Dayton was that town, when I was growing up, I would drive past on the way to big city of Portland. With a population of only some thousand and being barely connected to the state highways, Dayton makes my hometown of McMinnville look like a bustling metropolis.
The first time I visited Dayton was in high school. A competitive spark had gotten in me, so I had signed up for a 10k road race, the Summer Fiesta Days Run. Because of Dayton’s small size, most of the race was contested in the hilly farmlands outside of town. At one point, when the route came back on itself, I witnessed a local runner a few miles behind me light a cigarette.
After winning my division in a neck-to-neck race against the other 15-19 year old male, I was privileged to shake the mayor’s hand. (In full disclosure, I had been whooped by the 15-19 year old of the female division, but she would go on to win the state cross country meet so I don’t consider that a huge personal loss.)
My second Dayton experience was this past summer, when I was asked to be a one of the guest speakers at Dayton Junior High School’s “Reading Day” event. The entire school had read the outrageously popular book Three Cups of Tea, with the younger kids reading an abridged version. To celebrate this remarkable feat (I know some colleges have made freshmen with twice as much education read the same book), classes per usual were cancelled and an entire learning experience was created around delving deeper into the significance of the book.
In Three Cups of Tea, mountaineer Greg Mortensen’s failed summit turns into an experience where a Pakistani villiage takes him into his care. In return, Mortensen promises to build the village a school, and the idea catches on like wildfire as he finds himself at the helm of an opportunity to bring education to Central Asia.
Appropriately, Dayton Jr. High’s event, some of the guests were Pakistani or Indian, invited to share culture and the game of cricket with the kids. I was in the other category of guests, someone who had grown up in the area and found a way to make a difference elsewhere in the world, supposedly like Greg Mortensen (although certainly not to that scale!).
I grasped the microphone tightly, sweating just a little, as I looked upon the seventy or so wide-eyed twelve-year-olds I was about to speak to. Not because they were a critical audience, but an impressionable one. As a college student in need of haircut, old enough to gain their respect but still not old enough to be their parents or teachers, I had their attention without trying. What would they think of me? Would they understand why I choose to go to school halfway across the country? How could I communicate that it was courage and not privilege that ultimately allowed me to travel to these places of need – to Mexico, New Orleans, and soon India?
Most of my classmates who left home wound up somewhere within driving distance of their families and friends. There were those at the extreme of being emotionally incapable of leaving their parent’s walls, at the other extreme you have those who flee the country in order to shed their unsatisfactory identities. I fall somewhere on this spectrum but I’m not sure where. Sometime after high school I contracted a developing case of wanderlust, still unsure where it will lead.
I looked upon the kids, wondering what sort of message I was preaching to them and wondering how they understood me. Did I spark in any kid the idea that we live in an exciting yet strange age where the whole world is out there for them to explore, to enrich and be enriched by?
Even the cafeteria got into the event, sprinkling curry on the rice and the mystery meat. While I was getting in line, a rather small sixth grader got my attention. “Hey you…” he said, stumbling over his words, trying to figure out what to call me, a person who has been called by the world. “You’re the dude who’s trippin’!”
Hoping he wasn’t referring to a psychedelic drug experience, my response was: “Yeah, I am.”