The beginning of fall term approaches, and I will be heading home to Kentucky from my Florida vacation home tomorrow. After considering which of our walking routes to take this last morning at the beach, Julep and I headed off down the sandy jungle trail that leads through the tropical forest to the long dock bordering the lagoon of St. John’s River at the back of our community. We always enjoy checking out the tracks of the creatures with whom we share the island: the zig-zags left by snakes, the “hands” of the opossums and raccoons, the paw prints of rabbits, the distinctive tail drags of the tortoises. I envy Julep’s corgi nose that allows her to process messages indecipherable to me. We usually see herons, egrets, and pelicans along the edges of the lagoon, and occasionally the manatees are lolling about in the water among the buoys that mark the crab pots.
While we often see dolphins out in the ocean or gliding along in the river, I had never encountered them along the dock. As Julep and I approached the long stretch of weathered boards today, 2 dorsal fins appeared side by side not 10 feet from where we stood.
When we heard the distinctive whoosh of air that accompanies breaching, I worried that Julep would bark and frighten them, but she seemed as mesmerized as I was. For several minutes we watched them glide together, their movements perfectly synchronized, around the lagoon. I felt that I had received a gift…a sacred gift.
I was reminded of Andy Goodman’s talk at New Horizons 2012 and his counsel that people are not moved by graphs and statistics but rather by stories. Those few precious minutes with the dolphins were a more persuasive and convincing argument for habitat conservation than any book or program could ever be. When it’s personal, it matters. As I head up I-75 in the predawn darkness tomorrow morning, I will be wondering where those dolphins are and what they’re up to. I imagine that when I climb the stairs of the Ed Center at Fort Campbell in February, I will think of them and hope they are still together, still swimming happily.
I believe our students need dolphin-spotting experiences, first to help them learn the material that we present, but also to care about what they are learning. It needs to be personal. As I teach anatomy & physiology, I try to show pictures and videos and tell stories that show my students why what they are learning is important to real people. Lysosomes are just another cellular organelle to memorize until I show a picture of a child with Hurler’s Syndrome. The retina is just part of the eyeball until they see a video of a young women with retinitis pigmentosa. Cheating on an exam may not seem to be much of a crime until I tell them stories illustrating the consequences of falsifying medical records or taking shortcuts in care that had tragic results. It needs to be personal.
Personal is a two-way street. The moment that I remember most from the movie Avatar is not one of its many dazzling effects but rather 3 short words: “I see you.” The best of humanity, and perhaps all of art and literature, can be summed up as “I see you.” There are many ways that we can tell our students that we “see” them. Sometimes it is in simply knowing their names, as Pat has said so well in an earlier entry in this blog. Sometimes it takes the form of making an exception to a policy; other times it may be holding a student accountable. “I see you” may mean “I know you can do better” or “I realize that you are struggling and need some help.” “I see you” may mean “I know that your husband just left for Afghanistan and you are overwhelmed with your responsibilities” or “I know that your husband just returned and you are overwhelmed with the readjustment.” In my classroom and lab, “I see you” must always mean “I see you trying to learn this difficult subject and I understand your struggle because I struggled, too.”