The year I taught eighth grade could be classified as the Bumble Bee Year. Just like bumble bees whose bodies defy rules of aerodynamics (I read that somewhere), we flew only because we didn’t know we couldn’t. When that class graduated into high school they each had officially more education than anyone in their immediate families.
Each morning started with reading the paper on the classroom couch, passing sections all around and sipping our hot beverage of choice. When all were present and awake, we would start our morning check-in and read from Chicken Soup for the Soul. And then we would dive into our busy day.
Instead of traditional recess, various leadership groups would attend to aspects of our school organization. Each day had a different focus. On Monday the students gave recommendations to the school administration and board, tribal council, and cafeteria. Tuesday was a community service group. Wednesday was for our emerging sports program. Thursday was a school spirit group. But Friday’s music panel remained the most hotly attended and debated.
Friday’s group chose the music for our classroom, a very important part of teenage life. Lyrics would be spread out on the table and both the words and overall message scrutinized for integrity and appropriateness. Those songs that upheld the mission and values of the school and classroom were passed on and plugged into the classroom stereo at appropriate times.
We listened to jazz and swing and pop music. I could see the blossoming of lawyers in Nathan as he argued lyrics from Marilyn Manson and Malikah as she defended Tu Pac. The students made the decision that they wanted to be inclusive, so Plains Pow Wow drumming was welcome, but the homemade bootlegs of northwest drumming was clearly preferred. There was one group that we almost unanimously liked, Presidents of the United States of America. They are a local, Seattle band with clever lyrics and contagious beats.
I used PUSA’s lyrics for language arts writing assignments. Once we each rewrote the words to Peaches. Kitty was allowed, but with the requirement that profanities were manually bleeped out. Boll Weevil became classroom code for anyone who preferred to sit in his or her house and watch TV all day. (And yes, I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity to check out the Presidents.)
Fast forward to Spring. We ditched the leadership groups for a month to focus on planning a class trip to the Sante Fe, New Mexico. There was a national science fair sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in Sante Fe, and we were determined to go. The requirements were that we would raise the money for the hotel and plain tickets and that each student must complete their own science fair project.
None of us (including me) had ever done a science project. None of the students had ever been on a plane. The students organized themselves so they each had a task. Ginger made sure everyone applied properly for the science project Courtney secured the plane tickets. Nathan arranged for the hotel. Louie, Frankie, and Malika poured over the tourist information they had sent away for and created a site-seeing schedule for us. Val contacted a distant family member from one of the Pueblos to tell them we were coming to visit.
When the letter came that none of our science project entries were accepted, it didn’t phase our traveling planning a bit. Okay, maybe a bit, but our focus was finely tuned to our trip to Sante Fe. We were going.
We held our own science fair for the school and community. The younger students filed through the table displays set up in the cafeteria. Frankie studied Ph balances of various liquids he found around the school. Malika created a display on the effects of alcohol on the brain. Nathan’s study involved the physics of basketball. One of the displays on the freezing point of different liquids melted into puddles. Courtney charmed the younger ones with the science of bubbles. Louie stood by his display with such pride ready to field questions. His was on Mt. Rainier. He didn’t do an experiment but rather merged the scientific information of the volcano with the traditional terms and history. The elders doted on his work and his family was proud. It was a good celebration.
Fast forward to the plane trip. I was forever counting students afraid of leaving someone behind in the airport bustle. But we made it on the plane. As we were walking up the aisle to our seats Nathan and I stopped in our tracks.
“Dude.” Nathan whispered. “Is that?…”
I recognized Jason Finn’s bald head and boyish smirk immediately. Standing before us in the middle of the airplane was the Presidents of the United States of America. We found our assigned seats and then proceeded to peek and whisper. I tried to nudge the students to introduce themselves, but didn’t succeed.
Finally, I went up to the foursome with my hand extended. “Are you the Presidents of the United Stated of America? I’m a teacher and these are my students. We listen to your music all the time in class. We just may be your biggest fans.”
Hearing that Chris Ballew chuckled, “Dude!” and gave me a high five. We gathered for a group picture and I made introductions. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the fans or the rock stars.
As the flight attendants started going through the aisle to settle us in, I pulled at the sleeve of Jason Finn. “Mr. Finn, the plane is about to pass Mt. Rainier and we have on this flight an expert on volcanoes. His name is Louie. He’s a special student. It would mean a lot…” I didn’t need to finish the sentence. Jason flashed a big smile and headed for the seat next to Louie.
Louie paused and looked at Jason. Then he took a deep breath, puffing himself up, trying to look important. “Why yes I am. A lot of people think Mt. Rainier is just a mountain, but it’s actually a volcano. And Mt. Rainier is not her real name…”
I watched these two with their heads together, looking and pointing out the window. We hadn’t landed in Sante Fe yet, but mission accomplished. Louie never asked me again, “When are we ever going to use this in the real world?”
Religious Education happens when we connect to people and things larger than ourselves and fly against all odds.