by Zakia Carpenter '06
Three youth on a fictitious journey were told that if they picked up stones along the way, by the end of their journey the gathered stones would turn to gold. One youth didn't pick up any stones, perhaps not believing the tale, another picked up several, and the last filled his shirt, pants, and pockets with stones. Sure enough, at the end of the journey, all stones turned to gold. The moral: stones represent knowledge. Some pick up very little, others more, but in the end it all turns to gold.
Travel, storytelling, and collecting. In one parable a griot in my neighborhood was able to connect three indelible themes. At age 13 I only knew that I liked the story; our kinship wasn't obvious. But I was impressed with the articulation and idea of collecting knowledge, so I ran with it. One day I would empty my collection for review. Which character would my journey reveal--the one who gathered a few or a multitude of stones? I remember leaving the auditorium determined to be the latter, expecting to collect as much knowledge from school as I could. This continued until the narrative silently slipped from memory.
Eleven years later, I remembered the story while writing drafts for this article. There are still countless stones to gather. My journey hasn't ended, but now is as good a time as any to check my progress. Emptying my collection shows stones from formal education, life lessons from four continents, and knowledge from unlikely places. In 24 years, I can say that I filled my socks, pants, and pockets with stones. However, I notice that not all of them have turned to gold. And I am not convinced that magically, by journey's end, they will have. What about these unchanged stones? How long will I have to carry them before they turn to gold?
Unfortunately the griot never addressed the question of when or how these stones transform. I think the real mystery and quest takes place between collection and transformation. Though perhaps glossed over, this gap is its own story, one about the utilization of knowledge. The stones-to-gold story is really a question of when will I be able to turn my knowledge into golden opportunities to do what I love? How do I ensure that I reap the benefits of my education? This point is where my re-working of the story begins.
How does a person turn stones to gold? The documentary film Man on Wire--which chronicles the story of Philippe Petit's August 1974 rooftop high-wire crossing of the 200 yards between the World Trade Center towers--explores the poise between collecting knowledge and turning it to gold. Petit's dream to dance between the Twin Towers took years of readying. Recruiting helpers, building models, and executing careful clandestine preparation allowed him to perform what he knew to be possible. Success is always a mixture of preparation, opportunity, creativity, and risk. Although Petit successfully laid the groundwork, he still had to walk across. Physically moving beyond borders was his next step.
With travel, I step into the unknown. "Are you African or are you white?" the Luo man said. Every time I traveled abroad I challenged perceptions. To be American was, to many, to be white. "I am neither," I retorted somewhat defiantly, tired of being trapped by categories. At this point I especially wanted to relinquish the defining term, "African-American," deciding that the pendulum definitely favored the American side. After spending five months in Kenya, I knew that all we shared were appearances. "But you perfectly look like a Luo girl," I
America wanted to define me a certain way; Kenya wanted to define me a certain way. What was left was how I defined myself.was repeatedly told. Perhaps I did, but that I was not.
America wanted to define me a certain way; Kenya wanted to define me a certain way. What was left was how I defined myself. Traveling is how I claim this space. Looking at the world through multiple vantage points is the difference between defining or being defined. Each of my experiences abroad--Honduras, Egypt, Kenya, and now England--has provided the tools to construct my place in the world.
One young woman that I met from the Czech Republic says that a person who doesn't travel, who doesn't move beyond her environment, is blind. I agree. The impairment caused by not living in different contexts in this shrinking world is that severe. It is the difference between creating a song using one note instead of drawing sounds from an entire orchestra. When you seek who you are; when you prepare; when you learn your environment; and when you take risks--then you can create opportunities to do what you love.
Perhaps I have the necessary pieces to rewrite the story. Today I'd finish it this way:
During the last leg of the trip, the youth came to a tightrope rigged to a mountain's edge. Dense fog obscured the other end. "You've made it this far. But in order to make use of your golden stones, you must devise a way across," the youth were told. Two tried. The one with the most stones made plans to get across. The one with some put a foot on the rope, and then fled. The one with none went home. Such a shame really, when either walking across or falling into the river below lead to the other side.
[NOTE: Zakia Carpenter keeps a fascinating blog on travel, stories, and collecting. You can read it at: http://thecurrentzee.wordpress.com]