by Nat Frothingham
This is a special issue of The Bridge that celebrates some of the women, men and young people in our midst who have discovered life pursuits that command a passionate response.
I like the pure fire in people who know what excites them and have the tenacity to follow a personal dream.
Just out of college I was a teacher of English at an African boys’ secondary school in Kenya. Later, I was a teacher of English and a play director at Randolph Union High School. More recently, I’ve taught classes with prison inmates and ex-offenders.
I continue to be entirely absorbed by the problem that confronts teachers anywhere: How to engage with students and the critical — almost mysterious — but decisive question of why one student discovers something to be excited about and why another student, just as curious, just as bright, just as well-equipped for life — finds nothing.
I left high school teaching because I was only reaching a handful of the students. It didn’t seem to me that high schools as they were then conceived were meeting the needs of students. It’s also true that I didn’t know what could be done to change an educational system that I felt was entrenched.
Much of the best work I did as an English teacher didn’t take place in a classroom. My best work took place after school working with students who were making their own choices — to be involved in rehearsing a play or to be out talking with old timers and then to be writing and publishing a book they called “Maple Sugar Trees and Red Oldsmobiles.”
I haven’t visited a school classroom for some time. Perhaps our schools have changed. And if they’ve changed for the better I may be ignorant about those changes.
I rather suspect that schools today are much like schools were like when I was teaching. There is a teacher. There is a classroom with a blackboard, or the like. There are books and paper. The teacher is at the front of the class and the students sit in rows behind desks. The teacher speaks. The students take out their books. The teacher writes on the blackboard. Or the teacher reads from a student paper. Or a student reads from his or her own paper. Sometimes a student reads from a book or asks a question. Often a teacher leads a discussion. When class is finished with a story or a list of spelling words or a chapter on chemistry or history or biology, there will be a test. The best students are the students who get the most right answers on the test.
In his continuously fresh and provocative essay called “The Aims of Education,” a British educational thinker whose name was Alfred North Whitehead — and this was in 1916 — attempted to shake up an entrenched educational establishment and challenge the conventional teaching practices of the time.
Whitehead wrote, “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all of its manifestations. Instead of this single unity, we offer children — Algebra; from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a couple of languages never mastered; and most dreary of all Shakespeare, with philological notes and short analyses of plot and characters to be in substance committed to memory. Can such a list be said to represent Life, as it is known in the midst of the living of it?”
If our schools today are anything like the schools I was once a part of as a schoolteacher, how could such schools engender or produce the excitement, commitment and passion of the women, men and young people we celebrate in this issue of The Bridge?
As part of its April 22, 2013, issue — The New Yorker magazine ran “A Reporter at Large” story by staff writer Burkhard Bilger called “The Martian Chroniclers” — an absorbing narrative about the NASA rover exploration of planet Mars.
But what was most arresting to me in the story was not the exploration of Mars — it was something else.
Embedded in the story was a profile of one of the two key leaders of the Mars space mission, a man whose name is Adam Steltzner. It was Steltzner who was the brilliant but unlikely scientist whose job was to design what was called a “Sky Crane” – a complicated apparatus that made it possible to lower the rover exploration vehicle onto the surface of Mars.
Remember my description of Steltzner as “brilliant but unlikely.” Well, it wasn’t until Steltzner was a 21-year-old with virtually zero scientific or career prospects that he showed any discernible interest in astronomy. He was a college drop-out, a bass player in a band called Stick Figures, something of a playboy, an assistant manager at an organic market — and described in the article as a young man “with few skills and fewer prospects.”
On one night when Steltzner was coming home from a playing gig in Marin County, California, “he noticed that Orion was in the wrong place in the sky. He’d seen it earlier that night, hanging above the lights of Port Richmond. Now it was over the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Big Dipper hadn’t moved. How could that be?”
Steltzner was stumped. But his curiosity was also aroused. This led to a number of improbable steps. Why “improbable?” — Well, as a teen growing up in a family that had real money, he had been subject to his father’s disapproving judgment. As a child at the age of seven – a school official had told his father that young Steltzner was “somewhat dim” and that it might be a good idea to send the boy eventually to a trade school.
All during his high school years as The New Yorker story relates: “He skipped school and climbed trees, broke into buildings and tooled around on his dirt bike. He perfected the art of buttboarding — sitting on a skateboard and careering down hills with no helmet and no brakes — and staged rock-throwing wars with other shiftless kids in empty lots.”
The story goes on to tell of the damage Steltzner did to his body. “Between the ages of seven and seventeen, Steltzner broke thirty-two bones and got a hundred and seventy-two stitches.”
Is this a kid that anyone of us might recognize — full of energy and high spirits but totally without direction?
Well, after that moment of profound celestial puzzlement, Steltzner took himself over to a local community college and tried to sign up for an astronomy class. But first he had to take physics. And he discovered, much to his surprise, that he “dominated” in physics. He was scoring a 98 on physics tests while the rest of the class was averaging 30 percent. “I was the dude,” he said later.
The dude, yes. And the dude that was Adam Steltzner finished at community college, got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, won a full scholarship to Caltech, went on to the University of Wisconsin for a PhD, came aboard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1999 and subsequently became one of the two top leaders of the rover exploration of planet Mars.
What’s to be concluded from this? All across America are countless throwaway kids — kids who somehow never discovered the book, the natural wonder, the role model or mentor, the big idea or cause, or like Adam Steltzer, the Orion constellation somehow in the wrong place in the sky. Because they didn’t discover that one thing in life that could have taken hold of their imagination they are now adults, lost to themselves and lost to us forever.