Maybe they're just not used to walking around on this much snow, but the kids from Atlanta are falling down laughing outside their hotel in Mount Crested Butte. They escaped the imposing routine of power meals with exotic food and intimidating company at Club Med to head into town for pizza and a movie. It's hard to imagine what a change of pace it is for these teenagers to leave their inner-city Atlanta homes, perhaps for the first time, and join the former president of the United States for a long weekend in the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, learning to ski and snowmobile, and mingling with an affluent crowd of Carter Center supporters.
There's absolutely nothing of an "outdoors" nature to do in high school junior Marcus Parks' neighborhood in Atlanta, "except going to the store." Senior Edward Smith can barely remember a school field trip long ago when they took a short hike somewhere, and freshman Shaune Smith laughs at the idea, saying, "I don't go outside." She learned to ski quickly enough that her instructor let her go to the top of the mountain. "It was really, really nice up there to see all the mountains," she said.
These students are in a unique position. They've been identified as potential leaders, but they recognize that they are immersed in an environment filled with risk. Edward acknowledges that even in a community he describes as close and friendly, "we have our share of bad things, violence, drugs, whatever." Edward, who will enroll at Georgia Tech next year, explaings: "There's always a risk of falling into that type of stuff. Especially when there are no role models in the community." He credits his mother "and the belt" for keeping him from falling in with the wrong crowd.
Marcus also credits his mother as his primary support system, and he takes special note of a time when he was about 8 and she gave him a book of poetry. "I used to always read that poetry book at night," he recalled. "After I'd read one of the poems out of the book, I'd try to write my own."
He read a poem he wrote called "Ghetto Child," summoning the spirit of Langston Hughes, as part of a FutureForce skit for the Carters and their guests. The skit was in the form of an Oprah-style talk show called Beat the Odds, with each of the 10 students playing successful singers, writers and actors who told the story of how they rose beyond their circumstance. Marcus had some doubts about reading his poem in front of this high-powered audience, confiding in FutureForce director Mark Jones that he was worried about offending the audience with lines depicting a worsening cycle of poverty, and reflections on a long history of cultural abuse, with "the devil" profiting at the expense of "my Black people, living on the street."
Jones assured Marcus that "if they're offended by the truth, that's OK." Jones stressed the importance of his students learning to talk comfortably with this gathering of movers, reminding them, "we came here not to entertain, but to change perspectives." Jones and his colleague Angela Scott look at the trip as an opportunity to have an impact not only on the kids, but on the guests as well. "These are the people who make decisions," he told his students. "Maybe by seeing you, their perspective will change."
"We all got pasts," Marcus said by way of explaining the poem. "Our past can't define what we'll be tomorrow, but we gotta try to make the future look better than what we left behind. Everybody knows that things weren't right back in the day. We got to make them better for the future, because your grandchildren, and our children's children, we got to make it so they'll be able to get along."
So far, that future is still a work in progress. "We're integrated, but we're still separated," Marcus said, echoing Carter's own belief that despite moving away from the days of unchallenged segregation, the degree of personal intimacy between black and white people that he grew up with is now almost completely unknown. "You see, it's always that one space white, one space black, then you have that gray area where nobody cares about color," Marcus observes. "But it's always separated."
-- Owen Perkins
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