Headmaster’s Notebook

I wrote an article several years ago for a fly shop blog about getting lost in Alaska. My brothers and I were on a week-long float trip in the Katmai National Monument, and we headed away from our campsite to do some fishing. Who would have imagined that we could have possibly lost track of ourselves? All we had to do was follow the river. But we lost that too!

We wandered for somewhere in the neighborhood of six hours before we managed to find the river and make our way back to our campsite. It is a strange feeling being lost and having nothing – no landmarks, no maps, no GPS – to guide you. Ultimately, we found a small stream, which we followed to a larger one and a larger one. We figured that everything would flow to the river. That simple assumption, that might well have been inaccurate in any other situation, was right in that one. I was thinking about that trip this morning, as I picked up the newspaper. My son looked over my shoulder just as I did, looked at the front page, and asked, “The world still falling apart?” So it seems.

It is hard to find a lot of good news. It doesn’t sell newspapers apparently. And there’s conflict everywhere – even among peoples or ideologies that have historically gotten along fairly well. It’ll be fascinating, in fact, when we finally get to the presidential election in this country because at least right now the parties are too busy arguing amongst themselves to argue with each other. A friend of mine noted the other day that retail sales and manufacturing decline precipitously during presidential election years. Why, I asked? “Because people feel bad about America.” Ouch.

This is why I was thinking about that Alaska trip, especially as I watched my son dismiss the news as nothing but confirmation of what he thought he already knew … that we are lost. Not in the Alaska wilderness, of course, but something just as vast and impenetrable, a jungle of disagreement, anger, and suspicion. How do we orienteer our way out of this one? Are there streams of hope that we can follow, wellsprings of insight, some surge of optimism perhaps? My wife often accuses me of being a total Pollyanna, and she is probably right. I am inclined to think like Geoffrey Rush’s wonderful character in Shakespeare in Love, who was fond of saying, “It’ll all work out.” He wasn’t all that specific on how, of course. “I don’t know,” he would say. “It’s a mystery.”

So, too, is the path out of our current conflicts and challenges. Certainly it helps that we are in the midst of graduation season. There is little that is as inspiring as the possibilities of the world as seen through young, ambitious, hopeful eyes. Perhaps some measure of naiveté contributes to such positive spirit, but what’s wrong with a little naiveté? If it inspires someone to try, to hope for the best, to believe; well, then it’s alright with me.

And my experience with the rising generation is they are quite capable of helping us right the ship. They are as committed to public purpose as any generation I have encountered in my 30 years in education, and they seem determined to make a difference. I’m quite sure they will.

If my experience in Alaska tells us anything, it is that when we can’t see our destination clearly, we need a place to start; a direction, a way that leads on to way. Certainly our young people are one of those places to start, one direction. We talk often as adults about what our children have to learn from us. But this time of year, I am always reminded how much we can learn from them.

Especially in these tumultuous times, that’s exactly what we should be thinking about as we celebrate the many graduates taking their first steps into a world that so clearly needs their energy, their spirit, and their unencumbered wisdom. That’s a spring I am happy to follow.