Having just returned home from an eight-day excursion to Florence, Rome and Venice with the Class of 2014, I have plenty of tales to tell. Rather than try to combine them all into a massive novel-blog, which would test both your perseverance and my creativity, I’ll be posting anecdotes at intervals, saving them for rainy Saturdays filled with grading, like this one. For the chronology-obsessed, this trip took place from October 3 to 11, 2013.
“So we’re thinking we’ll just go back to the hotel now. What do you all think?” Mr. Kraines’s voice crackles to the back of the bus where we’re sitting, some 45 soggy students and teachers nibbling trail mix for lunch.
It’s our third day into a weeklong trip, the culminating trip for the seniors at Black Forest Academy. For years, they’ve looked forward to this trip, building up to it with class excursions to World War I trenches, a concentration camp, and last year’s adventure to Normandy.
Being at tourist in Rome this week, I’ve felt linked not only to the citizens whose ruins I marvel over, but to the many millions of fellow sojourners who’ve also stared at these ruins in the intervening centuries. The ghosts of old pilgrims whisper loudly here. I’ve been reading about the Grand Tours undertaken by well-to-do British young men at the end of their formal schooling. Like our students, they “saw the sights” at the foundation of their learning, seeing and touching and walking on the real artifacts that lent weight to their book knowledge.
In some ways, our students are like these Grand Tourists, or perhaps the wide-eyed young women that Henry James and E.M. Forster sent to Italy just over a century ago. We walk streets trod by Dante and Vivaldi, see the steps from which Marc Antony gave a speech written by Shakespeare, run our fingers over carved initials of centuries-old lovers. We’ve come to see these places for ourselves, to connect tangible places with the ink versions we’ve spent all these years teaching and learning.
Despite a busy schedule of sightseeing, this is the second time we haven’t gone to the Vatican Museum in three days. On Saturday, the line was too long, so we went to St. Paul’s Outside The Walls instead, saving the Sistine Chapel for another day. For today, actually, a day so rainy that we waited out a tempest under an olive tree in the Forum, then splashed our oval way around the Colosseum, vaguely hoping we’d be dry before visiting the “nine miles of art” housed in the Vatican Museum.
Some students cheer, and others shrug, while a few committed art historians whimper mournfully about the Raphael and Michelangelo. Our leader hears the replies, more mixed than he’d like, and assures the students that we aren’t voting. We’re going back. We’ll come back for the Vatican another day, he promises. It’s too important to miss it.
Leaving the city, we head north and west to the village of Santa Severa, the beach town where we return year after year. The grey-shrouded city seems another world as we emerge from the bus to find hot sun, soft sand, and periwinkle Mediterranean waves.
I’m reminded of the restorative powers of the sea, a place which for centuries has drawn the wealthy unwell to itself, for invigorating bathing in sun or water. The kids who’d been feeling sick are suddenly well enough to swim, do beach exercises, dig massive holes and make sand replicas of Roman landmarks. This could be Brighton, Venice or Nice, but it isn’t. It’s Santa Severa, and we couldn’t feel happier or more alive than we do right here, playing in the sun and waves.
When it gets dark, we leave the beach just long enough for dinner, worship songs and a game, before pouring out again into the balmy evening. Some walk along the beach or dodge the waves, but most play in the street, cul-de-sac children who’ve never known the suburbs. On one end, they draw foursquare and dredge up rules from elementary PE class. At the other, we string masking tape across the street to use as a volleyball net, swearing we’ll “take it down quick” if a car comes by. (Only one comes, and we have plenty of tape to spare.) Along the edges, kids play cards and talk, savoring the night and time together.
At home or abroad, I’m always amazed by our students’ endless capacity for relationship and self-entertainment. Though as addicted to technology as any of their North American peers, take it away for a week and they’ll go back to building sand castles and playing ball, as long as they can do it together. I chat with some of them about future plans and past lives, hearing about schools on three continents, discuss vocation and love and faith. Everywhere I look, I see young people investing in the present as carefully as they learn about the past. Both are important, critical to this moment in their lives.
Because, just like the Grand Tours of the past, this trip isn’t all about knowledge. The Grand Tours were a short adolescence, both the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. They were a time of learning, but also of independence and leisure.
The second half of today will undoubtedly be more memorable than the first, for all of us. Part of me hopes that our students will read up on the Forum sometime, or research the Colosseum, adding knowledge to experience after the fact. I know I will, and eventually I’ll feel richer for the memory of standing where Caesar and Paul stood, millennia ago.
But the other part knows that the afternoon of relaxation and relationship was just as critical to these students, linking them to the present that they love just as surely as the Vatican links them to the past. With youth, faith and community to our names–rain or shine, museum or beach–we are rich indeed.