Throughout my forty years of teaching, I’ve often ruminated on specific instances when I learned something from a teacher. What was it about that interaction out of thousands of classroom hours that fixed in my long-term memory? What did the teacher do? Was there a certain quality about the lesson being taught? Is there something I can learn from this that will help me teach lessons that stick?
By far my most significant lesson was Mr. Kalman, my tenth-grade teacher of Rhetoric. It was the mid-60’s; the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up in Vietnam. One day Mr. Kalman entered the classroom a bit late – we were all sitting, quieting – and he abruptly asked “Would you rather be Red or Dead?” (A well-known phrase back then was “I’d rather be dead than Red” [living in a communist regime]. Like fish to bait, many of us rose to the choice and started arguing justifications for our position. I was in the midst of it, feeling smug in the superiority of my position. At some point, one of the quiet students said, “I’d rather be neither. I’d rather be free and alive.”
“So would I,” responded Mr. Kalman.
I protested. “But you didn’t give us that choice.”
“But you had it!”
Punched deep. Life transforming.
In May of my senior year, I registered by mail for the classes I would take next fall at the college I had accepted. English Literature and European History were required but for my other two, I chose Calculus and German. A few weeks later, I realized I was just continuing along the same path I had taken to get into college. (“You didn’t give us this choice.”) But now I will be in college; I can make my own choice. Am I just choosing these classes because they were the ones chosen for me all through high school? I didn’t really like German. Why should I keep taking it? (”But you have it!”) What are the choices I really have? What would I really want to learn about – for myself? The moment I asked that, I knew one answer. Astronomy! The college had astronomy classes with real telescopes. I switched from German and calculus to astronomy and philosophy.
I had fallen enthralled to astronomy my senior year of high school. It started with a book my brother had lent me called Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Most of the book was depressing urban drunkenness but in the midst of that, Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) takes Kerouac mountaineering in the Sierras. They camp the first night on a tucked-snug granite ledge overlooking the world.
Up out of the orange glow of our fire you could see immense systems of uncountable stars, either as individual blazers, or in low Venus droppers, or vast Milky Ways incommensurate with human understanding, all cold, blue, silver, but our food and our fire was pink and goodies.
Snyder brews tea and later, when the stars appear, pulls out a star map and they look at the stars.
As I came back our orange fire casting its glow on the big rock, and Japhy kneeling and peering up at the sky, and all of it ten thousand feet above the gnashing world, was a picture of peace and good sense.
“Japhy, kneeling there studying his star map, leaning forward slightly to peek up through the overhanging gnarled old rock country trees, with his goatee and all, looked, with that mighty grawfaced rock behind him, like, exactly like the vision I had of the old Zen Masters of China out in the wilderness.”
His words created a picture of an experience I wanted. I wanted to camp high in the mountains and look up at the constellations in the mountain-dark sky. Therefore, I needed to learn my constellations. So I went down to the library and checked out a star book. I took it outside at night and there were the brighter stars outlining the major constellations.
I had always loved astronomy but it suddenly felt as accessible as the books on the library shelf. I checked some out, started reading them, realized that I was reading college textbooks and that I was teaching myself; I didn’t need a teacher. That was a profound lesson; I can do much of this on my own.
With this momentum, I breezed through the introductory astronomy class and the next year, I was the professor’s teaching assistant for that course. I gave planetarium shows and supervised the night-time observations with a couple of 8” telescopes. Four years later, when I applied to the National Park Service, I got hired partly because they were looking for someone who could give star talks. So Dharma Bums changed my life.
I loved being a ranger/naturalist. The highpoints of my two years in Denali were my Discovery Hikes. I’d introduce people to the joy of cross-country hiking by taking them into areas I had never been and just roam in search of beauty and wonder. One day I led an enthusiastic group of 10-15 hikers up through a steep, mountain meadow on the flank of Cathedral Mountain. I had never been up there; I didn’t know what lay ahead. We got to the top to discover that “our top” was detached from the higher peaks of Cathedral. To get over to them, we would have to cross atop a hundred foot long, pointed ridge flanked with steep slopes of loose scree sliding a thousand feet down on either side.
Scree slopes cover the sides of mountains that are made of rock that crumble into small pieces faster than they can be carried away. These rock fragments pile up and cover the mountain slope as steeply as they can. Nothing grows on a scree slope because (a) snowmelt quickly sinks through the loose rocks to far beneath the surface and (b) the unstable slope slides slowly over time, shredding any roots. So a scree slope appears bare, slippery, and hostile. On the other side of that ridge were broad grassy slopes leading to the true summit of Cathedral Mountain. But first we would have to cross that ridge so without hesitation I strode buoyantly out across the ridgeline. About halfway across, I looked back to check on my group. They were all huddled back at the beginning of the ridge. None dared step onto that steep ridge. “Oh,” I said, “you’re afraid you are going to fall off this mountain, aren’t you?” and Dharma Bums came flooding back to mind.
The day after the star map, Kerouac and Snyder hiked upward and reached the final summit slope in the evening. They clamber up the final scree slope but there comes a point when fear of falling overcomes Kerouac . He stops and huddles against the mountain while Snyder continues to the top. Kerouac hears Snyder’s wild yodeling from on top but continues hugging the mountain.
“Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats or I’d say like Chinese lunatics of a thousand years ago, enough to raise the hair on the head of the meditating Morally by the lake, who said he looked up and saw us flying down and couldn’t believe it.”
I remember this as I look at my frightened group and realize I have the opportunity to pass on this experience and be to these people what Snyder was to Kerouac. I joyously exclaim, “This is a scree slope. You can’t fall off a scree slope.” and I leap off the mountain as far as I can and land upright 10 yards further down with the scree sliding a foot as it absorbs my impact. “It’s fun! It’s like a big sand dune!” I shout and they all begin jumping off, scrambling back up, leaping further and further, laughing and shouting in the ecstasy of the wilderness embraced. Then we casually ramble across that now-easy ridge, shake the pebbles out of our shoes, and continue to the summit above.
This passing on of experience from one generation to the next forms the heart of Axe Handles, a wonderful poem by Gary Snyder. Buy it. “How we go on.”
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