Walking through the gate

The Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains are a beautiful part of this unique region. But they may represent something different to me than they do to most area residents.

In my youth, I saw those mountains as a confining wall. But I encourage today’s urban youth to view them as the gateway to a bright future rich in adventures outside of Asheville.

Too often, we get very comfortable where we are. As my wife likes to tell me, I love familiarity. And my own experiences abroad have taught me that what seems different to me is mostly commonplace to someone who lives there.

When I talk with students, anecdotes from the past often creep into the conversation. Mostly I talk about experiences I had growing up here, how I made it through college away from my family, my exploits in the military, and my experiences on returning to Asheville. With these stories come various questions: Why did you leave home? Is it hard being away? What is food like in another country? Does the moon look the same in Korea as it does here?

Young people aren’t vigorously encouraged to pursue endeavors that will take them away from the world they’re accustomed to. As adults, we must groom our youth for the world that is awaiting their arrival.

Growing up in Asheville, I felt my curiosity rise up each time I looked at the beautiful mountains surrounding my home. The family often traveled to Georgia, but that didn’t quench the desire to know what lay beyond Mount Pisgah. One school trip actually took us to that mountain, where I could look out and see other states. (Back in the day, the haze did not obstruct the view—but that’s another story.) To a kid from the projects, even Tennessee seemed so far away. And admiring the Smoky Mountains would bring stories my mother told of Paris, Berlin or the Louvre into my mind. To get to those places, though, I had to walk through that gate.

When I was in ninth grade, my dad helped me pay for my first trip abroad—a week in Mexico with members of my Spanish class. The mere prospect of traveling to a foreign country was the highlight of my young life. I spent nights at the old Pack Library studying the culture of a people who had been on the continent since long before Columbus even knew what a sail was. But what I didn’t realize then was that this trip would also keep that gate open for me to walk through as an adult. Even if I eventually came back here, I was no longer held captive.

What you learn from going outside your comfort zone is as important as the experience itself. Encouraging young people to venture beyond their usual stomping ground has enabled me to give them a glimpse of what they may soon have some influence over. There’s a vast world of exploration waiting outside of Pisgah View, Lee Walker Heights, Hillcrest, Erskine, Livingston Heights and Asheville itself. Don’t let the mind be clouded into thinking that there’s no place except home.

Parents must help prepare their children for exploring the world that lies beyond Western North Carolina. But students need to prepare themselves as well. Start today by soaking up as much information as you can about those unique places you’ve studied in school—especially the ones that spark your interest. When people come to school telling stories of places they’ve seen, ask questions. Take time to try new things. Many students tell me they wouldn’t eat sushi, but when they try it, some like it. I was disgusted when my mother told of having been served snails. My students and family find it disgusting when I tell them about eating dog while in Korea. But I was in Rome, and I did as the Romans did. So prepare your mind to experience something new; I thank my mother for helping to prepare mine.

Excel at that thing that will take you out of here. Find something you’re good at and practice, so that when the time comes, you’ll be ready to walk through the gate. Dreams of the NBA, NFL or American Idol are great, but remember: Those people you see on television had to leave home. Something drew them to walk through whatever gate was shutting them in.

If you love to write, learn to write better. If math is your cup of tea, learn as much as it takes to be the next great engineer. If a sport is your thing, then practice and practice and practice, but make sure you also read a book. One never knows when an injury may happen, and having that geography lesson to fall back on could come in handy when you’re making maps for the government. My own youth gave me a love of words, and both during my time in the military and today, I’ve been able to write in ways that a kid growing up in the projects never thought possible.

Prepare yourself now to get on that bus, in that car, or on that plane and see the world. Experience those things that will enable you to share your own anecdotes with the next generation. And treasure the lessons you learn from your experiences so that one day, when asked what food tastes like in Laos, you can give the answer I usually do: “I can tell you, but why not go find out for yourself?”

[Asheville native Cedric Austin Nash teaches seventh-grade language arts/social studies at Randolph Learning Center.]

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