Mississippi students get a taste of Aspen life
The wind-whipped snowflakes were barely noticeable, but to a group of high school students from the Mississippi Delta region, it may as well have been a blizzard.
“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” they declared from the backside of Aspen Mountain, almost in unison.
There were 10 excited kids, along with their two teachers from Gentry High School in Indianola, where nearly one in every four families lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tuesday was the fourth day of their five-day visit in Aspen, which has about as much in common with the Mississippi Delta as a catfish has with a caribou. But that was the point of their visit — to experience a side of life they had only read about or seen on TV.
“I wasn’t expecting to be so uplifted by what I’ve seen,” said Cristian Young, 15, as he strapped on a pair of showshoes for the first time.
Minutes later, Claire Shope, a naturalist with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, would lead Young and other students and teachers from Gentry and Aspen high schools on a snowshoe tour atop Aspen Mountain.
The Gentry High students — selected by teacher Alexis White and school administrators based on their academic performance and behavior — made the Aspen visit as part of an experiential-education trip called “Aspen Immersion.” Aspen High School’s ExEd program had dispatched some of its students to the Mississippi Delta on four or five previous occasions, most recently in September, exposing the teenagers to an impoverished community where pupils use photo-copied textbooks and look through broken classroom windows held together by tape.
Aspen resident Leonard Lansburgh had taken some of those trips to the Deep South with the Aspen students. The experience moved him to bring some Mississippi teens to Colorado. Now retired, Lansburgh, along with some other supporters of Aspen’s ExEd program, paid for the Mississippi students’ trip to Aspen. The cost covered airfares, meals and other essentials. The visiting students stayed with Aspen host families.
“To see their faces is worth a million dollars,” Lansburgh said. “They understand that they can be better, they can think bigger. That’s what I want for them. Black, white, blue — we’re all the same.”
A trip of firsts
Tuesday’s trip up Aspen Mountain started on the Silver Queen Gondola. The students had not ridden a gondola before, but the Sunday prior they took their first chairlift ride, up Buttermilk Mountain, where they took the first ski runs of their lives. Some pledged it would not be their last.
“I conquered my fear of heights and I learned how to ski,” said Jaylen Brown, 16. “At first it was challenging and scary and I thought I was going to hurt myself. After a few times, I got going. And I want to do it again.”
“I’m doing things that I never thought I could do, that I never thought I would do,” said Carledia Jones at the Sundeck restaurant. “Like skiing, riding up the lift, riding the gondola. And I’m really afraid of heights, so I actually like the fact that I’m able to do something I’ve been afraid of.”
She then paused for a moment. “I’m from the Mississippi Delta. Everything is flat. I’ve never been in the mountains.”
On the snowshoe tour, they learned about Rocky Mountain wildlife, from black bears to mountain lions. Shope explained the effects climate change is having on Colorado and its environment, wildlife and recreation. She told them about avalanches, and how ski patrollers mitigate them with dynamite.
When the Mississippians weren’t exploring outside — be it skiing, sledding, having a snowball fight or riding a snowcat on Aspen Mountain — they got a taste of Colorado cuisine inside. They dined on trout. They feasted on bison chili. One ate a raspberry for the first time.
They also attended classes at Aspen High.
“Their teachers have a lot more leniency because they students are more mature than they are at my school,” Young said.
Jones noted that Mississippi is touted as the “Hospitality State, but I notice people are more welcoming here. They greet you a lot, and you just feel really welcome here.”
And as Gentry world history teacher Clay Daniel observed, “Everybody is so sporty here.”
Indeed, they weren’t in Mississippi anymore.
“They’ve never experienced sitting at a fine restaurant and having to put napkins on your lap,” said White, who teaches English at Gentry High. “Those are the types of experiences my students deserve but don’t always get because of their economic realities.”
White’s belief, make that insistence, that her students can knock down the walls of their perceived limitations also has rubbed off on Aspen students who have gotten to know her.
“I’ve learned a lot about civil rights, and I’ve gotten close to their teacher Ms. White,” said Cliara Sanchez, a senior at Aspen High who was named MVP of the girls varsity basketball team at its Monday banquet. “She is an amazing inspiration on all of these kids, even me. I aspire to be like Ms. White.”
On Wednesday, the students left Aspen for a bus ride to Denver International Airport. For some, it would be their second trip on an airplane. Their first had come earlier that week.
Smith said part of the students’ assignment was to share their Aspen experiences with family members, friends and fellow students.
Ultimately the trip’s mission was to show the students there is a better life ahead should they pursue it, Smith said. The gaping differences between Indianola and Aspen had some skeptics concerned the visit could spark culture shock, or even an inferiority complex, for the visiting students. But Smith offered an opposite point of view.
“Some people were nervous about that and felt it would be too much for our students,” she said. “But I think that’s kind of asinine, because if my expectation from my classroom is you work hard for your future, how can I possibly ask you to work hard for something that you don’t know exists? So our students, like students all over this country, need to know there are opportunities and options out there, and they need to know you can earn these opportunities through hard work.”
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