On a Drive Across Pennsylvania, Seeing a Student Take Flight

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The other day, I went on a road trip. Not too far, just a couple of hours across a stretch of the vast east-west expanse we call Pennsylvania, a journey from the burbs north of Philly to Hershey, where my students, journalism majors at Bucks County Community College, would attend a luncheon to receive the awards they’d won, in a statewide competition, for their work on the college newspaper. On the drive, I got a chance to catch up with a student I hadn’t seen in a few months, one who had transferred recently to Temple University.

James, I’ll call him, has one of those complicated histories that so many of our students have experienced. A troubled upbringing, family dysfunction, and bouts, at a young age, with drugs and alcohol. There was rough living, then rehabilitation, and then the journey back, which is when he came to the college. Enrolled in my journalism courses, James quickly learned to write and edit, to lay out pages for the student paper and run the website. He was sharp and hungry and quick to absorb everything, because he understood that what he learned could translate into a way out.

He left us at the end of last semester, Temple-bound. And when I picked him up for our trek to Hershey, he told me about another adventure on which he would soon embark – a summer abroad in London. He would be taking courses and, on weekends, joining other students on excursions to destinations like Stonehenge. He told me, “If I didn’t do this now, I figured, when would I?”

As it happened, I’d done a semester in London a hundred years ago, and so was full of advice. Watch the buskers at Covent Garden, I told him. Have a pint in a real English pub. Spend a day hiking up Mount Snowdon in Wales. He nodded.

As I babbled away, it occurred to me that the road he’d traveled, just to be able to even contemplate such a trip, was so much longer and so much rougher than the one I’d taken so many years ago.

At the awards ceremony, he accepted his plaques with gratitude, not bravado. On the drive home, he scanned a copy of the Financial Times newspaper. Reading up for the trip, he said.

In the late afternoon, I dropped him off at the Septa station for the ride back to his place in North Philly, where there would be another night of studying, of forging his path ahead.

We briefly embraced, then I watched him walk toward the train. I had the impulse to curl my hand into a fist and urge him on, under my breath, like one of those Mission Control technicians back during the moon launches, when the Saturn V rockets would lift off ever-so slowly, then gather speed as they rode a column of flame skyward, carrying a clutch of astronauts and the hopes and dreams of the age. Don’t stop, I whispered, as the young man moved out of sight. Go. Go. Go.

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