Thursday, 30 August 2012

Free at last

Back home many of my friends are bracing themselves for the first day of the new term. This year will be the first in ten I don't have those anxious school dreams but also the first when I am not looking for the ultimate notebook and pen that will make me happy, even when I'm marking books.

Thinking of you all - and can't help feeling genuine pangs of missing out seeing The City Academy, Hackney grow another year group and make that important step towards a full school and our first exam results. I will miss you this year despite the freedom of the open road.

Freedom is a complex idea. On the road today I pondered what it means for a human being. I couldn't escape the image of running naked through a corn field. Given the dried, dead and cut corn we keep passing this is not a pleasant scenario. When you don't have basic freedoms like food, housing, having a say or going to school you know what you need to be free. But there are other things that make us feel free or not free.

America is supposed to be the 'land of the free' where everyone is free to own land, set up a business or own a gun. Yet America is a land of many rules. Sometimes it can be hard to find land not owned by someone else. Last night we were stealth camping again. I love the term because if makes me feel like James Bond rolling under laser beams to avoid detection. The reality is no one really minds if in the middle of a cute little Kansas town if you put up your tent in the park and use the water fountain and rest rooms.

Last week, after the Katy trail with its flat path and trees and no views we were glad to get back on the roads. We arrived in Sedalia, Missouri as it got dark and our option for camping was the fairground site at the old railway station. This was a barren patch of grass with locked toilets and a guy with a big white beard who was camping in his teepee tent with his bike hidden inside. Despite several pianos on the now abandoned platform,(Scott Joplin's home town) it was not very appealing. Compounded by two days without a shower and a dusty trail, I really wanted a wash. We headed downtown passing a motor bike rally. We were about to join the bikers when we decided to head just a bit further to the main street. And we were so glad we did.

We cycled down the main drag and noticed that there seemed to be a lot of spectators. I spotted a woman in an election T shirt.
'What's the occasion?' I asked, presuming a political rally.
'You need to get your bikes off the street first' she told us.
Turned out it had nothing to do with politics though Phyllis was the Democratic candidate for the Senate, fighting the incumbent Republican. Her platform was however quite neutral and her cards did not mention the Democratic party at all.

This was the annual Sedalia bicycle race and the woman's race was underway. Each lap was around a mile. Pro-racers in packs sped past every 5 minutes. There was a great atmosphere on the streets so James and I took a table outside a pub. No sooner had we ordered a beer then we were approached by a couple Chris and Toby. They were brandishing an iPhone with our blog.
'Is this you?' they asked excitedly. I felt like a celebrity.

After a brief chat about our plans for camping we said goodbye. Ten minutes later Toby came back.

'We wondered if you wanted to have a bath at ours and stay in the office space ?'
I was delighted.

Toby and Chris lived down town in a property built in the 1880s. They were in the middle of refurbishment trying to keep the beautiful old features of the house. We sat and chatted in their living room, then Chris asked Toby.

'So, you gonna tell em?'
And then the story came out.

Toby had once been one of America's Most Wanted.

Toby was married for 28 years. Toby worked in a prison training dogs with prisoners as a form of rehabilitation. Over many years Toby had trained thousands of dogs and was completely trusted by the prison authorities. The job became Toby's life. And then Toby fell for an inmate who was in prison for murder - an accomplice in a car jacking. Together they planned to run away together. Meticulously orchestrated, Toby helped him escape in a dog crate. Two weeks later they were found at the address where the getaway van was registered. Toby had been too much of a law abiding citizen - 'I never handed in an assignment late, I was the perfect girl'.

After 3 years in prison she came out without a job but two business degrees. She met her husband Chris through a job and now together they are setting up a non-profit called With Conviction to help felons get work and get on their feet after they have been to prison.

Toby was certainly an unlikely ex-con. Chris summed up the situation. 'Prison set her free.' Certainly she seemed excited and positive about her new life in Sedalia. Some of her family do not want anything to do with her but some have kept close. Her advice to teach the world was 'Look forward, don't look back' and Chris pointed out how fleeting our time upon the earth.

It was inspiring to meet them both and a reminder that happiness comes in different forms.

After Sedalia we decided we would head to Kansas City - when else are you going to have the opportunity to go? My friend Jen from swimming had mentioned family in town. I sent her a message on Facebook and we were kindly set up with her aunt Vera and uncle Peter. 50 miles - no problem. Turns out that it was over 70 to the outskirts of the city. By the time we reached Peter and Vera, Peter had come out in the car to look for us and found us close to their home. 94 miles - close to our 104 record.

What a welcome. Vera had been on Lance Armstrong's website seeing what champion cyclists eat and following his recipe. She'd made a chicken pasta dish and bought Gateraid especially. She also taught us some yoga stretches for our cycling legs.

Vera called their daughter Daniella who used to be student president of the local high school and arranged a visit for us. Galen and Carolina showed us round and then we spoke to a student council leadership class. One student asked the all important question,
'Don't your butts hurt?'
The answer? A bit, sometimes. Sudo Creme is the best thing for any rash. And you just need to stand in the saddle occasionally so that blood flows to the parts that some times aren't reached. We are also now travelling lighter having posted a big box to Hawaii. You realise over time how little you need.

Shawnee Mission Northwest High School was more like a university than a school. It had about 6 different sports hall for everything ranging from wrestling to gymnastics and football. School started at 7.40 and finished before 3. The school had a relaxed feel but there were clearly a lot of routines and rules that went into making the place run like clock work. If you are late to class you go to the tardy table, first time warning and the sanctions increase. Academic performance is also linked to sport. Two Ds or one F and the coach won't let you play on the soccer team. You won't be allowed to practise but he will watch you during practice time whilst you do your homework. Now that is an incentive to work hard.

Back in Hackney, east London the most successful school has been labelled by some a 'prison' because it is so strict. And yet this year 89% of their students achieved at least 5 good exam passes including the all important English and maths. Well done Mossbourne. Gives me goose bumps thinking how this breaks the mould and shows what any young person can accomplish with the right help. These students will have freedom to choose what to do next even though they may have had less freedom during their time at school. I'm happy with that. True freedom.

We passed through Topeka the other day. Topeka was the location of the famous court case Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education. Linda Brown was not allowed to enrol in a school a few blocks from home and was told to go to the black school 7 blocks, across the rail road and a bus ride away. The case went to the Supreme Court which eventually ruled that 'separate but equal' was not true because even though separate schools had broadly the same facilities it said:

'Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system... We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.'*

How you believe you will do, has a huge impact on how you do at school. Instilling a belief of possibility and ability takes all of us further than we might otherwise travel.

America has always been an aspirant nation. Yesterday we met a man called Mr Hoffman in a lovely coffee shop in St Mary's, Kansas. He had worked on electric rockets for NASA in the 70s and told me that Neil Armstrong had died. A man on the moon - that took some dreaming before it became reality.

After the 1954 judgement when segregation in schools was ruled illegal it took another 3 years before the Little Rock Nine made desegregation a reality and President Eisenhower took over the Arkansas National Guard to escort them to school.

So as I meet more people who are envious of the freedom I have to ride the open road, the more I question what freedom really is. Somewhere around the freedom to love the life you have dreamed of whatever that may be. That said however freedom is not doing whatever you want, whenever you want. Right now I'm in an air conditioned bar in Glasco, Kansas and as much I want to stay out of the sun, I know that there are 30 miles to go and one step at a time will mean I achieve something of which I will be very proud.

Time to hit the open road.


And no sooner had I written that then James got chatting to a lady called Joanna Cool whose Grandmother, Vester Williams was from Merthyr Tydfil. Never forget you're Welsh wherever you are. She lives in a big white house - a homestead - a mile out of town. Beautiful apparently. So that's our bed for tonight. 40 miles done - so we'll make up a few tomorrow.


  1. Inspiring Mari! Hope you make it to Buenos Aires. Beso, Sorrel

    1. Thanks Sorrel. This time South America doesn't make the itinerary. Would love to visit some time though... X

  2. I was going to say inspiring too! I'm intrigued to know how much you're learning en route, and how much learning you took with you! You're spinning the story of your trip with the story of a nation as you're spinning your wheels - brilliant!

    1. Thanks David,

      The Internet has certainly been a useful source of research whilst I've been here. Know a bit from teaching a fair bit of US history but really enjoying weaving it through our cycle westward.

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Keep following


  3. I am loving your blogs and the historical landmarks you're encountering along the way gives depth to your journey. It's awe inspiring what you've already achieved and I'm anxiously waiting to see where you go next. Keep going. X

    1. Thanks Avani,

      Hope the new job is going well. You did start a new job right?

      The trip is making me more of a history geek than ever. Never knew I was quite so in to the active stuff though.

      Next blog will be up in a couple of days. Keep reading.


  4. We skyped with Meurig & Gwen yesterday, Mari. They're coming !! Arriving Sacramento 5 October. We will pick them up and bring them here to Redding. When do you expect to arrive (Florence ?). - Meurig D (and Mary Lou)

  5. Please respond to my e-mail address (posting on this blog site is way too complicated than it needs to be...... - MeurigD

  6. Great blog Mari, paints a vivid picture of your trip. looking forward to further installments

    Enjoyed your reflections on freedom very much, noticed very quickly when I lived in US that regardless of their political world view, friendly Americans would constrast how free they were from interference from government compared with what I was used to in England/Europe/abroad. They would then generally spend the rest of the conversation explaining vast number of rules and paperwork I was encountering (43 forms to be signed when moving into apartment, you need US government ID to buy any alcohol from special liqueur stores with funny opening hours).

    I was left thinking the big different in approach is really aspiration - the American dream is future focused - and regardless of whether true or not - Americans feel they can pursue hopes and their own ambitions far more than elsewhere, with an implicit assumption, that this notion of freedom is not as open elsewhere.

    1. So true Gideon. There are many contradictions around freedom. Every time I pass a 'Keep Out' sign on a wild piece of land I think of that.

      Do please keep reading. Next blog due in next few days.