One evening last year I announced to my husband Steve and our two kids my idea for our next vacation. I told them I wanted to take a road trip to South Dakota. You should have seen their faces; they looked at me in horror with their mouths gaping wide open. (Insert sound effect: crickets chirping.)
Seeing their initial reaction, I realized I had underestimated just how hard the sell of such a trip would be. However, I went on to explain that going on a family road trip is a must in a family’s life together. I also wanted to show our kids firsthand parts of the country in which they live while collecting memories, experiences and stories we could share with future generations. Even if it meant bunched up in a car for two weeks traveling countless miles on the road, we’d be doing it together.
Gradually, one by one they began to understand the reason behind my madness as we started talking about all the sites we wanted to visit. Yellowstone, eating pie in Custer, South Dakota (a recommendation from Grandma) seeing Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, and most importantly seeing the largest ball of yarn (which, by the way, is no longer on display in Bozeman, Montana).
After months of planning, the day came to set off east across the Cascade Mountains, the Rockies and long endless stretches of farmland. We left behind the familiarity and comfort of our hometown – a smallish college town sandwiched between mountaintops and the Puget Sound in the upper northwest corner of Washington state, thirty minutes from the bustling international mecca of Vancouver, Canada. Here in Bellingham, we have a unique blend of traditional farming families and progressive environmental activists. Our grocery bags are five cents each at all stores, organic is as common as waking up in the morning and everyone looks forward to the joys of the annual county fair.
Back in Time
Driving east we saw beautiful sites and landscapes. Yellowstone was breathtaking with buffalo roaming the hillsides and roadways, rivers of cool blue-green waters carved deep into the canyons, with its unique collection of geysers, every one of them different than the first. We were even gifted with a rainbow stretching across amber meadows following an afternoon hailstorm.
Mt. Rushmore was also quite a site and one couldn’t help but feel patriotic during each evening’s lighting event honoring each president (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and T. Roosevelt) and celebrating the lives of our county’s servicemen and women who were in attendance that night.
We learned through our travels that this region of our nation is steeped with incredible prehistoric and Native American history. Stopping off at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, we saw an incredible assortment of dinosaur bones and fossils dating back millions of years. Then taking in the Battlefield of Little Bighorn where Custer and his troops were defeated by the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribes. We learned that this was the last victory of the Native Americans who succumbed only months later to spend their remaining days on reservations.
As we made our way though the Badlands, I was captivated and slightly spooked by the idea that settlers and their families traveled through this desolate place in covered wagons, and how incredibly grateful I was for the invention of the automobile and air conditioning.
The history of these places grabbed a hold of me like no history book ever could.
It was along this route we realized just what a hotbed of polarization between issues was really like. We saw billboards widely proclaiming judgment and bias on several current issues. Locals and tourists proudly advertised their opinions on t-shirts as well.
The halfway point of our trip was visiting my old school friend Julie who once lived across the street from our family in California back in the 70’s. We stayed on their family farm at the tip of tornado alley in the far northeast corner South Dakota. She and her husband moved to the farm a few years ago to care for both her elderly grandmother and their family’s ‘small’ 150-acre farm of corn and soybeans that has been part of her dad’s family for over a hundred years.
During our time on the farm we slowly grew to better understand the people living in the heartland of America – strong, hardworking people, every one of them; young and old alike. People who are kind and caring to their neighbors and who also enjoy and look forward to heading to the county fair.
I was enchanted by the surroundings of this place that my friend Julie would visit every summer growing up. Together, Julie and I reminisced as we came upon some of the toys she played with when visiting as a girl as I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You still have a Crissy doll? I had Velvet! Do you still have all her clothes too?! …”
Is Something Missing?
However, there was also something nagging at me about this place.
As we wove through miles of fenceposts and farmlands to finally arrive at Julie’s homestead, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “What do families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing do?” “How in the world are early intervention services delivered?” “What types of services are available in the schools?” Admittedly, I had never lived very far from resources common in larger cities in my life. Seeing such vastness and expanse it finally hit me dead on of the logistical challenges families face in rural America.
Julie, who now works at the local newspaper, shared stories about living there over lunch one day. She shared with us the meaning of 90 day vs. 97 day corn and how in a matter of moments crops could be wiped out by a sudden hailstorm, and how being called a ‘newcomer,’– despite her family’s history in the same farmhouse for over a 100 years– had its challenges. We also touched on the local politics, gun laws and GMOs. It took great strength on my part to stay away from feelings of bias and judgment towards a lifestyle that was not my own.
Hearing what Julie shared about their rural lifestyle was an education for me. In our conversation I shared with her what my thoughts were driving out to their place and asked if she knew what families do to receive early intervention services. She replied, “People with disabilities here are cared for by everyone. They are looked out after, and included in the goings on of daily life.” I felt the advocate in me start to tense up as I replied sharply, “But what about a child’s equal rights and access?”
“It’s really not like that here; people are who they are,” she replied.
Days later on the long road home, my mind played back that conversation. I couldn’t help but think of the years of work professionals have done to bring about positive change for generations of children born with a hearing loss. I thought about the long hours, months and years that parents and professionals have come together to revolutionize systems and policies – sometimes together, often alone. (Not to mention all the time in church basements moving chairs or cleaning up crafts and food from the picnic area.) What are the factors for a lack of services?
Certainly, there is something beautiful and nostalgic, that despite an individual’s abilities, everyone is cared for and included in daily life and a person’s basic needs are provided. How could one argue with that? Maybe living in the heartland, or anywhere that local culture trumps school systems, this inclusion is the standard. Does the idea of “people are who they are” act as a support or a barrier to future success, or both?
What influences a parent to move beyond barriers (cultural and logistical) to begin supporting their child, wherever they happen to live? Why systems and policies continue to misalign with the need for family engagement? As a new grad student learning about Adult Education I am drawn to the topic of transformational learning and non-learning. Transformational (or transformative) learning is “about change-dramatic, fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live.” (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, p. 130, 2007) This type of learning is typically brought on by an event, for example a diagnosis, or even an innocent family road trip.
It was just this type of experiential learning that led me to become an involved parent. According to Jack Mezirow, sociologist and founder of transformative learning theory, transformative learning occurs through a process beginning with an event (disorienting dilemma) which leads to critical reflection, reflective discourse, and action. A parent must cognitively reflect upon his or her experience, talk with others about their new world view in order to gain the best judgment, and act on this new perspective. (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, p. 137, 2007) Thus, allowing opportunities for parents to interact with one another is the cornerstone of parent-to-parent support and paramount to encourage parent engagement and involvement. So, in simpler terms, parents benefit from opportunities to talk over “the news” of a diagnosis, early decisions, and current challenges with other parents in order to reflect and take effective action on behalf of their child.
Ironically, the motive for our family road trip was to educate our kids and collect a few stories. Now, almost six months later, we can all recall the moment in the trip that we treasure. For our daughter, the hotel swimming pools were the best, for our son, Mt. Rushmore was exhilarating, for my husband Steve, witnessing wild buffalo roam free in Yellowstone was incredible, and for me, stepping into a giant field of sunflowers along the highway and feeling the incredible energy of the busy bees hard at work was breathtaking. These memories are forever captured in our minds, but perhaps the biggest surprise for me was just how much I learned along the way.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood – a comprehensive guide. (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass