by Karen Suchenski
It is early morning and the start of the final leg of our journey home from Hong Kong to the US and back to SBS classrooms. Claire and I take one last fast-paced walk in an elongated terminal of Beijing International Capital Airport, a vast facility sprawling across 3,700 acres. We relish this movement, weaving in among chrome-countered duty-free shops, for we anticipate 13 hours of cramped encampment in an Air China economy-class cabin where we will be folded and as tightly packed, passenger-to-passenger, in our row of seats as are multiple layers of wafers in a Hong Kong favorite cookie. We arrive at the gate for final boarding and bear one more security check.
“Have travel boarding passes ready please,” the sign translates the Chinese characters for us. I hand my pass to the attendant. She scans it and looks up at me as if confused. She pauses and speaks halting English as she crosses off my pass information and adds new numbers.
I shuffle down the walkway into the cabin of the plane, unsure of the meaning of this, but soon learn. I am directed to stop at two futuristic full armchairs that extend to beds, which I have before on flights only dragged drooping bags quickly by. Once seated, we are given a small clutch of L’Occitane toiletries and a full multicourse menu from which to order three meals for the flight. Claire and I delight in the wonderful unexpected benefits of what it means in airline terms to have a new upgraded status.
Relaxing in my luxurious seat affords me the room to reflect on my journey of the past week. Claire and I have been part of the 28th annual World Individuals Debate and Public Speaking Championships in Hong Kong, her as competitor and me as coach and judge. I think back to many conversations of this week, but one in particular, stands out. I met Brother Steve, a wonderfully unassuming but wise head of LaSalle College, a secondary school for 1,500 boys, age 10 to 17, located in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong and served as a host location for our world debate and public speaking tournament. After four, 8-hour days of speaking rounds during which 200 students ran the debate and speaking sessions as timers, room managers and runners of score sheets, I stopped to thank Brother Steve and to extend our thanks to his students, asking him to relay how grateful we were that they welcomed us as competitors from around the world.
“You and your children are the gift to all of us,” he humbly and quickly returned. “Through the gift of your presence, the boys at our school – and their education – have all been upgraded.”
This kind of upgrade stands in contrast to the upgrade of the airlines. La Salle is one of Hong Kong’s 450 secondary schools that function as part of an elite tier of EM schools, or English Medium, in which all core content is instructed in English. Still, Brother Steven noted that it is not often that his boys get to practice their English with native speakers, and so he saw our presence in his school in terms of a personal upgrade.
I paused, with this use of upgrade invoking for me another term with similar meaning that 19th century intellectual and early feminist Margaret Fuller had used to describe intellectual uplift. An admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fuller once wrote him that her whole being “dilated” when encountering him and his intellect, making her feel fuller of life than ever before. In his presence, she wrote to him, she felt no longer bound by a limited scope afforded women in the time, but dilated full of her own potential that was “neither male nor female.” In Brother Steven’s and Margaret Fuller’s version of upgrading, the very shift to open oneself to encounter something or someone new, enlarges ones outlook and betters one being.
And unlike my airline upgrade, the upgrade that Brother Steve and his boys experienced was not a chance thing, but something they had actively and fully prepared to receive. For the past week of their spring break and months before, his students and those of a neighboring girls’ schools planned and assisted in a huge organizational undertaking of hosting preliminary rounds of a world event. They prepared themselves for new experiences and they prepared the way for the world debaters of the tournament to share in that kind of dilating, an upgrade of their individual selves. Each competitor in the end tested their own mettle, whether placed in a brand new pairing to debate world topics as a team or alone, left to interpret the author’s intent of classic or contemporary literature. Brother Steve was aware of the value of such a tournament to each participant. I recalled him speaking to a group of worried debate competitors in the lobby of his school.
“It sounds clichéd, but you of this tournament are all winners just by being here. You have been transformed by this experience of meeting others, of pushing yourself and knowing you have honorably done so, and gained enormously in the process. No one can give that to you or ever take that from you.”
Claire, as USA World debate and public speaking competitor, sits next to me grinning broadly at what the airline attendant keeps bringing her – from Tibetan mineral water to comfy slippers and frequent snacks – all because of our upgrades. Claire also, more significantly, has experienced an upgrade in a larger sense of the term. Whether garnering an official top ranking in this competition or not, what matters is that she returns so much the better for this experience. On our way home, I asked her whether she felt different leaving Hong Kong. She replied an emphatic yes.
“I feel so much stronger. I don’t have self doubts anymore,” she said. “I have proven my own worth every day by leaving it all on the podium. If I thought I did poorly on something I would focus on improving it by the next round.”
She added, “I did not feel I was competing against others so much as with myself and I feel good that I reached my own my personal best.”
My joy of being accidentally upgraded at an airport counter paled in comparison to the emotion roused witnessing the kind of personal improvement of which Claire spoke. I am proud that Claire has opened herself to the challenge of speaking her mind before 12 distinguished adult judges a day in a roomful of committed and accomplished peer speakers. She has earned her life upgrade that accompanied her travels. As for me, I, too, feel dilated by our travel experience. I have met the likes of Brother Steve and myriad students of stamina and substance from far reaches of the world. I have been inspired by the dedicated teachers and mentors who coached each of them to be more than they thought they could be.And as for our serendipitous travel upgrade, the luck only of the trade winds not of debate wins, it sure is nice to have the warmed washcloth and down-filled throw for the rest of the flight. I know Claire and I will treasure all of our moments of upgrade for a long while to come.