Graduation season turns my thoughts to our watershed — our education watershed. I know students with a “street level” view of how a watershed works — why oysters that grow in the top layer of water on the Bagaduce River are sweeter and less briney than those in deeper water. I know other students on these shores who can explain how a nitrogen atom from Mount Katahdin can turn up in the chin whisker of a right whale in the Gulf of Maine.
I like converting the concept to a metaphor about learning in general.
Our education watershed begins with a trickle. As its stewards, our efforts and sacrifices are for beneficiaries unborn, a concept that redefines our work as teachers and parents and friends; our work as stewards of a unique educational vision; as caretakers of a particular school and community; as nurturers of something the world needs: our enlightened and talented great-grandchildren’s children.
I think back to when the Penobscot River signified access to the interior of the state, when Bangor was “the lumber capital of the world”; to when the British Royal Navy sought massive pines for His Majesty’s ships’ masts, to say nothing of strategic control of northern Maine, then part of Massachusetts; and the river meant trade and seasonal migration routes for the Penobscots, Abenakis and Etchemin — the indigenous people.
As my former students know, in the age of sail the big river’s currents launched Downeaster ships on blue water trade routes. We sent ice to the tropics; bricks to the East Coast cities of the U.S.; sea captains to the global trade. This is also the story of superseding technologies, as lumber, fishing, the frozen water trade, granite and shipbuilding were made obsolete by steel skyscrapers, steamships, refrigeration, and global competition and succeeding colonial empires. Oyster and fish farming could be crucial superseding technologies, too.
The Penobscot River education watershed still reaches far — if you have the imagination. We should be imagining myriad futures and occupations, things that one’s forebears might find unimaginable, for we are the superseding technologies. And it is about caring intensively for the purity of the local water, what flows downstream, and where that stream goes; caring intensively about the quality of childhood itself; how it evolves into adulthood; and how that adulthood leads to service, learning, leadership and fulfilling lives.
We are heirs of past stewards, trying to be worthy in the present, while protecting our own heirs downstream. Each school budget is really an investment in the health of a living watershed extending lifetimes and localities beyond this place — but still in our watershed.
With such stewardship, the future is now. We cannot put off the responsibility of heirs nor pause to consider whether to purify our contribution to the stream. The current never stops, won’t tolerate deliberation. The vessels with our exports and imports are loading now. We send cargo of individual lives into diverse tributaries, entrusting them to unique voyages — hoping to hear back when they arrive safely on foreign shores. “Made landfall. Trading with the indigenous people. Prospects favorable.”
May these shipments to the future be a contribution that is valued, relevant and useful. We are shipping new avatars of the old ice, lumber, bricks and granite to harbors downstream from this time and place. We cannot anticipate the exact nature of future cargo, yet as with any watershed, the decisions made upstream affect lives a long way off — thank goodness.
Because we can still assume the future value of the civility, ethical decision-making, imagination and creativity we’re teaching today.
Education trends are also superseding technologies — the pendulum is always in motion. The children downstream are the measure of our success; and those children will be the success of today’s measures.
May our students be captains of great voyages; may they bring new “ice” to new tropics and their voyages take them to exotic beaches. And every life is its own exotic beachhead.
Todd R. Nelson is retired principal. He lives in Penobscot.
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