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There and Back Again
Or, where I've been these past few weeks.
The first thing you realize when you see the Grand Canyon is that the name does not do it justice.
The Grand Canyon is vast in a way that does not even seem possible. One of my students saw the expanse below us and proclaimed that it had to be fake, that it looked like something out of a painting. He wasn’t far off – I made the same remark that the diorama of the Grand Canyon along the Disneyland Railroad manages to look similar to real-life while not even coming close to the scale of the real thing. The canyon itself has canyons and just thinking about the amount of time it took for the Colorado River to carve the various trenches feels like counting the seconds in eternity.
The Grand Canyon was the final stop on our journey, in its own way disconnected from all of the other meetings and visits that we had gone on for the past eleven days. Even getting to the Grand Canyon was a chore – it took us three hours from arriving at the national park before the kids were finally settled enough to make the trek to the cliffs. We only planned on spending twenty minutes visiting before heading off to our final hotel of the trip so that the kids could prepare for their presentations in the morning.
We ended up staying over an hour, and only left when it became too dark to really see the canyon. When something that majestic presents itself, all other plans go out the window.
I think I need to step back for a second and talk about what’s going on here.
Hello, this is still Dimitri, and you’re still reading the Mighty Bruin. Consider this something of a mea culpa for not having something for you guys the past few weeks. Truth be told, I planned to have another article ready to go the last week of April before this trip began, but I might have overestimated how much I needed to get done before leaving. I might be traveling with the seniors, but I still had freshmen and sophomores (and their poor substitute teachers) who needed two weeks of lessons. My apologies.
The trip itself is a senior class project trip. The visit to the Grand Canyon was as close to a “vacation” as the students were going to get, as most of the eleven days were filled with visits to various communities as students studied the theme of sovereignty and autonomy. We went on one long bus ride from Los Angeles all the way to Tulsa Oklahoma and back.
Needless to say, I am exhausted.
I won’t be going over the details of the trip or anything like that. Again, this is a mea culpa post more than anything else just to provide some sort of content before I dive back into all the goings-on with UCLA sports, particularly football which wrapped up spring practices, and basketball which looks close to settled for next year. But there were some things I wanted to write about, so this was as good a chance as any to do so.
So if you’ll indulge me, I wanted to highlight a few different things.
Sport is a universal language.
The students at my school are predominantly Hispanic, with a large percentage of them being native speakers. I myself do not speak Spanish and can follow conversations mostly through cultural osmosis. I mention this only as a statement of the facts, and so that you understand where I am coming from.
The great thing about sports is that it does not require people to speak the same language – if you know the basics, you can communicate with a ball. Early on the trip, one of the other teachers on the trip shared the story of his freshman year at UCLA, and how he joined an unofficial club that played soccer in one of the parking structures on Wednesday nights. People from all walks of life and all parts of the world took part in those games; the only language they needed was soccer.
We got to see that story play out around the midway point of the trip. We took the students to visit Sequoyah High School, a Cherokee school near the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah. We did a tour of the school, seeing all parts of it, and then had lunch on the campus. While we were eating, one of the boys from the school walked up to our group and started talking. One thing led to another, and suddenly students from both schools were heading in unison over to the gym. The first thing that student said?
“Do you guys play sports?”
In that gym, the two schools, with vastly different backgrounds and experiences, found a common ground and bonded. A game of pick-up basketball started up with guys from both schools cycling into both teams (and as the basketball coach, I was forced to cycle in for a bit, and I regret to inform you all that the teens were able to cook me). Volleyball players formed a passing circle, while our soccer players got to show off their skills to others outside. None of it was planned; in fact, the poor students who had been our tour guides spent the entire time freaking out about whether this was fine until we assured them that yes, this was more than ok.
The next day, we surprised the students and took them to an FC Tulsa game. When we got to the game, some of the students noticed a small game had formed on the concourse of the stadium. Not even five minutes later, we had some of our own participating and playing with other teens they had never met before.
At no point did our students have any apprehension about whether they could speak to the people they were playing with. There was no need. The ball did all the talking for them.
I had an interesting experience in Amarillo.
It was early in the morning and we were getting the students breakfast. As you can imagine, a large amount of students at a hotel in Amarillo is an unusual sight, and eventually, some of the other hotel guests came up to us to ask questions. Two gentlemen, in particular, walked up to me and another teacher to ask questions. Both men had lived in LA previously, and asked us questions about the school and what we were doing, and the other typical questions you get when on these kinds of trips. The first gentleman used the opportunity to tell us that he felt equity in schools was bad because he believed it was unfair to whites, and a whole host of heinous things about Islam. This story is not about him.
But the Islam bit came up because I was wearing my UCLA hat and my new UCLA hoodie that I had bought from Homefield Apparel (did I sneak a plug in for Homefield in this thoughtful piece? Yes I did). Specifically, he wanted to talk about UCLA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Kareem only came up because of the second gentleman.
This man was wearing an Arkansas hat and was in the process of moving from Denver to Fayetteville. He was retired now and wanted to live close to the school so that he could attend football games regularly.
I say sport is a universal language, and that applies to sports fandom as well. By wearing college apparel, there was an unwritten understanding between the two of us that we could talk about our schools without any fear. I talked about how much I love Sam Pittman and what he’s done with that Arkansas program, giving them the first clear identity they’ve had in decades. He talked about how he thinks Chip Kelly is an offensive genius and how he thinks Lincoln Riley is a trash person.
We talked a lot about basketball, as you would expect when you have UCLA and Arkansas in a conversation. He told me how he woke up on the morning of the 1995 NCAA Tournament Championship knowing that UCLA was going to win that game, despite the efforts of Corliss Williams. I told him that at least the Razorbacks had beaten Duke for a championship the year prior, and we both agreed that Duke sucks. We talked about our basketball teams and how they’re both already two of the preseason favorites for next year.
I shook hands with the man as we got ready to leave. We did not exchange contact info. There wasn’t really a need to. Sometimes just having those conversations is enough.
I wrote most of this in my head after visiting the Grand Canyon. Again, the sheer majesty of that sight would cause most people to want to write something.
But I got to this last part and realized that I did not know what I wanted to say. The entire trip was meant to help these seniors begin their transition into the next phase of their lives, especially college and being away from home for the first time, but for me it caused me to reevaluate the things I find important in life.
Before you get worried: I’m not quitting the site. Far from it.
If anything, I actually thought pretty hard about what I wanted this site to be, and if anything I’d already started the transition since basketball season ended. We’re never going to be a news site like BruinReportOnline or SI, and frankly, I don’t want to be. Those guys have the resources to do those kinds of stories, and I don’t want Joe and myself to try and compete with them on that front while having day jobs.
That said, I don’t think people followed us over from Bruins Nation because we broke news – we barely did that before – but because we had a unique perspective on UCLA athletics and were unafraid to speak our mind. I feel that has translated over to the new site, and I can actually guarantee some of the things we’ve written have rankled feathers inside Morgan Center.
I think I personally am going to transition into writing about whatever I feel like at that moment. There’s still stuff I’m going to do because I enjoy it - things like the Eye Tests and basketball postgames - but you’ll see longer pieces where I just try and make sense of what is happening in college sports and how it pertains to UCLA.
I hope you’ll join us for the ride.