Growing up, my parents liked to take Sunday drives around the scenic parts of Connecticut: to watch changing leaves, visit aging relatives, drive over covered bridges. During one of these outings, I fell asleep in the car and when I woke up, I asked my parents if we were in Texas.
Their shock and horror likely prompted them to make the generous offer, some years later, to send me abroad my junior year of college: a last-ditch effort to provide me with some geographical context. I declined, citing a commitment to my position in student government. Obviously the Brandeis Student Senate would suffer mightily in my absence. I stuck with that story, even in my own mind, for a long time.
All that year, I received postcards from friends in Israel, London, Spain, Australia. They told tales of impromptu weekend trips to Florence, milking cows on a kibbutz in southern Israel, and late-night rendezvouses with strangers encountered in youth hostels. What could possibly make me choose “Robert’s Rules of Order” over these exotic adventures?
Truth was, unlike my adventurous college friends, I had no desire to see the world.
I liked home, whether it was my house in Trumbull or my dorm at in North Quad. I worked hard to fill my world with lots of friends and low-risk activities. To travel would be to embrace the unknown and step out of my carefully crafted community.
But I also wonder if part of my aversion to travel lay in the fact that I never quite felt physically oriented in the world. Statewide achievement tests in grade-school suggested that I had difficulty reading maps, and several road trips gone horribly wrong confirmed it. (I can attest to the fact that the “Bonfire of the Vanities” scene in the Bronx was totally authentic.) I deftly avoided the blue piece of pie when playing “Trivial Pursuit.” To me, a map was little more than a blur of bright colors and shapes swimming before me.
The prospect of traveling somewhere new, especially before cell phones and GPS, felt as unsettling to me as if I were going to outer space, tethered to nothing. Over time, that vague feeling of confusion hardened into an angst that kept me close to home. As an English teacher who has taught books like “The Odyssey” and “The Alchemist,” extolling the virtues of “the journey,” I carried that feeling somewhat shamefully.
So when I discovered an iPad app called “Stack the States,” I saw a way to begin to right this wrong for my son. On one level of this game, a player must identify states and then position them into a blank outline of the United States map. I could place six.
Emmet became obsessed with this game, and he began to notice states everywhere: “Mommy, my rice cake looks like Texas!” Crunch. “Now it looks like Ohio!” His ears perked when states or their capitals were mentioned on the news: “There’s a snow storm in Atlanta!” And most awe-inspiring to me: my five-year old can place every single state into that blank outline of the United States.
Emmet’s enthusiasm for geography has rolled over into “Stack the Countries,” which is even more heartening. My son knows more countries in Africa than I do, a fact that makes me equally proud and humbled. He knows that Brazil is humungous and that Chile is really skinny. Emmet has an interest in geography that I never had. He tells me he wants to go to Australia to see koalas, to swim at the beach in Rhode Island.. He is not just learning map skills: he is becoming curious about the world, as he navigates his place in it.
As much as I hate to think of a time when Emmet is not sleeping soundly down the hall from me, it is my fervent wish that these pixels on my iPad screen lead my little Odysseus to the faraway places he dreams about. And, like Odysseus, back home, too.