The average age looked to be sixteen. Scores of youthful faces, their arms in the air, smiling and laughing as the roller coaster clicked and clicked and clicked and clicked to the top of the first hill. Two years ago my daughter discovered that she liked roller coasters, the big ones, and this summer we’d returned to the park to ride the monsters she now was tall enough to tackle.
As we continued to rise up this behemoth that my eleven year old had informed me dropped 255 feet at 85 miles per hour, I looked down at the parking lot stretching out so far below and thought of the tamer wooden coasters I remembered being imposing when I was a kid. They didn’t even do loop-de-loops.
Beside me my fearless daughter smiled at the thought of what was to come. She’d researched the park before we arrived and had a plan that would takes us from the Viper (with seven “inversions”) to the Twisted Colossus (“the World’s longest hybrid steel and wood roller coaster”) to the Goliath (with a mega drop, loops, and corkscrews), increasing thrills for the under eighteen set, and a reminder for those of us over forty as to why amusement parks are the land of the young.
The Viper went surprisingly well. Strapped in like something out of NASA, we flew through the upside down loops -all seven of them- our eyes wide and our stomachs in our throats.
Goliath was closed as we walked past en route to the Twisted Colossus, a fact I was at peace with when I looked up at its orange steel skeleton rising high above the trees.
Unlike school, another world of youth, roller coasters are ground ceded to the teenage ideal of fun. Unexpected turns, stomach wrenching drops, and corkscrews designed to confuse and delight the senses create a world that inspires riders to scream and reach toward the sky.
I recognized this as I clung to the metal car, my hands claws and my jaw clenched. We didn’t buy one of those photos they take of people in the roller coaster as they rush toward doom …er, as they enjoy the bottom of the first dive, but if we had, I’m pretty sure mine would be the one anguished face in a field of adolescent joy.
I know that when I glanced over at my daughter, her happiness beamed.
It’s why, of course, I got into the damned contraption to begin with.
That same spirit motivates the best teachers, and keeps them in the game for years. Teachers teach to see students learn, and while some people outside education find it hard to believe that teaching for years and years can stay interesting and enjoyable, the folks who think this simply haven’t yet seen the truth that the best teachers don’t teach English, or history, or math, or science, they teach kids.
Great teachers are able to strap into the forward rushing world of youth and embrace the joy that comes from watching the students in their classes really learn. This isn’t to suggest that this is easy. It’s not. As adults, we bring our own adult sensibilities to our work with students.
I saw this as the teenager working the gate at the Twisted Colossus told us that the ride was experiencing technical difficulties and that we needed to wait as they “replaced a train.” Around her a cadre of teens working their summer jobs helping to clip tourists into their seats looked uncomfortable. How long would this take? Would the sweaty crowd become hostile?
I wondered the same. I was sweltering and increasingly grouchy, but as I looked at the teenagers in line they were laughing and looking at their phones. My daughter read the signs describing the history of the ride and the crazy zig-zagging course we’d be taking, if ever they got the ride in order.
It was so hot. A half an hour passed. Thirty-five minutes. Forty.
I could feel myself getting frustrated, ready to leave the line. My daughter wondered aloud if we’d be in the blue car or green car, on the blue track first or green.
And then, like a miracle, the line moved. We were in a car. Purple. The train of metal pews rocketed forward, twisting, flipping, rolling like a cartoon rocket. This wa a ride meant to train astronauts or prepare fighter pilots for G-force dogfights.
Crawling shakily from the cockpit at the end, I found my daughter waiting on the flight deck. With a smile that melted my palpitating heart she said, and I’ll never forget this, “It was worth the wait!”
It’s a lesson I would do well to bring back to my work with students in the fall.
How much richer can I help make my school if I can routinely see the world of education through the eyes of my students.
Given freedom to design their own learning, a fabulous freedom and amazing gift, what the students come up with can be a high energy enterprise that leaves us hanging on to the side of the car. And that’s more than okay. Schools should not simply be about adults feeling comfortable; sometimes the good stuff happens when the kids are smiling and holding their hands in the air.
This doesn’t mean that we adults are unimportant or out of control, but it does mean that there can be great good if we are willing to suspend our own sensibilities long enough to let the exuberance of youth show us one way of embracing learning and life.
By lunchtime the roller coaster gods, whom I imagine look something like the cast of Disney’s Liv and Maddie, had repaired the Goliath. It was their way of bringing the point home by saying, Bjorn, you really need to drop 255 feet at 85 miles per hour.
Spirit of youth, I thought to myself. This is the spirit of youth you need to bring back to campus.
…so the roller coaster clicked and clicked to the top of the first hill. The teenagers around me smiled, and my eleven year old daughter raised her arms to the sky.