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…

palymar1

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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3 Comments

Filed under charter schools, teaching

3 responses to “TEACHING THE MOUNTAIN TO BREATHE

  1. Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

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  2. Tod Platt

    Great memories Kevin. I have never looked at it from your perspective and how much you learned from your time at Palomar and from us.

    In looking back through all my years of being “educated”, the key for me has always been that connection you had with us. You truly wanted us to learn and grow; you cared. It wasn’t just to get us through the “required” curriculum (and as you said there wasn’t one up there) and onto the next grade; to get the box checked so to speak. This caring, if you will, doesn’t just improve scores on standardized tests, this improves the students score on the test of life. I am so happy that you are in position to teach and lead other educators in this way.

    And thank you for being the teacher that improved my score on the test of life.

    -One of the six

  3. Jonathan Gutierrez

    I’m 13 years old and one of the current eight graders who is attending MCLA. Well, after reading this I think that Dr. Riley is were he’s at because of all the things that he has done. One of those things was teaching those six students at Palomar Mountain school which really seem to help them in life and which also made all of their dreams come true. Here at Mueller during the Friday assemblies we have, Dr. Riley always brings up the topic about College and how important it is to attend one, and how life is always full of test. This College topic has made me think of how important it is to reach and accomplish all your goals in life in order to become a successfu person. At this moment we have been bloging about many different subjects with my literature teacher Mr. Medina, these subjects have been about what is a good person in your peerspective, how do you want to be remember in life, what are your three main goals in life, and many more. All these questions which we face every day are really meaningful because they don’t only define you as the type of person you are but it makes us reflect about our life’s and experiences. In about a week we will be heading to L.A. to visit some Colleges, we will be the second group of eight graders going on this trip to visit some of the best colleges in Southern California including USC, UCLA, Peperdine University and more. This trip is very exicting for me because we will be visiting USC were I will be able to gather information and start preparing myself in order to one day attend it. I’m vey thankful to Mr. Santos, Ms. Robledo, Mr. Medina, Mr. Knox, Dr. Riley and everyone else who was involve in making this trip possible. Now that there is about three months left before we move on to Chula Vista High School I start to remember all the experiences I’ve had here at Mueller which is like my second home becauseI have been here since Kindergarden. Some memories which come to my mind are getting Honor Students, and Student of the Month which I did not enjoy a lot because it showed my picture on the screen, but still it made me and my parents proud for obtaining a recognition.I thank all my teachers and Principal for making MCLA possible which has turned me into a better student, which will help me go through high school and all the way to college. I know that one day I too will be looking back at my life and I’m sure that one of the experiences I will never forget is MCLA.

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