Why I Visit Schools

Most of my elementary school time was spent "in the box."  Crowded inside four cinder block walls painted white and accented with chalkboards, we students shuffled along behind our teachers, counting the minutes until recess, lunch, or gym. 

I remember the mad surge of hope and excitement whenever a change in the daily routine was announced over the loudspeaker.  Then the hushed whispering with my classmates, and our delusions about what the presenter would be like, about how cool they were certain to be.

Of course, the actual people rarely stood up to our imaginings. The turtle guy and the hot air balloon guy had some moves, and the Dental Hygienist won us over when she passed out those little red pills, the ones that show you what a total failure you are at brushing your own teeth.

Even if there wasn't an excess of charisma on display, every outside speaker who came to a class or an assembly lit up some new pathway in my bored little brain. And I was grateful.

But in between these celebrity visits, my early formal schooling was a slog.  Minus the corporal punishment--the loss of which tool my teachers loudly mourned--my elementary school experience largely matched the one my parents described from the 1950s.

I am guessing that these experiences are part of the reason I now approach assemblies and classrooms with the enthusiasm of a Liberator. I know that however amazing the classroom has become in the decades since I was a kid, that kids are still kids, and that nearly all of them relish a break in the daily routine.  Every time I visit a school, I know there is at least one child who will be forever grateful to me for saving him or her from a pop quiz or a lab report or whatever they were supposed to be doing on that day.

Seriously though, it is a privilege to visit a school.  I can feel it despite the metal detectors and badges and sign-ins and escorts that have cropped up since I was a student. 

I can feel it in the excitement of the students who recognize me in the hall with my swim gear bag and are hoping for something great. I can feel it in the greetings from teachers who hope that whatever I have to offer will help, will move things along, will be worth the precious time.

I do my best to share not only what I am learning about physiology, wildlife, water quality, human culture, watersheds, and history, but also what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, and tastes like out there in the drink.

I want students to know that I can only do this work because I love the water. If my whole heart were not in it, I could not deal with crashing over rocks and getting folded under logjams and freezing my hands and feet and face and eventually all of me, day after day.

I want them to remember that words are strong but actions are stronger.  To glimpse for a moment that to be out there soaking wet and cold and immersed in what I love and then coming back to share the experience of what it's like and why it is worth protecting is so hard, but so meaningful, that I am willing to risk everything to do it.

There are things I don't always manage to say. I don't always tell students that I never felt particularly special as a kid, and that I was nervous every single day waiting for the school bus and wondering what the day would bring.

I was never a star athlete--I could swim but I was never on the swim team--and I was not one of the popular kids. I took regular beatings in the locker room. I didn't always pay close attention in class.  Occasionally, I made poor choices and got sent to the office.

In elementary school I was anxious, on guard, unsure.  I was a good student, but it seemed like the real stakes weren't academic but social.  I crept around the edges of corridors avoiding eye contact with bullies and sports stars.

On the playground, I got picked close to last for kickball or dodgeball or wiffle ball. I was sure that the little league legends and pumped-up man-children around me were headed for fame and fortune.  I tried to stay out of their way, to avoid being mowed down as they marched toward their certain reward.I was not alone in this, I'm sure. In a group of fourth graders, there isn't much room at the top.

Still, I want the students I meet now, to know that when I was their age, I didn't feel great, and nothing much about me suggested that I would find satisfying work or live a meaningful life or do things no one else had ever done.

I was thirty-three years old when I first started to feel like I had a calling, a purpose, a vocation. And that meant years of guidance counselors and teachers and parents and mentors and girlfriends telling me that I should find something I was good at and focus on it so I could get into a better high school/get into a top college/get a better job/make more money/buy a house/buy a better car/go on better vacations/give my kids more more expensive gifts on the holidays.

I internalized some of those voices and I wrestle with them still.

Everyone who makes it to middle age has traveled a long road.  I feel lucky to have made it this far, to have felt love and found meaningful work.

The hard parts of my student days lend me resilience now. I stroke into rapids knowing I want to be there, and that I can take a beating if necessary. 

I didn't know these things about myself when I was young. But I know them now.  They are part of the story I bring back from the water and from the wild, part of what I can offer to young people, to students, and to anyone who remembers feeling small, feeling unsure about life, or feeling scared about what the future might hold.