National Geographic : 2007 Mar
AMERICANS SPEND THE EQUIVALENT OF I O WORKING DAYS A YEAR COMMUTING TO WORK. moon were ever settled, this is how it would be done. Whole neighborhoods, consisting of hun dreds of houses, arrived here instantly. So have the people who live in them. Demographically, these two schools match the Orlando area. Here both whites and blacks are in the minority; "other" is the dominant ethnicity. I picked them because they are typi cal schools, but when I visited I found some thing extraordinary-two places where more than 8,000 students and teachers were finding new ways to learn, and new ways to live together. At Cypress Creek and Meadow Woods, great events are not just things these kids and their teachers see on TV. They impinge on people's lives. At Cypress Creek, the assistant principal, Vanessa Colon Schaefer, was still putting her life back together after more than a year in Iraq. When her National Guard unit was sent there, she left a gap in the life of her daughter, and of this school. Kids from nearly 200 countries study at the two schools. "Normally they shout out their countries when I ask them," says Chuck Rivers, the principal at Meadow Woods. "But one time a little boy just whispered. When I asked him again, he kept whispering, so I bent down to hear him. He whispered 'Iraq' in my ear." Rivers adds, with no false sentimentality, "They're all my kids." I talk to students from Colombia, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Korea, China, the Philippines, Iran, Rus sia, Slovakia, and India-and I've just begun to plumb the mutations. "My mother is from Ger many," one little girl says, "and my father is from Madagascar." Diversity is not an objective, or a program, or a lifestyle here. It is life. At Cypress Creek I talk with the school's National Merit Scholars. I visit classes where kids are autistic or deaf or otherwise different. I sense how important it is for children to find themselves integrated, every day, with kids who t Disney vs. Kerouac Debate the pros and cons of Orlando's over-the-top growth at ngm.com/0703. 114 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2007 are different from them mentally, physically, racially, culturally. The principal of Cypress Creek is a woman; the principal of Meadow Woods is black. He remembers the days of racial segregation. Now he is in charge of a learning experience where racial barriers aren't the only things that have become meaningless. No dumb ing down is going on here. At the middle school, kids are studying things I never learned in all my years of schooling: how to conduct a sym phony, how blood circulates, how to fix a faucet, how to solve disputes openly and nonviolently. As we leave, the principal says something that sticks in my mind: "We do this every day." ONE MORNING I HAVE what people in Orlando call the I-4 experience. I zoom off in my car for a midday appointment. It turns into an afternoon appointment by the time I get there. For most of an hour, every car sits motionless. For the first time I truly understand what people mean when they call I-4 "Orlando's parking lot." Nothing is more obvious than the need for a light-rail sys tem connecting Disney, downtown, the airport, and points in between. But in Orlando people love their cars as much as they hate paying taxes. Orlando's roads, so recently slashed through the wilderness, are already deteriorating. Being stuck in traffic gives you time to think; I wind up thinking about how different Orlando's image of itself is from reality. The irony of Orlando is that people go there in search of Disneyesque tranquillity-and by doing so, they've unleashed upon the place all the rootless, restless contradictions of America. Here is big city traffic, big city crime, yet people in Orlando cherish the idea that they have escaped the trials people face in other cities. On this morning, it is cold, so cold I turn the car heater to high though at most times of year it is stultifyingly hot. Ahead of me is an overpass, and just to com plete the refutation of Orlando's all-American self-image, a big semi lunges across the overpass.