I remember the exact day when my teachers underwent a magical transformation. Christmas 1968, most of my family was dozing in the wee hours as we sped along a lonely Texas highway to a distant holiday rendezvous. My tiny body was easily stretched out on the rear console of a Ford sedan, gazing through an old-fashioned slanted rear windshield at a crystal clear night scape poured thick with winter stars. In a moment of pure synchronicity my father tuned into a recently arrived static filled season's greetings sent a quarter million miles on the gossamer wings of invisible light. At the tender age of six years old it would forever alter the trajectory of my entire life:
NASA Archive -- "We are now approaching lunar sunrise ... For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you". ... In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth ..."The skeptic in me today might wince at the religious reference. But at age six I could have cared less. I was utterly captivated by mankind's first message from another world and quickly asked my father about the nature of those points of light burning cold in the night, "What are stars, how far away are they?" As an engineer, he was well equipped by temperament and education to explain to me quietly, patiently, using analogies of distance a child could understand. And as he spoke the spell was cast: It hit me.
Through some combination of childhood imagination and a neurotransmitter cocktail, I was whisked effortlessly right through the windshield, thrown clear off the planet, reeling, head over heels into the heavens. For long timeless minutes the universe consumed me whole, like Jonah swallowed by a cosmic whale, and terror soon turned into ineffable glory. When I suddenly found myself back in that long gone Ford, I was changed forever. One sip of cosmic infinity was all it took, I was hooked, a newly minted wonder junkie. And like any other junkie all I could think about when that transcendental trip ended was ... I want some more.
I didn't know it on that obscure night in that lonely place, but teachers would never seem the same to me.
Follow me below the fold to find out why.
By the first day of the new term they too were transformed, from glorified baby sitters and surrogate parents into what they really are: an invaluable resource, the precious and at that internet-less time my only conduit to a sanctuary stuffed with the wisdom of the ages, guides in the form of books stacked to the ceiling to a beckoning universe full of wonder. I devoured books like a starving grizzly and tore into the fundamentals of science like a human chainsaw. The alphabet, fun with Dick and Jane, the basics of science, all fell before me, vanquished. Over the next year or two me and a few like-minded classmates simply pulled away from the pack of our fellow K-12 classmates and never looked back.
My teachers enjoyed robust government support during the early day of the U.S. Space Program and were buoyed by a measure of dignity and respect they had earned over many years. My how things have changed! In some circles today, teachers are seen by short-sighted politicians as little more than red ink cells on a spreadsheet. Worst of all, instead of recognizing and praising these professionals, too often teachers have come under assault. State by state, they are now systematically demonized and scapegoated by a vocal component of a hyper partisan electorate.
Last week my sister, a special ed teacher whose degree cost many times what she makes in an entire year, was punched and kicked black and blue and nearly crippled protecting other children from a confused, mentally handicapped student in the throes of a violent delusion. She will require extensive treatment, probably surgery. But contrary to what cynics and oportunists would predict, she did not hire a lawyer, she did consult the union, nor did she seek workers comp before reporting back to work. She was on the job the very next day, crutches under her arms and a smile on her face, taking care of what she proudly calls "her kids," including the one who flipped out.
She made a good point: Her injuries are nothing compared to the teachers who shielded small children with their soon to be bullet ridden corpses as a disturbed killer methodically gunned down the innocent. Murder or the less violent incident that touched my family, one or another, they all occur day in and day out in schools all across the nation. Teachers at Sandy Hook and elsewhere sacrificed their lives in great tragedy, but teachers the world over have pledged a lifetime of dedication and a virtual vow of poverty with nary a media mention.
They say those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it? If so, take away history teachers and we are in a world of shit! Teachers are the generational glue that binds us into civilization, they are spine on which our economy hangs. Show me a customer buying a product online or a developer creating the website, and I will show you a former student who was taught reading, writing and 'rithemetic.
Maybe it's Sandy Hook finally coming home to roost, maybe it's the familiar connection, and I know I'm late to this movement, but I don't care. What I do know is this: I will simply no longer stand idly by while teachers are bullied and scorned for political profit or any other reason.
I'm just a science writer, my options for helping are limited, but we all have to start somewhere. One way I've decided to start is by promoting a non-profit project called Teachers in Space created by the Space Frontier Foundation. The foundation believes firing up a single teacher will pay massive dividends for our nation and our species. And they are going to fire up a hell of a lot more than one.
I am not a spokesman or a member of this project, apologies if I get something wrong. My understanding is Teachers in Space will seek large institutional donations in the month of March so that dozens of teachers can experience first hand things like microgravity aboard free flying aircraft, possibly high altitude balloon rides. And a few lucky educators will blast above the atmosphere in next generation suborbital spacecraft, surpassing the Karmen-line, and earn their official astronaut wings. But the foundation does not need seek reader donations to accomplish this—if you have money to donate to edu, give it to your local PTA or the K-12 program of your choice.
Rather it is that foundation's belief that the growing ranks of CEOs and high ranking officers in technology, media and aerospace firms have a vested interest in fostering a highly trained and motivated customer base and workforce of engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. The foundation believes those CEOs et al with vision will choose to serve their own interests with a relatively small gift to allow the project to bring this lofty gift down to earth. We can only hope this effort will inspire teachers and children today like the moon shot once did for those of us who can remember, those of us now sporting a few gray hairs.
I ask readers for two things only: 1) if you are a STEM teacher (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) and wish to register for a shot at the adventure of a lifetime, the link to do that is here, and 2) if you are a successful progressive or a staunch believer in teachers, and a self-made CEO or chairmen of the board, help us spread the word. A foundation representative may indeed contact you or someone you know, and I want that to be a warm and friendly call, not a cold one.
Actually, make that three things I'm asking: If you are a teacher, in practice or in training, please identify yourself below. Don't be shy! I believe some of us would like to thank you in virtual person for choosing the most important profession on the planet and, one day soon, beyond it.
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."