Dr. Higman was in charge of the honors program while I studied at Eastern Washington University. One of his personal missions was to get as many small town kids as he could to travel outside our, shall we say, bubble. I was not yet twenty one. Compared to some of my classmates, I was quite wordly, but I was so, so sheltered.
Somehow, based purely on our professor’s confidence in our abilities, it seems, my friend and I had gotten a paper accepted at a conference in Atlanta. The Tradition of the Epic: From Odysseus to Luke Skywalker. I’m serious. I wrote an academic paper that included Star Wars and it got me a free trip to Atlanta. Half the research involved watching movies. Dr. Higman was brilliant.
It would have been 1997. Atlanta had hosted the Olympics the year before, and the swag was still for sale all over town. I don’t remember much about the actual conference, other than speed-talking through our presentation, but I clearly remember riding the bus and going to church.
At home, I only rode the public bus if it was too snowy to drive to school myself, which maybe happened twice. So bus schedules and numbers and routes were all very foreign to me. We had no problems with the bus system in Atlanta, but I was constantly afraid of getting lost. Plus I was just generally tense. I had been taught the world outside the bubble is a very scary place. While my friend tried to catch the driver’s eye in the rearview mirror – she never missed an opportunity to practice her flirting techniques – I just sat and tried to watch the other riders without them watching me back.
They were just people, doing what people do on the bus. Yet as the only white people, I felt like we were wearing a giant sign: We Don’t Belong Here. We were also the only white people at Ebenezer Baptist that day. We’d come for service because it was the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first sermon.
We didn’t belong there. We weren’t Baptists, or any kind of church goers in fact. We weren’t black. If the tables were turned, I might have felt disdainful towards tourists.
Yet the only thing I felt was welcome. It is one of just a handful of times where I’ve instantly felt accepted in a group setting like that. Normally, I’d have something to feel insecure about: how I looked, what I liked, what I believed. But here it was just love. No time to worry about differences. There were songs to sing.
I was not yet twenty one. I had been taught that the world was a very scary place outside the bubble, but that perception was starting to pop. The world outside looked a lot brighter and more inviting after actually experiencing it.
I haven’t thought about this trip in years. But today I’m wishing we had more cultural exchange and travel opportunities for all students – and gun control.