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Lisa McLeod: Why I taught my daughters how to be ambassadors in the fifth grade

Both of my daughters got a passport when they graduated from the fifth grade.

I grew up relatively untraveled. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and we had lots of kids, four in total, so “travel” was trips to South Carolina in our big Dodge van to visit my grandparents.

But I had an experience in the third grade that exposed me to another culture.

Some family members had a vacation home in Hana, a small town on Maui. My mom saved money for two years so we could go.

At the time Hana was a remote area, with no phones, no TV, and other than my uncle, very few white people. Tourists didn’t go to Hana back then because the trek along the (now) famed “Road to Hana” was treacherous.

But that didn’t deter the Earle family. We had a free place to stay, so we went for a month during the middle of the school year.

Which is how I, a skinny blond 8-year-old, wound up as the only white person in the third grade class at the Hana school. Most of the other kids had never seen a white person before, or certainly not one as white as me.

For the entire first week, they kept reaching out to touch my long rather unkempt blond hair. Oddly, I wasn’t freaked out at all. They were really nice about it. Once I realized how fascinated they were by it, I began flinging it around the class.

School in Hana was totally different from school in Arlington, Va. We had hula lessons on the beach for an hour every day, no joke. Our teacher played the ukulele during lunch, where every day we ate foods I had never seen in my life.

For a kid who grew up in a relatively homogeneous comfortable suburb it was an intensive experience being “the other.” Hawaii was a state, but back then, the remote village of Hana felt like another world.

Flash forward 30 years. We’re in a global economy. Yet many people still have a mistrust of other cultures. Which is why I decided when each daughter graduated from the fifth grade, I would take her on a trip to another part of the world.

The rules were simple, we have to go somewhere they don’t speak English, we’re on a tight budget, and we when we get there, we have to use public transportation. They didn’t choose super exotic locales; one chose France, the other chose Greece.

Before the trips, I made a big deal of getting their passport. I treated it like a rite of passage. They were graduating from the fifth grade, and they were about to become citizens of the world. I told them, “You are an ambassador for your country.”

They took it seriously. Overseas we rode the subways, ate where the locals did, and used our pocket dictionary to communicate as best we could. In every interaction we were aware that we were the visitors, it was our job to make a good impression for America!

I’m happy to say, those trips launched in both girls a desire to see even more of the world. They love their country, but they also understand that the American way is not the only way.

World travel enlarges people. It’s a big wide world, the more you see of it, the more you appreciate it.