I am perpetually thankful. Thank you Robbie for this banyon tree of mine and its stimulated growth. Paths, as I know them, are better revealed when you understand your surroundings. It is time for me to truly see that which surrounds me so that I might better see what lies before me.”
It is also worth mentioning at this point, at the risk of getting sappy, that Expedition Club is also how I met Cheyenne, your other contributor for this blog, and my friendship with her has had an incredible impact on me. Since we met six years ago at my interview for the Club we have played hundreds of games of cribbage, had many fantastic conversations over many beers, travelled thousands of miles across Southeast Asia, plotted ridiculous canoeing trips involving fly-fishing, aerial photography with weather balloons and helium tanks, copious cribbage and 75 miles of lakes in Canada, traversed the ruins of Angkor Wat, taught hundreds of Thai children how to say “my favorite sport is ___”, thrown Frisbee for countless hours, boated up the Nam Ou and down the Mekong, parted ways and converged again, fallen off slacklines in three countries, struggled with our educations together, chaperoned 24 students on an Expedition Club trip, changed our plans and changed them again. And we started this blog together. She has also helped me become the geographer that I am, and for that and so much more I owe her a lot. In case you hadn’t picked up on it, she is pretty much the best friend anybody could ask for. And I am very glad that we met that day six years ago at Robbie’s house.
Earlier I said that Expedition Club almost certainly made my life harder. This is true, but the statement doesn’t get to the heart of what that means. To me it is this: I had to learn an important lesson that everybody goes through at some point—that easiness is not a factor in a rewarding life. Challenge improves. Struggle matures. Questioning answers. Failure teaches.