In 2011, I boarded a plane to Morocco for the second time. Having served there as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2007, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit while I was “in the neighborhood” (Italy: close enough).
I had braced myself for changes, and indeed, the the last few years had brought many transformations: There was now a fancy new light rail in Rabat, the old Marrakech train station had been completely relocated, and my former students’ once-childish voices had all dropped by a terrifying octave and a half.
As I walked through my old haunts, however, I wasn’t as much struck by the way the country had transformed. To my surprise, I was hit harder by how much I’d changed. Returning to my old city was like holding a questionably-colored dress sock against a known black background and discovering it’s indisputably navy blue. Like a president’s hair color, we sometimes don’t notice the gradual changes in ourselves until we abruptly hold them up against the past.
So if traveling to a new country is a journey of external discovery – new sounds, sights, and people – returning to that place inherently leads you on an expedition inward.
I had the same feeling this week when re-reading Paulo Freire’s brilliant, seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was assigned for one of my classes, and though had read the book in my early 20’s and have been citing excerpts ever since, it’s been just short of a decade since I’ve sat down and read through the the whole book.
My original copy was dog-eared and annotated beyond cleanliness, but since a grad-student budget isn’t conducive to shiny new things, I decided to make do, sitting down with my old copy (with a different color pen this time*) to converse with Paulo Freire once again.
But as I read, it turned into less of a dialogue with Freire and more of an odd conversation with my former self: 20-something-Chris had underlined passages that now strike me as obvious, he had scribbled notes in the margins about life-connections that were no longer relevant, and he had even left many of the most brilliant passages completely blank (knowing him as I do, I could clearly see when his coffee buzz was wearing off). It wasn’t long before I realized I really was conceptualizing 20-something-Chris as “he” instead of “me.”
It felt just like re-walking the Moroccan streets that this same 20-something-Chris had walked years before. It felt less like I’d been there, like I’d written those notes, and more like I had once watched some highly interactive, sensually-enhanced movie where I saw it all through someone else’s eyes – like some trippy, time traveling RPG video game.
Admittedly, I’ve always been hesitant to visit a country or that I’ve already “checked off my list.” There are, after all, infinite places to go and new experiences to have. Its been the same with reading: I had always wondered why people would go back to a book they’ve already read when there are so many new, wonderful books out there to discover. What’s the point in going back?
It reminded me of the frustration I feel watching students take standardized reading tests: They often skim through the reading passage, then flip that page under to bubble-in the questions, never looking back. I tell them, time and time again, that all the answers were in the passage, and that they are, indeed, allowed to go back to look at them.
But something made them want to move on – and it wasn’t just the less-than-entertaining nature of standardized test passages – they wanted to move forward. They wanted to feel like they were making progress. Something deep inside, told them that if they didn’t get it the first time, that they weren’t smart or savvy readers; that “good” readers can get all they need from a passage the first time.
Now, as a reader and as a traveler, I know the opposite is true.
When faced with new questions, challenges, or life stages, sometimes if you just turn back a page, the answers are right there in the passage; looking back doesn’t mean you’re not moving forward. (And yes, I just used standardized testing as a life metaphor – sincere apologies).
So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure there are a few more books – and countries – that I should be getting back to.
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*If this experience sounds intriguing, I’d suggest reading “S.” by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, a novel in which two characters write notes in the margins to each other – it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before.