The Friction of Distance and Today’s High Schoolers

December 9, 2010

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I guess it's appropriate that I write this as we round out Geography Awareness Week 2010. This week one of my friends, who has done a handful of marathons and completed her first half iron man (a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run), rode her bike to work. She's a high school teacher who lives in one suburb of Boston and teaches in another. The ride was less than 10 miles, probably closer to six, depending on the route she chose. Her class was awed. They were sure her husband would come pick her up after school. (He did not.) They felt she should get her required exercise walking to and from the car. (I feel sure she did not agree.) They felt her town was way too far away for such an effort. (I suspect they had no idea the distance between the two towns!)

Another friend observed that today's young people believe that "going somewhere" by definition means getting in a car. I have to agree. And, I have to admit, I held that same idea back in high school. I recall my astonishment during my senior year when my friend Rodney told us that he was riding his bike from our town, Winchester, to a distant land called Belmont. It was about 5 miles away.

Back then, even though I was on the cross country team, which raced three miles and trained even further most days, five miles was far. And, traversing it any way other than by car was simply not an option. That mentality, I want to suggest, is part of young people's lack of understanding of geography. For whatever reason, I, and they, did not have enough practice understanding and managing the friction of distance.

I know there are all kinds of reasons today's young people don't face the friction of distance head on: safety, time, laziness and other factors. Still, understanding and managing this friction is an important life skill, and a key part of grasping geographic principles.

I am embarrassed to admit that I really began to appreciate the friction of distance relatively recently. The first thing I noticed, after buying a house in a very dense city outside Boston, was that I was within a mile of three different grocery stores. It never occurred to me that you could walk to the grocery store! In time I realized that with the store that close, I could take a few strolls a week and get everything with just a canvas bag or backpack.

Not long after my move to the city, I got back into running. I gradually increased the miles from four to eight to training for my first marathon. Now distances had a whole new meaning. It was two miles to my running club's meeting place for our fun run each week. It was two miles to Tufts University, where we have track each week. All the members near me know how far it is to the local Au Bon Pain, our meeting place for our informal long runs on the weekends. I knew how far 10 miles was (to Winchester and back or into Boston and back) and equally important, what it felt like. I knew how far 20 miles was (past Winchester, to Woburn with two loops around Horn Pond or out Mass Ave. past Lexington Center and back) and how that felt.

Now, after some practice understanding and managing this friction, I feel like an expert. I have more options than ever in my bag of tricks to get from point A to point B. I love that Google Maps can help route me using a variety of different options (walk, bike, public transit, car) to help me choose. How are we to face challenges of global warming and obesity if our young people don't grasp the friction of distance and how they can manage it? My friend had a surprisingly teachable moment in her students' reaction. I hope she rides in more during the year. In time, it could seem normal for her students to see their teacher riding the six miles to school. And perhaps their perception of distance might change.


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