Into the Wild

Prepping Valentine’s juniors and seniors for the big school trip.
Photograph by Sterry Butcher

It takes two minutes to drive from one end of Valentine to the other, past the library, with its concrete lions, the dentist’s office, the church, and the rows of small houses—some occupied, others abandoned. This is ranching country, broad and distant.

Valentine, population 134, is not a wealthy community, and it has one of the smallest school districts in Texas. Last year, 46 students were enrolled in pre-K through twelfth grade. On a mid-May morning, a few days before graduation, the six members of the Travel Class assembled in the school auditorium. With them were Maralea Miller, who works in the school district’s tax office, and her husband, Albert, a rancher and former school board member. Maralea passed out papers.

This is what two years of hard work comes down to,” she told the class’s two juniors and four seniors. “The itinerary is here.” 

Every other year, Valentine sends its upperclassmen on a grand trip to a faraway place. Raising the money for this takes every bit of two years. The 2012 destination: Guanacaste, Costa Rica. 

The six kids, eyes bright like dimes, read the itineraries without speaking. Maralea let the information soak in. As a Travel Class sponsor, Maralea had overseen all the planning and would chaperone the trip along with Albert. This would be her seventh time abroad with a class, and she prepped her students for what to expect. She doled out luggage tags, reviewed decorum (sundresses, yes; pocketknives, no), and explained that she’d carry copies of everyone’s passport in her backpack. 

Nicole and Adriana have never flown before—we’ll partner them with someone who’s flown,” she said.

When the stewards tell you about using the seat for a flotation device, pay attention, but don’t freak out,” said Albert. 

I think it’ll be okay,” said Adriana Rangel, a senior. 

I’ll hold your hand,” offered junior Kimberly Morton.

The Travel Class tradition started sometime in the sixties with sightseeing around Texas. Gradually, the destinations grew more distant: Washington, D.C., Disney World. As Valentine’s population dwindled, the tradition only strengthened. Trips became more expansive, more ambitious: Aruba, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand. The class chooses where to go, so long as the school board deems it safe.

At first, this year’s class didn’t think they’d be allowed to leave the country. (At the time, Maralea said, the world felt too unstable.) Then they started investigating Costa Rica. “We looked at it, read about it, and it was beautiful,” says senior Cayenne Webb.

The Travel Class meets once a week during the school year. The focus of the first year, when the kids are sophomores and juniors, is making money. Not until the middle of the second year, when they have an idea of their funds, do they narrow in on a destination.

Getting to Costa Rica’s beachside cabanas involved selling a lot of burritos—prepared in a history classroom that doubles as a kitchen and sold for $2 each. 

Maralea’s are the favorite,” said senior Aaron Morton. 

The students also ran concessions at basketball games and ropings, made dinner for school board meetings, sold pies, hosted a Mother’s Day luncheon, and raffled donated jewelry and a heifer. All the while, their grades and behavior had to be tip-top; otherwise they risked expulsion from the class.

They learn to deal with people and the public,” said Maralea.

And they catch heck if they don’t meet their responsibilities,” Albert added.

Travel Class 2012 raised $24,000 for hotels, planes, tours, and attractions: Scuba! Surfing! Fishing! Zip lines! 

Other schools have a prom and a Senior Day, when they go to Six Flags,” said Kimberly. 

I’ll take this over a dance any day,” Adriana nodded.

After the meeting, Maralea and Albert watched the students file out of the auditorium. At the end of summer, Aaron, the valedic torian, would head to Angelo State University, Nicole Campbell to South Plains College, Adriana to Odessa College, and Cayenne to the Air Force. But before that, these kids—who had known one another all their lives, who knew each dog and dirt road in Valentine, who had memorized one another’s bad jokes and could finish one another’s sentences, and who may never again live in Valentine—were going together on a trip they’d dreamed about since they were very young. 

They are travelers. Wonders await.

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