The classroom doesn’t have to be four walls and a desk. For 24 high school students who travelled to South East Asia, the classroom was in the 900 year old temple ruins, on a boat in the floating village, in city streets crowded with scooters, and along the railroad where more than 3,000 soldiers lost their lives as Japanese prisoners in World War Two.
In 12 days, Mike Russell, a counsellor at Charles Hays Secondary School (CHSS), chaperoned the senior students through four countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Hong Kong.
“I believe in travel. I think travel is the greatest and highest form of education that we can embark upon,” Russell said back in his office at the high school.
Russell has been at the high school for seven years. He was raised in Prince Rupert, left after he graduated and then took a full-circle journey back.
He studied in Nanaimo, and then picked up his first gig in Kitkatla with his wife, Danette, who is also a teacher. After two years, they travelled to Mexico with another teacher and worked in Guadalajara for a year. The couple returned to Nanaimo, where both of their families had moved, and searched for jobs but a hiring freeze in the school board left them wanting.
Russell took a job at Future Shop for a year until he heard about an opportunity in Atlanta, Georgia from an old colleague. The couple went down to the Peach State for three years. He’s felt fortunate that his job has allowed him to travel to new places.
“We kind of got the travel bug from that,” he said.
Their son was born in the U.S. and when their visas expired they followed another connection back up to Kitkatla. From a city of more than 440,000 people to a village of less than 2,000.
“For us it was a huge shock. It was sort of a novelty at first because we felt like we were camping. It’s so quiet here. We don’t have to commute, it’s just a two minute walk down the road to work.”
After another three years, Russell and his wife found positions in Prince Rupert and the city has become home. It also hasn’t squashed their travel bug.
Two years ago, Russell took a group of Grade 11 and 12 students to Athens, Florence and Rome. It was such a success he is determined to plan a school trip once every two years. He chose Asia this year because a group of students went to Europe last year and another Europe trip is planned to coincide with the 100 anniversary of Vimy Ridge.
“I thought, let’s go the other way,” he said.
Highlights from the Asia tour include the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat, known for a scene in the action film “Tombraider.” The complex is massive with few tourists in sight. The students were able to climb around and explore every temple they visited.
Russell enjoyed taking seven students to a Moi Thai kickboxing title fight in Bangkok, Thailand.
“It’s one of those cultural experiences when you have the opportunity you have to do it,” he said.
The group also went to Kanchanaburi, about a two hour drive east of Bangkok. The province is known for mountains set in the wild jungle with the haunting memories of World War Two, where the bridge over the River Kwai and death railway to Burma was built by prisoners-of-war to the Japanese.
Their itinerary was jam packed except for the one day they took to decompress in the metropolitan beach resort town, Hua Hin.
There were other moments in the trip where some of the students witnessed the reality of abject poverty in a developing country. Russell had a taste of it in Mexico and counselled some of the students who were moved by what they saw.
On a boat ride to the floating villages in Cambodia, one boat pulled up at full speed beside the tour boat and a little boy hopped on with a tray of soft drinks to sell. The students watched the boy jump from boat to boat risking his life.
Then when they reached the floating market there was a four-month-old baby that was thrown from one woman to another, until one of the women laid the baby down on the dock, put a Boa constrictor on it and then begged for money for the show.
“Other trips we’ve done were about seeing landmarks and appreciating our history from a European standpoint. This is a trip where you come back and say, ‘I’m glad I’m a Canadian’, because you won a lottery ticket. This is how a lot of the world lives on $1 a day, or just trying to scrape together enough to live.”
“I think it’s important that those kids saw that,” Russell said.
A lesson for all. In a couple of years, he is considering taking the next troupe of students to Europe, but at some point he wants to plan a trip to India.