Leaving Kansas…



In December, an exhibit opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, focused on the work on designer Christian Dior, and particularly his role in resurrecting couture fashion after the Second World War. I’m not a huge follower of fashion, as anyone who knows me would assert, but I am fascinated by the links between popular culture and history, and this fits perfectly in there. My family is lucky enough to have an out-of-town membership for the ROM (worth getting if you visit Toronto a couple times a year), and I was able to register for a member experience involving the ROM exhibit.


Dawna Pym, who is part of the education staff at the ROM, and who has a personal deep and abiding passion for fashion, gave us a hands-on provocation with textiles from her own collection, helping us situate Dior historically. White-gloved, we lifted lace, examined the construction of corsets, and envied zippers on girdles.


Yes, really – that’s a zipper on a girdle. How great would that be?


Dawna then took us for a guided tour of the beautifully curated Dior exhibit. The ROM has the 3rd biggest museum textile collection in the the world, behind only the Met and the Victoria and Albert, some 55,000 items. We got to see scrapbooks, fabric samples, finished products, and learn about the way in which the resurrection of couture also helped save the disappearing arts of hand beading, embroidery and more. Anyone who doesn’t think sewing machines have a spot in the makerspace needs to come and see some of the astounding work on display in this exhibit. More on this adventure in another post.

After 2 engrossing hours, I headed down to the cafeteria in the bowels of the ROM to reflect, and really try and absorb some of the amazing stuff I’d learned, and then the world tilted.

Because on her way out of the cafeteria, on her way to her session with Dawna, was a friend I spent a magic summer with 33 years ago – and who I’ve really only seen a few times in the interim. But that summer, and that experience, was one of those that binds you to those you share it with. It connects you and despite communicating via Facebook, when you see each other 33 years later, you call each other’s names, and laugh, and hug each other, and do a 5 minute update, and get teenaged girls (who can never imagine that they will be this old someday) to take your picture , and then, if you’re me, you sit down, and get a little teary, because that bond is still there, and it’s magic.


Old friends – we’ve aged surprising well, I think!


So, I thought, why, after all this time, is that connection still there?

In July of 1984, when I was 17 years old, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of about 30 Ontario kids to go on an immersion experience to Germany. There was a cost involved, and I know I paid some, and my parents somehow came up with the rest (which would not have been easy). We would be boarded with families, most of whom had a teenaged child, and would go to German classes in the morning, and then have the afternoons free for social and cultural activities. We soon realized this was code for eating much bratwurst and poppyseed cake, drinking much beer, lying in the sun at the town’s outdoor pool complex and dancing at the local disco, with the occasional castle and cathedral tour thrown in for good measure.

I had done a fair amount of travelling as a kid. The requisite long road trip out west, lots of camping adventures with my family, a year spent living in Florida the year I was in Grade 9, while my dad worked on his Master’s in Media Literacy (yup – on his #selffundedleave – I come by it honestly). But prior to this trip, in the summer of Grade 12, I had not really been away from my family for very long – maybe a week at a time at a summer camp. And suddenly, here I was, on another freaking continent, with money of my own to budget (my dad set me up a ledger), and really, no accountability to anybody except the charming grandparent-age couple who were housing me.

I think that was the key.  That “out here on my own” thing we were all experiencing together, with no opportunity for helicopter parenting – no cell phones, no e-mail, no Skype or FaceTime. I sent a couple of postcards, but my parents were very far away – literally and metaphorically. If somebody got a dear John letter from his girlfriend in Canada, and was trying to self-medicate himself to solve it, nobody but us was going to dig him out of that hole. If somebody truly fell in love, and didn’t know how they were going to say goodbye, we cried it out together. If someone was mixing pain meds, paprika chips and apple schnapps a little too liberally, it was up to us to solve that problem. If I wanted to have my hair cut down to an inch all over my head, there was nobody who was going to say “no, that’s a bad idea”, and lots of people to encourage me. We became each other’s family, and we took that responsibility seriously. We grew up a lot, that summer, and we helped each other do it.


Dear heavens, but we’re young. Summer of 84, Kulmbach, Germany. That’s me, in the mushroom cut (before I cut it all off!). We were fierce, and brave and gorgeous!

And that’s why I had a little “verklempt” moment. Because seeing, and touching, and talking to my old friend reminded me of the fierce, brave, gorgeous women we were becoming in the summer of ‘84, and of all the things we didn’t know yet were going to hurt us and give us joy.

Being me, I am left with some questions.  What was that defining experience for you – when you knew that you weren’t in Kansas anymore, and that you were okay with that? Who were the people you shared it with? Are they still part of your world? Please share in the comments, or your own writing – I’d really love to know.

Second batch of questions: Do those opportunities still exist for our students and our children in this ultra-connected world? Do we encourage our students and kids to take them, and then get out of the way? How might the technology that enriches our lives be getting in the way of this kind of adventure? How do we help our parent/teacher selves let go?


Let the sparks fly….

8 thoughts on “Leaving Kansas…

  1. Hi my friend!

    How fortunate that you were able to see your friend after all these years! I had an opportunity to travel like this, but not quite like this. It was to France in the summer of 1990, just before starting university, but I was with my pen pal’s family on my own. My pen pal and I still send Christmas cards to each other, 27 years later. I don’t know if it was quite “Kansas” for me or not.

    I wanted to try and tackle your second set of Qs: Do those opportunities still exist for our students and our children in this ultra-connected world? Do we encourage our students and kids to take them, and then get out of the way? How might the technology that enriches our lives be getting in the way of this kind of adventure? How do we help our parent/teacher selves let go?

    I think it depends on where our students go. I know when my daughter and I went to Phoenix with two of my beloved TL friends, we neglected to call home until we were back in the country; this upset my poor spouse, who expected at least one “we are alright” phone call. The three adults left the teen alone for the day (in an unfamiliar city) and she managed well. I think she texted a couple of times to reassure us that she was fine. So, maybe you have a point – being ultra-connected means never truly being on your own, unless it’s a deliberate choice (for both parties). Dang, I’m not sure how to help ourselves let go – there’s a bit of guilt I felt when I realized that hubby was worried (and perturbed) that we never touched base during our time away. Tough questions! (Won’t write too much more – had my first bout with online trolls today!)


    • Yikes, online trolls. That doesn’t sound fun. I’d like to dig into your thoughts on this. I absolutely adore the tech that lets me check in with my spouse before I go to bed when I’m away – mostly because it settles me to have that connection with him, and he’s admitted that it’s hard when I « disappear » at a conference, and he feels disconnected. I loved, in Quebec City, just letting my kids wander around on their own, but it was because I knew I could check in if I needed to. I have independent kids. Older often goes away with friends for athletic competitions, and I might get one word texts occasionally (all okay? Yeah). I sometimes think that,s the equivalent of me sending 2 postcards. He’s letting me know he’s alive, and that,s all I need to know.


  2. Pingback: My Kansas – doug — off the record

  3. Funny…I think I am living my defining moment, experience now. I often joke that this is my backpacking across Europe moment. I have always travelled, tried to experience the most of life that I can but most of it was as an adult, with my husband or family. Here in China I am forced to live outside of my comfort zone, try new things, rely on myself and some days survive. I have already made so many connections with the individuals I live and work with and know that I will leave here one day with strong friendships and life long connections. I think that is the nature of international teaching.

    In regards to the youth of today. I think there are these experiences for young men and women. My son Harrison has lived abroad many times throughout his university career. He lived 6 weeks in Dakar, Senegal with a family. I know that he is still in contact with the family he lived. He then spent 3 months living in Brussels and studying. I do not think this experience had the same affect because his girlfriend traveled with him and they did many things together. Although he made some connections I believe he would have had more if he was on his own. As a parent I hope that I have instilled in both of my boys the desire to travel, to learn and to discover who they are through these experiences.


    • Ann Marie: Thanks so much for your comment. I am really intrigued by the concept of finding that “leaving Kansas” moment now, as I feel like I’m doing that a bit, in this year off, as my teens move more and more in to their independence, and my spouse is working full-time. Who am I now, and how is that informed by where I’ve been, and where I’d like to go?

      I’m also glad that your son has had many independent travelling experiences – I, too, hope that I am raising kids who will want to do this kind of adventuring/exploring of their world. And maybe, these days, it does happen during university, because that’s where the opportunities are.


  4. When I was 17 I went on a Summer Exchange to Denmark and Norway. I had saved a lot of babysitting money and income from summer jobs, plus the Local Lions Club and my wonderful parents helped too. It was a Lion’s Club Exchange where 27 students from all over the world gathered for what they called ScanCamp, short for Scandinavia Camp. We spent half the time in Denmark, where we were hosted by families in the same town and each day were taken by one of the Local Lions Clubs by bus to see the wonders of Denmark. The second half we spent housed at a college residence in Norway and were bused off to experience Norway each Day.
    One day we worked a Norwegian farm together, another day we visited a castle, one rainy mud filled day was spent merrily planting trees up the side of a mountain. We went on a day excursion on a Viking ship, visited Legoland in Denmark, and saw Hamlet’s castle (but no ghosts- Kingly or otherwise appeared). All the while we were getting to know each other and learn about life in their homelands. I was amazed to learn than the Israeli girls had both just finished two years of compulsory service in their army. The Italians couldn’t wait to cook us a big Italian meal, with the blessings of our residence cooking staff ( It was amazing!). We took our evening time to put together a small talent and musical show to thank our hosts at the end of our trip. One of the Austrian students was a musical theatre major and he somehow got us all singing and dancing, somewhat in step to the music of The Sound of Music and Cabaret. So many fabulous memories of that summer! How much I learned of the world and our differences, but also how we very very much the same. We all loved a good story, a good laugh, and learning from each other.

    Do these experiences still exist? Some do. The Lions club still hosts summer exchanges and we have hosted students. I took students from our High School to Australia in 2001 for a summer trip where they were hosted by Australian families. But that was pre-Sept 11, and the rules, security and planning have made these harder, but still possible to do. I hope the difficulty doesn’t deter many, because the experience is so worth it.
    Have I kept in touch with my Exchange comrades? Some yes, some no. That was over 30 years ago, so not bad considering how lives change.
    Thanks for your post and letting me relive these memories!


    • thanks so much for your response. I love your stories of your time in Norway and Denmark – and that you are still in touch with some of your comrades. The stories that we reminisced about (via Facebook) after I published this post had my own kids in stitches – and that was a gift, to make your teenagers laugh at you as a teenager.

      Amazing that you took a group of students to Australia?!? And yes, the travel restrictions have made things tougher, but I agree with you that it is so worth it!


  5. Pingback: Not in Kansas… | SheilaSpeaking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s