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A Florida teen awakens to a world outside of herself

Seventeen hours on a school bus and a week in a small Kentucky town taught me something: I'm selfish.

I think constantly about only myself. My grades. My test scores. My track meets. Even my hair.

But for spring break, I traveled to a Habitat for Humanity Center in Phelps, Ky., where our trip leader/science teacher had spent his college spring breaks. Along with 16 classmates and three teachers, I hammered, nailed, painted and drywalled.

Before the trip I rarely thought about anybody outside my tiny social circle. But covered in paint and sawdust, I realized what this experience was about. Yes, we helped others. But more important, I opened my eyes and saw that other people with different lifestyles exist.

I bought a newspaper at Wal-Mart, or as the locals call it "Wally World." It listed the sixth-grade honor roll. Restocking the city's pond with fish made the front page. Besides the Wal-Mart, there seemed to be only scattered houses between the mountains, the coal mines and rusty cars.

We attended a prayer service one night at the only Catholic church. The church building was a trailer. The nun who read the lessons wore gray sweat pants and an oversized Elvis T-shirt.

But I didn't need to travel hundreds of miles to find a lifestyle unfamiliar to me. I found one beside me on the bus.

One of the seniors on the trip had never been out of Florida. With most of his family in the state, there was never much reason to leave. For him this week of manual labor was a vacation compared with going to school and working 40 hours a week as a busboy. Most of his paycheck goes to a monthly car payment, insurance, gas and food. He hasn't had a week off since July.

We came on the trip for different reasons. I thought, "Hey, this will look good on college applications." He thought it would be a chance to escape work, spend a week with friends or maybe even see some snow.

At 4 a.m. I noticed him sitting with his legs folded on the bus floor next to the driver. His camouflage jacket skimmed the ground as he stared out the windshield.

Most of the students were asleep. No music played. Warm wind slipped in through the windows. Backpacks and candy wrappers bounced on the bus floor in synch with the rumble of the engine.

Our teacher and driver, announcing that we were about to enter Georgia, told us to get out our cameras.

"I don't have a camera," the senior said, "but I'll just sit here and watch."

Headlights illuminated the "Welcome to Georgia" sign.

For that one moment, he looked like a little kid. His eyes widened as he concentrated on the sign ahead. It was as if he were waiting patiently for a magic trick. Although almost 18, he showed the same earnestness and anticipation. I had crossed the state line many times. It was his first time.

I still think about myself probably 80 percent of the time. But in the other 20 percent, I notice something new: a world beyond my own, different people with different lives.

Anna Scalamogna, 17, is in 11th grade at Clearwater Central Catholic High School and is a member of the Poynter Institute's High School Journalism Program.

A Florida teen awakens to a world outside of herself 04/13/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008 11:52am]
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