1986. That was a big year for me. I was 12, in sixth grade, liked Garfield, Opus the Penguin, was “going” with a boy named Kevin, liked Zingers and Corn-nuts, loved my class and my friends, and had suffered a pointed moment of tween angst when my mom made me wear a training bra to school (I threw it away in the girls’ bathroom). I also had the single best educator I have encountered in my life: Marshall Dilsaver.
Mr. D was a tough dude. He skied, ran, helped his dad run his turkey farm, was an avid outdoorsman, an early environmentalist, had a boisterous laugh, a sharp tongue, a keen wit, and did not tolerate inappropriate behavior.
Once when Frances, a kid in our class with diabetes, had his level of consciousness diminish— I watched Mr. D vault a desk and land in a dead run and be back, from the office, with orange juice and sugar before most of the class even knew what was happening.
He was a literal hero.
Isley Elementary School could have been called a charter school back then—it was a rare gift. Open classrooms (many with teacher built lofts and couches), weekly completion contracts, reading nooks, and year-long micro-economic landscapes were the norm. We had three recesses a day, celebrated about every holiday on the planet by painting tempura murals on the classroom windows, and had a very active spring coed flag football team where kids were captains, and teachers were on the teams.
But MY teacher was still the best. (Think: Mr. Slinger in Lily’s Plastic Purple Purse…I was highly enamored). We had weekly dart tournaments and the winner received a trophy…the losers could try again next week. We ran the school store out of our classroom window during morning recess, and we raised all varieties of creatures in our classroom—two of which were boa constrictors, BC and Hutch, who spent every school day draped around one of our necks or slithering down a sleeve. My job in our micro-economy was to raise mice to feed the snakes, and then feed them…you might be able to see that on Animal Planet, but it just isn’t the same.
(The whole snake thing made my mom highly nervous, but I loved every minute of it.)
Beyond the classroom, most classes at Isley went on field trips monthly, participated in highly involved musical and drama productions, and we finished the year with an all school camping trip to the Kansas Flint Hills (where our annual game of nighttime Capture the Flag regularly exceeded the ten o’clock hour). We, however, went camping with our whole class almost every other month. We learned to orienteer on Mr. D’s turkey farm, went spelunking in Oklahoma, and spent one cold February night in southeastern Kansas watching something truly remarkable move across the night sky.
We cooked dinner with Mr. D and our parent chaperones and waited—not too long—for it to get dark. We hiked to the top of a bluff and saw a full sky of milky clustered stars, with Haley’s comet just above the horizon line. There had been some banter as we had hiked about how old we would be in 76 more years…and then a quiet realization by some of us that the adults around us would no longer be alive…WE might not be alive. So then we watched in silence and wonder, together.
I’m not completely sure what happened to me that year. But something had shifted.
I was simply more aware. Some could say it was a natural developmental process, I was old enough to begin to see my ego, or even super-ego, beyond the id—I was able to empathize with others and begin to make the sort of intellectual connections that allow us to move closer toward self-efficacy. But this was more of a self-realization at the subconscious level. I had to become an experiential, outdoor educator like my mentor. I had to be able to share the world with my students, my campers, and my own children in a way that brought to life the same richness and depth of my own childhood and educational experiences.
Because all of that fun—the self-directed contracts, the responsibility of a micro-job (and the micro house, land, and living expenses I paid for weekly), the care for and connection with animals in the classroom, the personal relationships I had with the teachers at the school, the trust and empowerment, the highly active days, the enriching field trips, and the priceless time in the natural world—because of this kind of experiential learning fun, I became a teacher.
As an adult, there are certain moments of your life that hang in suspension, ready to be excavated from the back of your mind like a favorite shirt you were certain you had gotten rid of, and then—thankfully—one day you reach in and find it. For me, the clarity I have around this period of time tells me, “This is important. Don’t lose it.”
The paths we travel as educators—and humans–are often muddled by theory, reason, linearity, inerrancy—with policy, bureaucracy, hoops, confusion, and frustration. Yet if you take the time to look inward, you can find the exact moment or series of moments that made you say, “This is important. I want to make an impact. I am an educator.”
In 2061 I will turn 88 years old. I will tell my students, campers, grandchildren, and anyone else who will listen to a saucy old broad, about the last time I saw Haley’s comet, and the first time I knew I would be a hero, too.