Revelations from Alaska: An Educator’s Moment of Clarity

Dr. Duke Bradley in AlaskaFor as long as I can remember, I have wanted to visit the Pacific Northwest – to explore a part of the country once described as, “…a place for those who want nothing more than a few relaxing moments in beautiful, unpeopled surroundings.”  Until now, my domestic travels have spanned nearly every other region of the country, but the great Pacific Northwest has somehow always remained elusive.  So, when the opportunity presented itself to fulfill a lifelong dream of traveling there, I did not hesitate.

During my time away I explored central Washington and the Alaskan port cities of Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan with a bonus stay-over in Victoria, British Columbia. They were all fascinating places.  I drank from fresh water creeks and panned for gold like the pioneers of the American gold rush.  I harvested quartz from Alaskan mountainsides and ate wild berries.  I acquiesced to the pleas of dockside salesmen who peddled wildlife tours, promising a glimpse of sea otters and bald eagles basking in their natural habitat.  I stared silently at thousand year-old glaciers and boated on brackish waters collected by the fjords that those glaciers generously left behind. Needless to say, I had the time of my life.

Revelation and Clarity

Perhaps it is cliché to say that planned time away from the daily toil of work helps to “give you perspective” and “sharpen your focus” – but until a person experiences for themselves the power of respite, those reflections might as well be dismissed as empty platitudes.  But – they are true, and I now know them to be.

Relaxing and fun, my vacation was also filled with revelation.  One came to me as I awoke with the sun early one morning.  I could hear the waves of the ocean and the sea gulls squawking at one another. It was a picture that had already been imprinted in my head – possibly inspired by some book I read long ago, or a movie I saw once.  In that instant, I had an undeniable moment of reckoning.  I realized that I was blessed to have an experience that I had always wanted, and never doubted that I’d have.  I thought it to be truly liberating for me (or for any person) to exist believing that the things they want for themselves are actually possible – be it a travel experience or a life built upon deeply personal hopes and dreams.

The Alaskan skyline

Then, thoughts of my students…

Each day, I work with young people who I know for sure are beginning to formulate a vision for their lives.  Those visions are sometimes about career and lifestyle, but mostly, they are about happiness.  However, I am less certain that my students believe that the lives they envision for themselves are truly attainable – lives of abundant happiness and boundless opportunity.  Selfishly, that’s what I want for them.  I wondered whether our school’s emphasis on making certain that students collect the requisite number of credit hours for graduation  – as if finishing high school represents some great finish line, actually makes them fearful of what comes next, rather than helping them move forward into the world with optimism.  I am of the opinion that the message cannot be for students to simply graduate absent an accompanying belief that their life pursuits are attainable.  Even more, I’m not sure that “school” in its current design inspires that feeling within all children – especially those who come from challenging social circumstances.

I suppose that education is liberating unto itself, but the process of becoming educated must be about more than what is found in the volumes of lesson plans that we meticulously create for our students.  I’ve had these thoughts before, but more intensely that morning while gazing at the waves of the Pacific Ocean.  The only conclusion I had was that as an educator, my calling and mission must be more robust than the metrics by which schools are judged – test scores and graduation rates.  My work must be in helping students believe that the lives they want for themselves can become a reality.

Posted in Banneker News.