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TEACHING THE MOUNTAIN TO BREATHE

“I always think that we all live, spiritually, by what others have given us in the significant hours of our life. These significant hours do not announce themselves as coming, but arrive unexpected. Nor do they make a great show of themselves; they pass almost unperceived. Often, indeed, their significance comes home to us first as we look back, just as the beauty of a piece of music or of a landscape often strikes us first in our recollection of it.”  –Albert Schweitzer, Memories of Childhood and Youth

palomarI run into former students in oddball places.  I met one in a hospital elevator a few years ago.  She was holding two kids in both arms and struggling to push the button to go up.  “Dr. Riley!  Remember me?”  My wife looked at me kind of funny.  “Ugh… well…ugh…”  

“You were my journalism teacher!”  

“Oh yea…  what year was that?”  

And though I am usually good with names, I couldn’t place her, or her name, or her two babies.  So I pushed the button for her as she struggled to get a hold of her life that was no doubt far more complex now than it was when we were learning how to write story  hooks.  And we went up a few floors.

We re-connect in random places.  And at random times.  

I saw a former student at the beach where he now lives since he became a professional surfer.  I met one in a 7-11… now a competitive body builder (and it shows).  One was working at a jewelry store… another at a coffee shop.  One stopped by a few year ago and dropped off a job application…  after high school and college she decided that she wanted to be a teacher too.  One was in the WTC during 9-11.  Or was it his older brother? (I remember frantically tearing the books off the shelf, searching through the yearbooks for some confirmation either way. Then there was a feature article in the Union-Tribune. Turns out it was his brother… who I remembered too.)   I have met their children and their spouses and heard about their many careers and the twisting paths in so many life journeys that I influenced… maybe… even for a split second… even to the slightest degree. Even when I didn’t realize it.

So this week I heard from Tod.  

He had been one of six students of the 8th grade graduating class of Palomar Mountain School.  After 30-some years in education, thousands of children and many different assignments and schools and districts… these are the six who I will always remember.  They were my first class.  

schoolPalomar Mountain School is a tiny, one-room school house a few hundred yards from the world’s largest telescope.  From this location, on the top of Palomar,  astronomers have been peering out into space for decades.  It is here, where it seems that God has been peering back.  The school sits back in the trees, nestled behind a ranger station on the last hairpin turn leading up to the telescope.  If you blink… you will surely miss it.

In the early years of my teaching career I was a football coach and a substitute teacher and I couldn’t land that first full-time teaching position.  So I responded to a desperate call from Palomar for a certificated teacher  who was willing to make the drive every day up the side of a mountain to teach in a tiny school where you would have the entire 6th, 7th and 8th grade class.  It didn’t pay much but there were benefits.  No traffic.  No noise.  No fast food restaurants.  No principal.  No textbooks.  No California Standards Test (and, in fact, no standards)  I was free to do whatever I thought a handful of 6th, 7th and 8th graders should do….  to teach them whatever I thought that they should learn. And I guess my instincts were right.  

Later I realized that many of the instructional strategies that I was using actually had a name and were rooted in real research. I realized that…  In this self-contained, un-graded, multi-age classroom, we were differentiating instruction through an integrated and thematic curriculum; we were, appealing to the multiple intelligences and learning styles of a culturally diverse group of children, providing a gradual release of responsibility, engaging all learners and monitoring their academic growth through the use of a multiplicity of authentic assessments.

viewBut when it is just you and 16 kids and crisp mountain air and a neighborhood so quiet you can hear the deer sneeze;  when the shadows of the world’s largest telescope is cast across your playground;  when you have no textbooks even if you wanted them (and I didn’t);  when you are at the early stages of your teaching career and you want to bring the whole world to your students and be a force for good in their lives; when you are just naive and idealistic enough to believe that you can single-handedly change the world for every child… that is a muse worth capturing.

And so I did.

Not long after Tod and his sister Patti graduated, I left Palomar Mountain School to work in a real school with textbooks and a principal.  It was an adjustment but I guess I never forgot the six kids from Palomar… or what they had taught me about teaching.  Or about the force we can be for children if we allow our life journey to benefit others.

I had not heard from Tod nor Patti since the day they graduated.  Until this week when Tod found me on Facebook.  He sent me a message to tell me that he had grown up, graduated from college and is now a civil engineer in North Carolina.  Just like that.  An adult lifetime, a career,  captured in a sentence.  He reminisced about those days at  Palomar Mountain School– the pop quizzes and playing over-the-line and touch rugby in the snow.  He said that, in fact, he had played rugby all through college and even later for the Raligh Vipers.  

Tod e-mailed his sister Patti and she sent me a message too.  She told me about her education, her marriage, her career.  They both sounded so happy and so complete.  And they triggered the flood of memories from those very simple times when I taught children from some place deeper even than the heart. Where I discovered the power of imagination, and ingenuity, and innovation in teaching. Where I uncovered my own eventual career passions: like student advocacy, equity, resiliency…  long before I could even define those words.  Where I realized how magic teaching can be.  And how we influence our students mightily. And they influence us.

I shared Patti and Tod’s story with my teachers at our Friday lunch meeting yesterday.  I reminded them, that no matter how frustrated, or disappointed, or discouraged they may get…  they are having a profound effect on the lives of their children. And they may not know it.  They may never know it.  Until one day when they run into a former student in the elevator or they get a note on Facebook.  

“…we all live, spiritually, by what others have given us in the significant hours of our life…”

And I reminded them of how fast it all goes by.  God’s work… in what seems to be a matter of fleeting moments.  That if you blink…

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Patti turns 4o soon.  She is older than 2/3 of my teachers…who are now older than I was, when I stood there in a clearing in the forest on Palomar… listening to the awesome silence of the mountain… and catching a glimpse of the world’s largest telescope when the wind blew.  And the trees swayed.

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