11. Treasure Hunting

April 2019

Students began arriving at my office, curious, asking to see the journal. We let them in, of course, and once when I was coming in from lunch duty I found my secretary and a half circle of students gathered around the table in my office peering down at Clement Arbuthnot’s messy scrawl.

But not everyone could make time to see the artifacts in person, so I posted images of the find on Instagram. This seemed the best way to get the story out to students without broadcasting on any of our official school social media. It also gave me the opportunity to measure out the story, a few pages a day, which (I hoped) added to the suspense. It might also give students more incentive to read closely (the English teacher I was will never die) I thought and buy time for my student artist to finish the map, which was not quite done. It was close, my young cartographer assured me, but not yet ready. I’d seen her work and knew it would be worth the wait.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 10.28.29 AMMr. Reed’s 8th grade science class dove in on the challenge together. He borrowed the journal and the copy of Walter Scott and projected them with a document camera for everyone to see. I wandered down to see how things were going, and found engaged students leaning in to decipher the handwriting, pouring through The Pirate, and talking about the riddle at hand.

“I’m letting them discover on their own,” Mr. Reed told me, smiling. He’d noticed the date the journal had been discovered and the date of the final entry. Clever fellow, he was in the know.

I hadn’t expected anyone to be so organized, or jump over my slow delivery of the journal. If they worked together they could have the location of the map before we had the map in that location. My watch told me they had 45 minutes left in class.

It was no time to panic; it was time to improvise.

Fifteen minutes after I’d left the room I heard the pack of them in the hallway, swaggering like pirates, giggling like 8th graders. They were on the right track, and our map wasn’t yet safely stowed.

I ducked into my office and fashioned a stopgap. Using the back of an old manilla envelope, I scratched out a message in braille, hoping the dots might confuse them long enough to buy some time.

My thought was that when they translated it, if they could before the end of the period, it would add another layer to the story, piquing their interest and extending the search.

IMG_1121Translated it read: “I moved Dad’s map to the new building”

That, I figured, might get them puzzling.

I stapled the note to the top of the eventual hiding place planned for the map, a nook beneath the lowest built in wooden shelf in the closet in the main office.

The murmur of the pirate horde faded away. Doppler effect. The bell rang to end the period. I figured the absence of the map had survived the day.

At lunch three girls asked if they could see inside the boiler room, one of the least altered corners of campus. They were exploring their school in a way they never had.

The next day at teacher who was in the know asked about the name. “Is it another clue?” she asked. I must have looked confused. “Arrr! But, not,” she said with a smile. How I wish I’d thought of that.

Lunchtime and study halls became times for investigation, and a steady stream of students made their way to my office to page through the journal and the copy of Scott. Some cross referenced historical information online as they came across names, places, and events mentioned by Clement Arbuthnot. This was not an assignment, but their curiosity had them researching.

I remembered Mr. Reed’s line: “I’m letting them discover.”

I also thought about how great it was to have students in my office for something fun. Too often a trip to the principal’s office is accompanied by a sinking feeling, tears, or anxiety. But these students brought anticipation, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. They were also learning that the principal’s office isn’t some sacrosanct retreat, but should be a place where students are welcome and can laugh, talk, and be themselves.

During one period, when five students were crowded around the table in my office bouncing ideas off one another, a girl straightened up, laughed aloud, and said to her friend: “Good thing we go to ACMA. If we didn’t, life would be so…” She paused, looking for the word, then relaxed her shoulders, smiled, and said: “…so different.”

I thought I knew what she meant.

Friday saw the final installment of the journal to Instagram and left students with a weekend to think through the story and the code. Throughout the week a few theories had been put forward: SWS was compass directions, SWS had something to do with streets. At least one group of students figured out that SWS could be Sir Walter Scott, and that the numbers afterward had something to do with pages, lines, and words.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 10.17.07 AM

They. Were. So. Close.

But the day ended without anyone discovering the map.

Mystery hung in the air over the weekend, and I like to believe that pirates, buried treasure, and school history worked their way into conversations around kitchen tables, on trips to the store, and maybe even on a date or two.

I posted a “transcription” of Clement Arbuthnot’s journal online on Saturday night, giving everyone an even chance at connecting with the story. A few people downloaded the PDF, and I wondered what they might come to campus thinking.

That desire to know, to put together the clues and understand, so important to what we do as educators (no matter the subject we teach) was weaving through the collective conscious of our school in an unconventional way, and students seemed to be having fun.

It’s hard not to like a treasure hunt.

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