August 25, 2016
Soon I’ll be heading to my 30-year high school reunion. Seems crazy that we’re all pushing 50 now and have a lifetime behind us. What happened to those fresh faced teenage idealists? All those who were going to save the world by holding hands or stop apartheid by wishful thinking? Our paths went in every direction. Some of us moved away. Some became insurance agents, a teacher or two, nonprofit executives and bus drivers, military service and public safety. I’m sure none of us took the exact path we thought we would.
I find myself doing more reflecting as I enter this next chapter of life. Having left behind my days of lights, sirens, operation centers, and deployments, the memories drift further back each passing day. As I look ahead to more strategy development and better beds while on the road I can’t help but take stock of how I got here. What did I learn in high school that stays with me now? It’s not trig, that I can promise you.
Of all the people who were a part of my life in high school, one truly stands out. I only had two classes with him, but the lessons stuck. Both in science and more importantly, life.
Conrad Bitters had a reputation as a no-nonsense kind of teacher. Every semester you’d hear groans from kids who got him for Biology. The fear. This guy didn’t pull punches and he made you work.
Let’s face it, as a teenager work really is about the only 4 letter word we took offense at.
I was no different. My friend Pat and I sat in his lab the first day with a certain dread.
Mr. Bitters is the kind of guy with a very dry and sometimes subtle sense of humor. When things went sideways, he kept his cool (mostly). Even when Pat and I set paper towels on fire (accidentally… we didn’t think about wetting them before using them as pot holders) that turned into a chain of spills and fires as other tables turned to watch us throw flaming debris in the sink.
He didn’t yell.
He did, however, comment on our collective intelligence as I recall. In that calm, collected, subtle way he told us that yes, we were stupid.
Humans are stupid. It’s nothing to get upset about. It just is. Learning that lesson carried me through 27 years of public safety.
Mr. Bitters is the king of acronyms, which in retrospect also helped my future career. One of his favorites was RTQFMM, usually delivered to somebody who wasn’t paying attention during a lecture. It would go something like this: “Mr. Smith, do you know the answer? No? Well it’s an RTQFMM.” Real Tough Question For Mental Midgets (STOP. It was the 80’s. We didn’t get hung up on correctness. Deal with it.).
The class laughed, Mr. Smith stopped staring at the girls and we all grew just a little bit.
He did indeed challenge us. Academically, socially and physically. Every other year he taught a summer session that focused on ecology. This wasn’t environmental platitudes. Nope. We spent one day in class prepping, 3 days in the field experiencing, and one day back in class recapping. Day one was more about a safety briefing and the last day was, I’m pretty sure, his way of making certain we all made it back.
The bulk of the learning took place sweating to the top of Table Mountain to look at geology or suspended off a cliff to look at fossils. Or having a snowball fight in Tioga Pass (in July) and studying astronomy lying on our backs in a meadow at 8000 feet. Or waist deep in mud looking at huge snails and getting pinched by tiny crabs in the tidal flats of Morro Bay.
In that moment a couple of us discovered the fine line between bravery and stupidity as the muck hit mid chest and we decided to turn back.
Mr. Bitters was the guy who pushed us – convincing us we could hike 10 miles along the edge of the Yosemite Valley. That we could tie in and rappel down a cliff (word to the wise, feet go in front of you, contrary to what your brain tells you).
He’d be first in the water and last up the mountain pushing us to the top. You could complain, but you couldn’t quit. He let us – hell, encouraged us – to get dirty and ask questions, to seek answers and not be afraid. He did that in the classroom and out.
As for me…well I figured out I really had a knack for understanding life sciences and ended up in AP Biology. After high school while aimlessly trying to figure out what came next my girlfriend (now wife) pushed me into this new thing called EMS. It was a natural fit and the rest, as they say, is history.
So here’s to you Mr. Bitters. The cornerstone of my desire to dig in, be unafraid and sometimes jump off a cliff. Thank you, the lessons serve me well even now, 30 years later.