It was a lifetime ago, when I lived in Oakland, California. I was walking home from my teaching job at Piedmont High School when the dark SUV pulled up next to me and two guys told me to get inside. They drove me to a house, hooked me up to a machine, and told me to read from a piece of paper. “All will be well,” I read, a phrase I was sometimes kidded for saying, even when things were tough.
I was about to be animated.
As a teacher I always wanted to put students in situations where they could succeed, and Alex and Elliott, the two young animators who picked me up and talked me through my voice over lines were doing just that.
When I was at Piedmont (“Go Highlanders!”) I directed the Piedmont Bird Calling Contest. It was a big affair, the winning students given the opportunity to fly to New York to go on Letterman to give their calls. Alex had won the contest the year before, with a mildly naughty blues number and the call of the little blue heron. Rather than repeat, we decided to try something the contest hadn’t seen before: he’d make a cartoon.
Taking chances is a big part of learning, and allowing students opportunities to succeed or fail, even publicly, goes hand in hand with that. I’d seen Alex and Elliott’s work before, and been delighted by an animated short for “Pirate Week” (itself a likely topic for a future post) a year earlier. My bet was that they’d come up with something good.
I see a similar attitude in the great teachers I’ve worked with over the years. The best teachers believe in their students. They have hope that their kids will rise to the challenges they’re presented, and they encourage and inspire them to try new things.
As they do, these teachers make learning relevant, meaningful, and give students the freedom to explore and create. They also provide an audience the students care about.
For Alex and Elliott that audience was very real: hundreds of well paying folks crowded into the auditorium, more watching a live stream in another building on campus, and a special guest judge for the Piedmont Bird Calling Contest: Pixar director Pete Docter, fresh from his work on Monsters Inc.
The energy, time, and creativity that Alex and Elliott put into their animation was inspiring. Here was a project (ungraded, worth no “points”) that meant something to them and offered artistic freedom and a public screening.
It was an amazing success.
I kept fond memories of the event for years after leaving Piedmont, of the audience’s peals of laughter and roars of applause. With the golden glow of time, it found a home in my brain attic of teaching memories.
And then, as in this modern age it does, technology replaced nostalgia.
My kids, who are huge fans of Gravity Falls, a witty and pretty wonderful cartoon on Disney, were searching through past episodes on YouTube and spotted something funny: an early short by Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch, a short he’d done when he was a student at Piedmont High School.
We watched it twice.
Looking back over the decade or so since I first (and last) saw the cartoon, I’m amazed at how spot on Alex had been with his rendering of campus and his ability to gently lampoon Piedmont High (including a well liked assistant principal, Mr. Creek, and even me, sporting the fez I routinely wore in class). The spirit of celebration and fun, and the skill the students brought to the animation inspired me all over again.
Students are capable of great things, and our ability as educators to support and inspire them shows its worth in the lives they go on to live.
Watching that bird calling cartoon reminded me of some special students and a magical time. It also encouraged me to bring the spirit of belief to my current work with kids. Taking chances, trusting in kids, and trying new things can make people feel unsure, but it can also lead to amazing results. And if something flops, that’s okay too; we all have some experiences we’d rather leave off our resumes.
Letting students stretch their proverbial wings, celebrating them as they take chances, and helping them learn along the way is education at its best. For me, the resurfacing of Alex and Elliot’s short was a wonderful reminder to bring open minded passion to my work with students. If I do, even if there are bumps along the way, I’m convinced that all will be well.