A couple of days ago I returned from the 2017 Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston, Texas. I’d been invited there to speak about the intersection of science and the arts, with a chance to work with an alpha team of other creatives.
Educators from 41 states and 8 countries came to the four day conference held beside the famed Johnson Space Center. They came to learn about the latest in space science, get their science teacher grooves on, network, and grow. Considering the distinctly science- geeky vibe of the room, the fact that conference leadership valued artistic considerations as much it they did offers clues to just how free-thinking, unrestrained this crowd was to dream big. They were a great group, warm, enthusiastic, and invigorating.
It was the big dreams that really captured my attention. Many of the teachers attending had used every tool at their disposal to figure out how to make the trip. It’s not news to say that American education is embattled on multiple fronts, and funding for things like teacher training, let alone travel to atypical conferences, is hardly easy to acquire.
Somehow, somehow, they came anyway. That’s how I managed to meet Jodie Guillen on the evening of second day.
I’d presented a graciously well received talk to the plenary earlier and got a chance to meet with many teachers throughout the day, most filled with bubbling enthusiasm and brave ideas. But that evening, away from the venue, while sharing a glass of wine with friends, a conference attendee approached me and asked for a few minutes to talk.
She introduced herself, told me her story. A native of Wisconsin, she came to find herself now in her forties teaching at a desperately disadvantaged school surrounded by dry desert scrub in New Mexico. Students ate most meals at school; without subsidized school meals many wouldn’t eat regularly. She had very little in the way of resources; she did not have state of the art facilities; she did not take gleaming urban field trips with the kids.
What she did…was get them to dream.
“We talk about what it takes,” she told me, leaning in close so I could hear over the background of the chattering crowd. “We talk about what it takes and I challenge them to go read things about space and spaceflight and related science. I use space as a jumping off place for them to think about what it would take to change their own situation.”
This is what creativity looks like. It doesn’t take a paintbrush and it doesn’t take a computer. It takes a gutsy, tireless person to see something in the intangible spaces between us, something you can’t touch or easily characterize. Jodie told me that she often tells her elementary school students that one of them could easily be the first person to place his or her foot onto the surface of Mars. “There’s no reason why not,” she tells them. “You have to think your way from here to there. You have to think and you have to make the effort.”
The idealist in me wants to believe this. I really, really do. The realist in me knows that it’s easier said than done. Kids from great schools with deep resources—like clothes, meals, computers, enrichment opportunities, summer camps and more—have far greater chances to succeed. It’s easier to do anything with a head start. But where I lament the asymmetry, I applaud her efforts anyway. I celebrate them. Somewhere in a challenged school far from big technology, political power, and cultural attention, a group of kids get the chance to escape for a few hours everyday with a teacher who shows them a ladder that leads to something beyond their immediate surroundings. She doesn’t do it for the money or the glory; sadly, we all know that automatically. She does it because she believes, and because she believes, she sees something that many do not.
Per aspera ad astra, Jodie. Ad Astra.