There’s something American about “lighting out” when the summer sun begins to really shine. Maybe it’s the English teacher in me who thinks of Huck and Jim on the raft, or the guy who likes to read history thinking about life in the US a couple of hundred years ago and what it must have been like to head west where the map hadn’t yet been filled in.
Summer, it seems, is a time for travel, for trying new things, and spending time gobbling up experiences, as Wordsworth described it: “…not only with the sense/Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts/That in this moment there is life and food/For future years.”
I had a series of these moments this week when my wife, kids, and I traveled up the highway to the Huntington Museum and Magic Mountain; one destination for the adults and one for the kids. As a lifelong educator, I’d thought that I might be able to squeeze a little appreciation of the Huntington Gardens from my six year old son, and a contemplative nod from my nine year old daughter as she looked at oil paintings from a century past. As reality would have it, the biggest takeaway I got with regard to education came when I was upside down on the Revolution rollercoaster.
As the teenaged attendant lowered the shoulder harness over my shoulders, I looked over and saw how huge my daughter’s eyes had gotten. Up until this moment her most thrilling ride had been the whirly swings at the Del Mar Fair; she was about to travel out of her comfort zone. Of course she’d been the one to prompt the ride, all spirit and sense of possibility, curious about what might happen, a little nervous, but not willing to admit it.
The Revolution is tucked amid trees, so without riding it, it’s tough to get a sense of just how big it is. I looked through the shoulder harness and caught her eye, asking if she was ready for this, knowing it was too late if she wasn’t. She nodded, always game, and I thought about her willingness to suspend disbelief. Actually, what I thought about was how much the best lessons in school are like a rollercoaster tucked inside a grove of trees.
When things are getting interesting in a classroom we’re on our way out of our comfort zone. We’re safe, the metaphoric shoulder harnesses of norms and routines keeping us from flying out of the car, but we’re not complacent. We’re curious about what will happen, maybe a little nervous about what twists and turns we’ll see, and maybe won’t see coming. We’re prepared to lose our stomach as we plunge over the edge of not knowing, and it’s only in these rushes and rolls that we feel the exhilaration of really learning. We’ll get turned upside down on occasion; we all need to be a little upturned from time to time, and if all goes well we’ll gain our equilibrium again at the end.
The Revolution lurched forward and we climbed the first hill. I couldn’t hold Ella’s hand; she didn’t need me to. We paused briefly at the top and then hurtled forward, screaming and smiling, her growing up just a little, me growing just a little younger (if only for a few minutes).
My son screamed too, at the Huntington Museum, as we were looking at 19th century oil paintings. He’d had enough, and wanted to let me know that he’d prefer a cold drink and some french fries to another minute with George Caleb Bingham’s “Mississippi Raftsmen at Cards.” It was another reminder that even as we help students broaden their comfort zones, we’re wise to do it in ways that acknowledges who they are. Henry is not an art aficionado. At least not at six.
So I snapped a photo, looked one more time at the four men on the raft in the painting, and headed into the sunlight. As I strive to become a better teacher (and all dads are teachers), I’ll do well to enjoy my daughter’s sense of adventure and willingness to try new things just as much as I appreciate my son’s understanding of what it means to “light out” for freedom.
They’re lessons I hope to bring to my work this fall, as I strive to contribute to a community that values students’ interests, encourages challenging comfort zones, and is willing at times to turn learning upside down. For the next few weeks, however, I hope to be like those fellows on Bingham’s raft, drifting lazily down the river of summer, to land renewed when returning home.