Two Saturdays ago, Jacalyn Long, 14, was walking across the Middle Tennessee State University campus on a fall day so crisp it could crunch when she saw a vision of her future self.
She'd gone to MTSU with 23 other Orchard Knob Middle schoolers for the day-long Expanding Your Horizons conference, which invites middle school girls - only girls! - from across the state to spend a day on campus, meeting powerful and famous women, listening to inspiring speakers and doing crazy stuff like dissecting sheep eyeballs, building mini-cars out of mousetraps, filtering sewer water, learning the bones in the body and creating their own makeup.
All in the name of recruiting girls into two most important fields: science and math.
During the conference, the middle schoolers were matched up with a college student. Turns out, the tour guide (currently a sophomore at MTSU named Jalisa) had gone to Orchard Knob Middle. Turns out she'd gotten hooked on math there. Turns out she had the same math teacher as Jacalyn.
Bingo. Jacalyn now sees a direct path to college.
"I think I can do the same," said Jacalyn.
Yes, thanks to Buddy Sullivan.
Sullivan is a long-time math teacher in urban schools in Hamilton County. For years, he's been the organizing heartbeat of the Expanding Your Horizons trip. This year, 24 Orchard Knob students joined other middle schoolers from Dalewood and East Lake, boarding a 7:30 a.m. bus to spend the morning at MTSU which, for many, is like another world.
"None of the women in my family graduated college," said Taniala Lewis, 13.
The trip is sponsored by GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program), a federally funded initiative locally run by Hunter Huckabay that creates programs and trips that put kids onto college campuses and gives them resources, skills and belief that they can go to college.
"Before, I was thinking, 'I'm not going to be anything,'" said Taniala. "[Now], I actually know what I want to do in life."
In case you're wondering: She wants be a pediatrician and, with her grandmother, co-owner of a soul-food restaurant.
At Orchard Knob, 95 percent of students are poor, or what state reports call "economically disadvantaged." Sometimes the question is not where a student is going to college, but if.
"I'm betting 90 percent of them ... it was the first time they'd been on a college campus," said Sullivan.
That's why Sullivan and fellow seventh-grade math teacher Jamael Lett are so, so, so vital. They hold passports, not just providing the literal description of how to get to college, but also the emotional and psychological ground on which their students can walk.
"That is my dream," said Laniesha Gatewood. "To help out my family. People actually depend on me to get to college. I don't ever want to let them down."
Laniesha is a seventh grader. On Monday, I ate lunch with her, Taniala, Jacalyn, and another eighth-grader, Alexia Damiani. With us were Sullivan and Lett. They called it a "business power lunch." Over mac and cheese, peaches and corn eaten with a spork, I spoke to them and I asked them about their future. About the glass ceiling and sexism in science and math fields. About teachers and gang violence and perceptions about urban schools.
They were funny. And wise. And hopeful, outspoken and kind. And blew up every stereotypical notion held by many about poor, urban students in Hamilton County schools.
"Put that Orchard Knob are not bad students. We all have intentions. Our teachers are incredible," said Laniesha. (Then she leaned over and whispered: "And put that Laniesha Gatewood is the best." OK. Got it.)
"Instead of using secondary sources," said Alexia, 14, "come see us."
I did and was better because of it. And after going to MTSU, they returned home different. Changed. A bigger version of their former selves. That's what Sullivan loves about teaching.
"It's a chance to see the future," he said.
It's the same future Jacalyn and her classmates see.
Tuesday's online-only column is based around sharing a meal or drinks with someone in Southeast Tennessee or North Georgia. Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.