Flying, Phoenix is about an hour and a half from San Francisco. It’s so much more than that culturally-speaking, though not nearly as far as I imagine say, Mena, Arkansas is.
After boarding the Southwest plane this morning, I sat watching the rest of my fellow passengers filing down the aisle, seat-searching. It was a full flight. Fortunately I’d already gotten an aisle seat. The last passengers to board were a group of about twenty-five young people wearing bright orange T-shirts with a UB insignia over the heart region. Soon I’d learn UB stands for Upward Bound.
The flight attendant implored, There are only middle seats left. Please sit down wherever you find your self so we can get this plane off the ground.
But there was a lot of commotion, too many suitcases and not enough overhead baggage space. It took awhile.
One of the kids asked if she could sit in the seat next to me. I stood up to make room for her. She plopped her not-so-small backpack under the seat in front.
I asked about her group. She told me they were college and high school kids who needed a “leg up” because they came from homes that couldn’t provide the advantages some kids get. They meet weekly after school, and take day-long trips to see things they might not otherwise see, and occasionally longer trips. This trip would include San Francisco, Yosemite, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Alcatraz.
I really love geography and I’m glad we’re going to see these places. Geography is sooo cool. I love it!
Will your group visit different neighborhoods in San Francisco, I asked, like for instance, the Castro, to see the gay community?
No, I don’t think we’ll go there. We’ll go to Pier 39, and Pier 15, I think it is. Where the seals are.
I’ll call her Shelby. She was confident and articulate so at first I thought she was a college student, maybe a freshman, but no, she’s a rising high school junior. She said the group was from Mena, Arkansas, a short distance from Oklahoma.
I asked what she did. She said her dad used to have a chicken farm, not that he owned it but that he ran it and raised the chickens for Tyson.
I said, calmly, Oh that’s interesting and also too bad, ‘cause I’m a vegan.
Hmmm, she ventured noncommittally.
She said, The farm was all the way on the other side of town from where we lived so I’d have to drive all the way across town to get there. It sounded like a long drive.
How many people live in Mena? I asked.
Five thousand, she said. I used to work when Dad needed help. It was pretty awful. Sometimes the chickens had two heads or six feet, but they didn’t last very long.
Her job was to go each morning and pick up the dead bodies of the chickens that hadn’t made it through the night. She said it was pretty disgusting, but that generally she thought it was a good chicken farm and that the chickens had a good life before Tyson came to pick them up to turn them into “broilers” and drop off a new batch of chicks for her dad to raise. I asked if she likes to eat chicken. She was noticeably pleased with the thought.
Umh, yes! she responded.
I nodded, noncommittally.
Eventually her father couldn’t afford the upkeep on the farm so he got out of the business and became a maintenance guy for her school. Her mom does day care for other people’s young kids. I tell you this only because we eventually, that is, I eventually got to the topic of, well… Trump.
But not yet. First Shelby told me she’s travelled a lot. She rattled off the names of the places she’s been.
Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Indiana.
Again, she said how much she loves geography. I know all these different places! I still need to go to Georgia and North Carolina and Kentucky.
I said Well that pretty much covers the Southeast of the country.
She said One day I’d like to go to Europe to study architecture, maybe in Spain or Italy.
I asked if she likes to draw, but she looked at me blankly, not getting the connection. I said, well, as an architect, you need to draw the buildings. Dismissing my question about drawing she said she liked the math part of it. That she was into math, and taking AP classes and planning to get her associate degree at the same time she gets her high school diploma.
That’s amazing, I said.
I also love jazz, she added.
What’s your instrument?
Saxophone, she said, and I also like to play piano.
She asked if she could take a picture of me with her little yellow rubber ducky. She said it was just something she was doing. I hoped I wasn’t going to end up in some weird photo collage, or something worse, but I went ahead and agreed. She handed me her rubber ducky and as I held it, she snapped the picture.
I wondered what would happen if I asked her some political questions. I decided to try the tack I took asking the Brits about Brexit. Being curious rather than looking to debate.
I said, So, I’m curious; what do you think of Trump?
Shelby seemed mildly game to answer. Not enthusiastic but game.
Where I come from it’s pretty conservative. I mean, I think it wasn’t so much that people voted for Trump as they didn’t want Hillary.
I said, OK, yeah, but she’s been gone for two years. So what do you think of him?
Well, like I said we’re conservative, and, like, I don’t like everything, but basically, yeah, he’s ok. But I think it’s hard for people to talk to each other about stuff.
What do you think is hard about it? I asked.
People aren’t civil.
How do you think it could be better? I asked. Do you guys talk about how to communicate better, like at school or in Upward Bound?
Not really, she said.
I think communication and listening to each other is really important. What do you think?
I think people should be civil.
Yes, I agreed. But like I’m a liberal. I wonder what the people you know think about liberals.
People think liberals are close-minded.
Ah, really? And liberals often think that about conservatives. I wonder if there’s any way we could talk and listen better to each other.
I don’t know.
Changing the subject as we were flying low over the Bay, about to land, Shelby said, Oh! is that the Golden Gate Bridge?
No, that’s the Bay Bridge. The Golden Gate is around the other side of San Francisco.
As we pulled into our gate, one of the chaperones, a stout young man who I hadn’t realized was sitting right behind us suddenly was hovering over Shelby and eyeing me with what felt like mis-trust. Besides the geography and the tourist hot spots, I wondered about the social and cultural aspects of the program. I wondered why Shelby wasn’t learning about communication in her school or in her Upward Bound program. I wondered if Shelby found this liberal (me) civil? I wondered if she would wonder about anything I said. I wondered to myself.
Aloud, I said, I hope you guys have a really wonderful trip. It was nice to meet you, Shelby.
Nice to meet you too, she said.
And then, one of the flight attendants said, Thank you for flying Southwest, welcome to San Francisco, and God Bless our troops and God Bless America! Dang.