December 16, 2004

Teach your children: What kids learn from travel

We'd experienced the wonder of the annual Pony Swim from Assateague to Chicoteague Island, Virginia, and Adam, Dana and I were making our way back across Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore toward Washington, D.C. and our flight home. The land between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic is flat, fertile, and full of history and chicken processing plants.

On our way to Chincoteague, we'd seen markers pointing to sites connected with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman (see post below). "I did a paper on the Underground Railroad when I was in school," I told the kids. "I wasn't much older than you when I wrote it, and I remember how important it felt to learn about slavery and the people who knew it was wrong and tried to stop it." I told them everything I could remember about Douglass, Tubman and the miracle of the Underground Railroad. They listened and looked out the car window.

After five days on Chincoteague, we drove back along Maryland Route 50. It was sweltering, and I thought about the chickens crammed into those endless, hot barracks. Somewhere in Dorchester County, we passed a small sign with an arrow pointing left: "Harriet Tubman Birthplace." No distance; just what you'd find if you covered enough of it to get there.

"Let's go," said Adam. Waiting for us in Washington was an air-conditioned two-room hotel suite and a rooftop swimming pool with a city view. We'd been talking about that pool since we left Chincoteague. "I don't know how far it is, Adam. The sign doesn't say. It may take a while to get there and then back to this highway."

"I want to see it," he said. Dana was game, so we turned left onto a small road and started looking for signs of Harriet Tubman. After a few miles, we'd seen nothing but farms and fields. We stopped to walk among the stones at intermittent old graveyards. When the ride began to seem overlong, even to me, I offered to turn around and head for the Washington pool. "No," said Adam. "Keep going."

On we drove. More hot miles. Farther in time and distance from the cool rooftop pool. Then, outside of Bucktown, we saw a silver-gray historical marker, lit white-hot, stuck in the high grass at a bend in the road. It told of Harriet Tubman, "the Moses of her people."

We read the marker, silently, and turned to consider the broken-down wooden farmhouse nestled under trees at the end of a long, dirt path. The old Brodas farm, where Tubman was born into slavery. We were standing in a field that she likely worked, and she somehow made her way from that house to Philadelphia, and freedom. Only to turn around and come back, a score of times, to lead 300 other human beings to freedom.

There was no one around. Just us and Harriet Tubman. We felt her, and we felt her courage. "I'm glad you wanted to keep going, Adam." He looked at the dark, unpainted house. "Me too."

In the evening, as I watched the kids splash in the pool with a view, I felt proud -- and enriched. Travel brings fun and enjoyment, but it also offers more meaningful gifts. It favors those with open minds and hearts and rewards patience and curiosity. A detour down a Maryland back road had taught my kids something about tolerance, humanity, respect, courage, and right and wrong. That's a lot to gain from one short journey.

(In preparing this post, I came across a website that shares what 2nd graders at Pocantico Hills School in Sleepy Hollow, New York have learned about the Underground Railroad. Click here to read their words.)

Visit other American places in Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America