Andrew Chesteen, from Winona, Miss., population 5,000, stood on the beach at Anita Street, in Hawaii-like weather, and watched his high school principal awkwardly paddle a stand up paddleboard past the shorebreak. He was up next, and though a little nervous, maintained an outwardly cool demeanor.
Schoolmate Evan Wilson, 16, looked out at the glassy horizon. Neither had ever been to Laguna Beach, or surfed. “I’ve tried to skimboard, or skid-board, whatever you call it. That’s really fun, but I’ve never surfed or stand up paddled or anything like that,” Evan said.
The boys stood next to school mates Tyeshia Richardson and Hayley Ramagos, looking at the crystal blue ocean in the middle of a school day, as part of an exchange set up by the principal of Winona High School, Charlie Parkerson, and LBHS principal Don Austin. The four participants, top students at Winona High, wrote the best essays on why they wanted to go on the exchange.
“I wanted to learn about the different culture. Over the past few days I’ve done that, and I’m ready for them to come learn what we’re about,” said Andrew.
Austin and Parkerson met at a national conference for high school principals last March, and discovered what Austin called, “a total two way learning opportunity for the kids and principals.”
Throughout last week, Mississippi students attended classes with LBHS host students Marley Donenfeld, Ren Slater, Jack Clark, and Tyler Pierce. The group attended an Angels game, at which Andrew threw out the first pitch, experienced Disneyland, toured Aliso Viejo’s Soka University, dissected squid at UC San Diego’s Birch Aquarium, watched a USC vs. Washington football game at the Rose Bowl, tried out SUPing, and heard exhortations from speaker Keith Hawkins with the rest of the senior class.
Evan was game for a west coast field trip, “to get rid of the stereotypes I’ve had about California people, because they have that TV show, ‘Laguna Beach,’ and it doesn’t really portray how people here actually are. You wouldn’t think people with, um, lots of money would be so nice, but they are so nice. Some people in Winona will stay in Mississippi their whole life and maybe work at McDonald’s and not really live up to their full potential. I want to show that there are things outside of Winona and it’s real.”
Charlie hopes to change some stereotypes about race relations as well, when Laguna students head to Mississippi in November. “We definitely want to get them a good lesson on the historical aspect of what has happened in the South,” he said. Tyeshia, too, wants to convey that racial tension is mostly a fiction of television portrayals.
Marley Donenfeld agreed that the exchange expanded her understanding. “They talked about their hometown and what they do, and I feel like a very small town across the nation is similar; everyone knows everyone and we thought Laguna Beach was so small and close-knit, but there are so many places like that.”
Austin pointed out that the exchange is a way of enriching the school environment that goes beyond test scores. “It doesn’t have to be Mississippi either. In California, you can drive 45 minutes and be in a pretty different place.” Austin intends to encourage his peers to set up similar partnerships.
Parkerson said his students opened up to new ideas as the week unfolded. “Their questions prior to the trip were rather elementary: ‘I want to meet the people and see what they’re like and taste the food.’ As we progressed through the week, kids were talking about educational opportunities and career opportunities that had been opened up to them that they never thought of before,” he said, citing Tyeshia Richardson’s interest in enrolling at Soka.
“They’re just kids like me and even though we were raised in different places we’re all kind of similar. The differences weren’t so drastic,” said Marley.
Balfour, a graduation products company, underwrote the airfare for the Winona students. Austin’s friend, Roger Wyatt, chief executive of Hurley, offered to underwrite the reciprocal trip to Mississippi next month. SUP Company, Disneyland, and UCLA also contributed.
The trip to Mississippi is tentatively set to include a football game between arch rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and a trip to the Vicksburg National Military Park, where the tide turned against the confederate army during the civil war, among other excursions.
“Our kids were able to see that a lot of the things they do in the classroom, we do here in Mississippi,” Parkerson said. “That was exciting to them. They were able to fit in more easily than they thought they’d be able to. Any time you travel 2500 miles away and don’t know a soul, I’m sure it’s a little bit scary. The people of Laguna Beach were extremely accepting. They were great. Everybody I ran into kind of reminded me of the town I come from.”