Saturday, March 8, 2008

Teaching for Life--A Character Sketch

I wrote this character sketch for Eng. 301 last fall, and thought that I would share it here:

Some people are born to teach. They approach their subject area and life in general with such contagious passion that no student will leave their classroom untouched. They grab hold of each teachable moment, and know full well that not every important lesson they teach needs to be about their subject.

The bell rings, and Mr. Kredit strides briskly into 4th hour Senior Biology. He is a wiry man of about 67, with thinning hair, a wispy, white mustache, and a large pair of glasses. He removes his bright orange stocking cap, and hangs it up near the door.

Harlan Kredit has taught biology for 45 years, most of those at Lynden Christian. A lifelong practitioner of multi-tasking, he served many years as the school’s athletic director and runs the salmon hatchery on Fishtrap Creek with some help from his students.

“It’s a great day to be alive, kids!” He greets the class enthusiastically with his familiar catchphrase.

“It’s not so great if you have senioritis.” Jeremy whispers to Lucas.

“Senioritis, Mr. Drost?” Mr. Kredit puts his hands on his hips, and looks at Jeremy, with a slight smile. “There is no such thing as senioritis. I don’t believe in it. Whether or not you buy into senioritis is up to you, but I will not let anybody use it as an excuse in this classroom.”

Mr. Kredit walks to his desk and takes out a copy of Life’s Little Instruction Book, Volume II.

“Never give anybody a fondue set or anything painted avocado green.” Kredit reads.

Several students chuckle and one wonders aloud what a fondue pot is.

“And second,” Kredit reads another, “Regardless of the situation, react with class.”

Mr. Kredit puts the book down and looks at the students intently. “You know what, kids? Speaking of class, I just want to say how proud I am of how you behaved at State last week. The athletic director from Chelan sent me an email yesterday, and she told me how impressed she was by the fans from our school. When you go anywhere, you are representing Lynden Christian School, and your Christian faith, as well. It doesn’t always go so smoothly some years, so, it just makes me happy to hear a good report like that.”

As a biology teacher, Mr. Kredit knows that some of the most meaningful lessons about creation must be taught outside of the classroom’s walls. Every year, he takes his senior biology students on a number of field trips. The first is a morning-hike up Church Mountain during a unit on alpine biology.

Mr. Kredit sets an ambitious pace up the steep wooded trails, a class full of 17 and 18 year olds, even some athletes, struggling to keep up with him. Every once in a while, he stops and quizzes the class about the surrounding plant life, allowing the students to catch their breath.

“Mr. Berendsen,” Mr. Kredit points to a large evergreen just off the trail, “can you tell me what kind of tree this is?”

“That would be a Western Red Cedar,” Lucas ventures.

“Yes, and Miss Veltkamp, what enables the Western Red Cedar to grow in this zone on the mountain?” Mr. Kredit turns to face Torian.

“The tree is tall enough to reach sunlight, and the needles store the energy,” Torian answers.

“Phenomenal. Let’s keep going. We’ll stop to eat our sack lunches when we get to the meadow.” And with that, Mr. Kredit resumes his speedy ascent at the head of the pack, 25 students hurrying with renewed pace.

The final field trip of the year for seniors is a three-day excursion to study marine biology at Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. After a long day of observing anemones, urchins, mussels and black oystercatchers, the students settle down around the campfire.

“Last year’s seniors said that you told them bear stories around the campfire,” Bennet says.

“Did they?” Mr. Kredit smiles slightly. He spends his summers working as a park ranger at Yellowstone, and his collection of bear stories are legendary among Lynden Christian students.

“Well, this one happened about ten years ago, when my son Tim was working with me,” he begins.

The chatter around the campfire dies out and 25 pairs of eyes focus expectantly on Mr. Kredit.

“I had just left the ranger tower where Tim was, and I was talking with him on my walkie-talkie. All of a sudden Tim says, ‘Dad, stop. A bear just came out of the woods behind you. She has cubs.’”

The fire crackles loudly and several students jump. Mr. Kredit looks out over the class sternly, and raises an index finger.

“Now, kids, this is serious business. A mama Grizzly Bear will attack if she thinks you are threatening her cubs.

“So, I turn around, and there she is, just about 10 feet away from me, looking straight at me.” He points at Ryan, seated on the opposite side of the campfire, to indicate ten feet.

“I just kept still,” he says in little more than a whisper, “and this mama Grizzly Bear and I stood facing each other for about ten minutes, or so. Then, finally, she turned around and walked back into the woods with her cubs.”

Several students cast anxious, over-the-shoulder glances toward the dark woods behind them.

“I waited for a few minutes, then turned and walked right back to the ranger tower. I think my son Tim was scared worse than I was, because he had been watching the whole thing from the tower.”

“Are there any Grizzly Bears around this campsite?” one girl asks.

“Not in this part of the state, Miss Dickson.” He pauses for several seconds. Each student is staring silently, waiting for another story. Mr. Kredit seizes the teachable moment.

“I’ll tell you one more tonight. This isn’t really a bear story, but it is special to me, and it still scares me half to death every time I tell it.”

Mr. Kredit rubs his nose and frowns slightly before speaking again.

“About 20 summers ago, a young couple was camping with their 18-month old child. At about 8:00 pm, the couple put the baby to bed in their tent and went back to the campfire. When they went back to their tent to go to sleep for the night, they discovered that they had forgotten to zip the tent, and their child was gone.”

The campfire is dying down now, and the flickering glow from the embers casts shadows, emphasizing the lines on Mr. Kredit’s face, a look of concern.

“We formed a search team to comb the forest around the campsite. At about 2:00 in the morning, I was searching in a particularly dense section of woods about a mile from the campsite. It was cold out, and the baby had been missing for at least six hours. I was starting to think ‘there is no way that we are going to find this kid, if he’s even still alive.’

“I came to two large fir trees right next to each other.” Mr. Kredit holds his hands several inches apart as if they were the fir trees.

“I checked under the low branches on one of them, and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t really need to check under the other tree.’ I was just about to keep moving when a little voice in my head said, ‘No, Harlan, you have to do your job, the whole job.’

“So I went to the second tree and lifted the lowest branches. And there was this child, huddled up at the foot of this tree.”

Mr. Kredit directs a hand toward the ground near his feet and looks wordlessly at the class for several seconds.

“Kids, I can’t even tell you how great it felt to see this child alive and safe. I picked him up, I took out my walkie-talkie and I said, ‘This is Harlan, I have the kid.’

Mr. Kredit’s face relaxes into a smile as he gestures using the walkie-talkie.

“His parents were overjoyed and I remember that they had tears in their eyes when they thanked me. Kids, the reason why this story scares me so much is how close I came to walking past that tree altogether.

“If I had made that decision, we wouldn’t have found the kid and he would’ve died out there in the woods. I wouldn’t have been able to hand him over to his parents, their tears wouldn’t have been tears of joy, and they wouldn’t have a 20-year-old son today.”

“Kids, always do your best.” Mr. Kredit emphasizes each word and pounds a fist gently into an open palm on the word “best”.

“Do the job that you are supposed to do, and do it well. Don’t settle for shortcuts, like I almost did.

“At teacher conventions, I always tell colleagues that I could not do what I do as a teacher without such a high quality group of kids, and I really mean that. In about a month, you will graduate and I will miss each of you terribly. I always do. But I know that each of you will go on to do great things.”

Mr. Kredit clasps his hands together and smiles broadly as he looks each student, each legacy, in the eye.

“Go make me proud.”