When 11-year-olds Thalia and Ben embarked on a learning adventure with their grandparents to uncover the hidden world of international espionage, they discovered far more than secrets and the fine art of subterfuge. Of course, they came away with insight into spies, lies and intelligence, but they also found camaraderie, connection and friendship.
Neither Thalia, Road Scholar class of ’21, nor Ben, ’19, are new to Road Scholar Grandparent Adventures. While they share curiosity and a love of learning, they at first seem an unlikely pairing — one quite outspoken and social, the other a bit quieter. One from the Midwest, the other from the West Coast. But when Thalia spotted an open seat next to Ben on day one, well, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
It helps that Road Scholar Grandparent Adventures are organized by age and interest, so there’s already common ground here. Thalia and Ben agree. “It’s very easy to meet people,” she says. “It is,” Ben adds. “It’s awesome! You meet people from everywhere.”
They mention there’s plenty to talk about, too, from their experience navigating Washington D.C. to American history and their newfound potential aptitude for espionage.
Case in point, a mutually favorite highlight was the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum. “That was the best,” Thalia recalls. “We got dressed up to see how well we could disguise ourselves. It was so much fun. There are so many interactive parts to this experience.”
Ben agrees, adding, “I think we disguised ourselves really well.” Thalia laughs. “That’s right — you put on your grandma’s hat!”
“It was a fancy hat,” he elaborates. “It definitely disguised you!” Thalia says, and they both laugh.
Ben especially enjoyed the expert who taught them about disguises. “He was a retired CIA agent and very cool,” he says. The Spy Museum was also a hands-down favorite.
“I loved learning the different codes,” Thalia says, “how to encrypt and decipher messages, have secret communications.”
“And the tech! I loved learning about how it worked, all those spy gadgets throughout history. And we learned so much about cybersecurity, too,” Ben adds.
It’s actually quite easy to picture these two joining forces on a mission — two adventurous middle-schoolers, armed with curiosity and backpacks filled with snacks and spy equipment, solving scavenger hunts on expeditions around the capital city.
“Those scavenger hunts were so much fun! We got to pair up and explore with our friends.” Ben enthuses. Thalia agrees. “It really helps you get more engaged, looking around wherever you are. It turns out that a lot of things we’re seeing as we adventure through D.C. that are relevant to spying.”
“I really enjoyed learning about D.C. history too,” says Ben. “Like George Washington, he fought for the Revolution and it was so interesting to hear some of his strategies, plus how his life was different before and after the war.”
That they’re so comfortable with each other, with the experts they’ve encountered and sharing their discoveries is a clear example of how learning adventures connect Road Scholars to each other and to their companions, those they journey with and those they meet along the way. It’s the kind of bonding experience that can lead to a lifelong friendship and unforgettable memories.
“I love being able to hang out with my grandparents, who live far away,” says Ben. “But meeting everyone else has been so much fun.”
“Yeah, it’s a fun bonding experience with grandparents and new friends. I like how this experience has helped all of us strengthen those relationships,” Thalia adds. “That’s all you can wish for.”
It’s clear that this experience will stay with them, that making new friends and being the first to start conversations are skills they’re learning. Maybe they’ll even use their newly discovered diplomacy (and disguises?) in a future adventure. But that’s what journeys do, push comfort zones and introduce us to the people who will impact us for life.
“Partners until the end,” Ben says.
“Yeah,” Thalia agrees. “Definitely.”
After all, there’s a difference between the friends who listen to our adventures and the ones who help make them. Turns out there was more to this adventure than the fine art of subterfuge.
Okay. Maybe there was a little subterfuge.
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