Gambier, Ohio — The flags are flying at half-staff at Kenyon College, a mute but solemn reminder of the death of rising junior Andrew Pochter, who was stabbed to death June 28 during a protest in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was teaching English to Egyptian children.
In the days since, revolution has erupted in Egypt, with its president, Mohammed Morsi, ousted by the military. On Friday, at least 30 more people were killed during protests, and tens of thousands of demonstrators continue to clash on the streets of Egyptian cities.
The idea of violent death seems unfathomable in this bucolic mid-Ohio town, where the corner grocery straddles the centuries by purveying both 75-cent hot dogs and free-range lamb, and Amish horse-drawn buggies park alongside hybrid cars and purple Kenyon bicycles.
I didn’t know Andrew, but the few people out and about on this misty July day recalled him with warmth and fondness. Of course the people we ran into, from dorm custodian to admissions director, knew him; Gambier is that kind of place.
And hearing about this Chevy Chase, Maryland, student, pulled by the Middle East ever since a home stay in Morocco, called to mind many of the young people new to New Orleans these days. Idealistic. Energetic. World citizens. Convinced that only by exploring other places – where the people are not like us – can we learn about other cultures, and get to know their citizens, and maybe, one day, understand them.
I’m sure that New Orleans is as much a foreign country to its newcomers as far-flung lands are to Americans abroad. Here, too, one must learn to speak the language, appreciate the food, and navigate entrenched and sometimes arcane customs.
But, despite the city’s crime statistics and whiplash-inducing potholes, New Orleanians – even new ones — don’t have to fear the civic process, or the consequences of protesting it.
For all of our contentious discord over everything from pink sneakers to purchasing shotguns, Americans can sometimes get complacent about what we don’t have to seek through civil disobedience. The right to democratic rule. The freedom to worship how and where we please. Even the ability to dress the way we want, and to go where we want, when we want.
Here, we may doubt our politicians, but we rarely question the system.
I thought about that as I strolled the Kenyon campus, eventually wandering into the grassy 19th-century cemetery, dressed in small American flags on this day after the Fourth of July. The stillness was undisturbed by the usual urban cacophony of squealing tires or impatient car horns. The chaos of Egypt – with its street combat and sniper fire — seemed a universe away.
And yet that brutality, as incongruous and distant as it might seem, had invaded this small corner of the country – an intrusion evidenced not only by that flag hanging limply at half-mast, but also heard in the soft regret of voices recalling moments in a life lived well, and curtailed far too soon.
Perhaps the most meaningful connection between over-there and over-here, however, is a less obvious, but more fundamental one. It is in places like Kenyon, with all of its Ivory Tower seclusion, or in New Orleans, with its Katrina-spawned idealism, that are born the kind of thoughtful, principled and world-minded people like Andrew. Young people who seek other cultures, and attempt to bridge the gaps between them.
In doing so, they become not only global learners, but teachers as well.
Renee Peck, editor of NolaVie, graduated from Kenyon College in 1975. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.