Just back from a whirlwind six-day sojourn in New York City, I’ve been thinking about the thread that runs the breadth of the learning I have been fortunate to join in on the road. In the British Columbia backcountry, Cuban fine arts classrooms, backstage tours of Disneyland, weekends at local ski resorts, and now the Big Apple, I’ve shared a love for adventure and travel with students across a wide variety of multi-day excursions. However the contexts of these adventures may vary from urban jungles to deserted forests or Gulf Island beaches, there is a unifying element in the experiences they offer.
“At the periphery there is infinite complexity; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”
Invariably, there is the ostensible purpose of the trip at hand: to hike the length of a coastal backcountry trek; to experience the interior powder and slope-side hot tubs on an escape to a local ski community; or to experience the mecca of American musical theatre on Broadway. But it is often the time and energy spent journeying to these locations, or the unexpected side trips and adaptations in these original intentions that create the most memorable moments and experiences. It is in accounting for subway travel in a group of thirty through Manhattan rush hour, or the rowdy long-weekenders encroaching on our evening campfires, that a trip becomes more than its slated itinerary, and an adventure engaged in whole-heartedly by its participants.
“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
A few weeks ago four of us (our theatre teacher and trip organizer, one of our vice-principals, myself and the lovely Mrs. Jackson) accompanied twenty six of our school’s musical theatre students to New York City. Our purpose was explicitly trained on Broadway, and seeing a trio of musicals (Miss Saigon, The Lion King, and Wicked), as well as a backstage tour at the Gershwin Theatre and a coupe of workshops and Q&A’s with working broadway choreographers, stage combat specialists, and performers. But the trip was also an encounter with one of the world’s Great Cities, a brief but immersive dip into the mythical city of Gotham, with the wonder of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
So we attended our shows and workshops. The students were guided through the subways to Harlem, and Central Park, and grew to know their ways around Times Square and the midtown blocks surrounding our hotel. But as ever there was much more that created profound meaning and memories for our chaperones and students.
On a mad dash through the financial district, we huddled around the bronzed girl standing down the Wall Street Bull, traversed the cemetery where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton are laid to rest, and stood somber at the reflecting pools at the World Trade Centre, all in less than half an hour.
In the East Village outside the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, we paused the assembled students on the curb while my wife and I negotiated with our real estate agent back in Vancouver over the final details of an offer we were making on a town house.
And the next morning, we wound our way underground to the monument at Stonewall not far from Washington Square Park with a handful of students for whom the whitened statues of gay liberation activists represented a unmissable pilgrimage.
The sun was bright and we had a little more than an hour to visit the area around Washington Square Park, navigating quickly through the East Village streets with the help of Google Maps and nine students. Arriving above ground not far from Gay Street, there was a sense of approaching holy ground – holy for the unholy, perhaps: those left out of the almighty’s light for too long – a giddiness of self-recognition, of connection to those whose struggle made these lives – still difficult, still too often disregarded, to be sure – possible.
There was a sense of standing at a different kind of ground zero.
A few days earlier we’d been in Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial just inside the gates to Central Park, and another ode to the mad ones who have made New York the mecca of America’s wildest minds, from Hamilton, to Lou Reed, to the men and women who fought at Stonewall to create a broader representation of what it means to be human, to be acceptable, to be seen in the national narrative.
“In New York you can be a new man,” the song says. And maybe that’s true. With seven short days in the city under my belt it is impossible for me to say.
But perhaps the lesson and the inspiration of New York is that you can be yourself, as bright and blazing as can be. Perhaps the canvas is as wide and as tall as we can make it, to be celebrated or condemned, attacked or revered.
Perhaps the lesson is as yet unlearned, and has only just begun to be scratched.
As with the best of learning in the wild, and on the road, the lessons go on being written for years after the adventure concludes.
The story continues to unfold.