Educational Psychology, Mississippi Memoir

All Roads Lead to the River

It’s amazing to me how quickly the summer vacation flies. One minute, we’re wrapping up the school year–final exams, report cards, promoting to new grade levels. The next, we’re staring another year in the face–supply lists, who’s my teacher, don’t forget about that summer reading!

I’m thinking about the new school year a lot right now because, for the first time in many years, I won’t be part of it. Not at Jackson Academy. Not in Mississippi.

As I wax nostalgic about my school career, I’m thinking, too, about my greatest hits. Those experiences that defined me, as a person and an educator, and that changed forever my understanding of what it means to be a great teacher.

Students getting ready to launch their canoe, Mississippi River at Helena, Arkansas.

For the last three years, I’ve had the privilege to take JA’s fifth grade students on an overnight canoeing and camping adventure on the Mississippi River. Our amazing tour company––the mighty, mighty Quapaws of Helena, Arkansas. Our fearless leader––John Ruskey, owner and operator of Quapaw Canoe Company and certified river rat.

As always seems to be the case with great and memorable experiences, these trips stand out in my mind as greatest hits because of the people who made them possible. Ray Higgins, beloved teacher, coach, and founder of JA’s Outdoor Education program, heads my list. For each of us, there is a figure, perhaps more than one, who played a critical role in shaping who we have become as adults. Who continue to shine through us each time we speak or act from the best versions of ourselves. Ray Higgins is one of those people for me.

I’ve been traveling with him since I was a 7th grader at JA, and I credit him with my love of rafting, hiking, camping, and canoeing–activities someone meeting me for the first time might be tempted to dismiss as not her area. Mr. Higgins took me to the Appalachian wilderness, put me on my rear end (swaddled in a life jacket), and pushed me down a waterfall. Drift Falls, back in the day (before it became part of someone’s private property), and Turtle Falls on Horse Pasture Creek in Gorges State Park near Highlands and Cashiers, North Carolina.

Mr. Higgins introduced me to the thrill of the Ocoee and the majesty of the Chattooga. If I close my eyes, I can see the view looking down river from NOC’s traditional lunch stop on section IV of the Chattooga. Mr. Higgins gave me that, and I will be eternally grateful.

It was Mr. Higgins who discovered Quapaw and established JA’s relationship with John Ruskey, the canoe company’s “chief visionary officer” and lead guide. Ruskey, or Driftwood as everyone calls him, migrated to Mississippi from California in the 1980s. He explained to me the first time I met him that the river called to him. He longed for adventure, and he wanted to test himself against the vast and powerful Mississippi. He’s been paddling the river ever since.

Ray Higgins sending me off on a slide down Turtle Falls in Gorges State Park, North Carolina.

Driftwood and his crew are what we, in the K–12 education business, like to call “kid magnets.” Much like Ray Higgins, everything they do seems magically to engage and delight our students. Driftwood mesmerizes with stories of the first European explorers to the Mississippi, draws sleepy and sun–weary 5th graders away from their morning hot chocolate for lengthy nature hikes around the sand bars where we camp, and travels always with an acoustic guitar he pulls out at breakfast for a bit of blues accompaniment to our bacon and eggs.

The thing Driftwood might love as much as paddling the Mississippi? The Blues. Clarksdale, Mississippi, provided the original base of operations for Quapaw, and Ruskey still makes his home there. He boasts of his hometown that more blues musicians, including Muddy Waters, come from the Mississippi Delta, specifically the area around Clarksdale, than from any other place on earth. And, of course, from Clarksdale “all roads lead to the river.”

I feel those words deep in my bones. All roads lead to the river in both literal and symbolic ways. When I think of my teaching career, inevitably, I think of trips to rivers like the Mississippi, the Ocoee, the Chattooga, the New and the Gauley in West Virginia. I think of river guides I’ve known like Driftwood, Critter, and Ninety–two (a highly competent trip leader for NOC whose nickname sprung from the fact that he was born in 1992, the year before I graduated high school).

I’ve watched students slide and roll about in Mississippi mud, plunge down Class V white water rapids, and step off a cliff to free fall into a pool forty feet below. I’ve stepped off that same cliff, on the Eleven Point River in Missouri, sometimes just for the thrill of it and at other times to coax reluctant students who chased the thrill to the cliff’s edge but couldn’t take that final step alone.

What did these river adventures teach me about teaching? More than I can express in words here. I’ve learned over the years that, on the river, in the wilderness, students can be open, vulnerable, trusting, and compassionate in ways you simply don’t see in a classroom. I’ve learned, too, that these moments that stick with me stick with them, too.

We talk a great deal in education about character because the world teaches us that students don’t become great people by chance. I don’t think I overstate the point to say that all those trips to the river make more difference to our students’ character development than algebra or grammar. The fifth grader who was constantly on the wrong side of the rules in his classroom but who somehow, magically, spent 24 hours as Driftwood’s right hand and chief helper won’t soon forget his own transformation.

Ruskey telling stories before dinner on Buck Island, Mississippi River.

Can one day out of one year really make a lasting impact? I believe so. I also believe that when we back up the single experience, continue to take students to the river and challenge them in ways they don’t expect, the more likely we are to see those students respond in ways we don’t expect.

Classroom lessons are important, no doubt. So, too, are those lessons that can’t be found in books. Every river trip starts with a trial paddle, the guide taking his paddlers out on the water to see what he’s got to work with, to test the skill level and strength of his team. Every guide has his preferred techniques, but the instruction is always more or less the same: Paddle hard, paddle together, listen to me.

There’s a transforming magic in experiences that take students out of their daily lives, where they know the routine, the rules, and just how far they can bend those rules, and into the unknown. Experiences like these are exciting but also a bit uncomfortable and edged with the possibility of danger. Inevitably, students will encounter defining moments when they find themselves suddenly beyond their understanding of what is possible or safe.

That’s the point. To take students out of what they know and into the unknown territory where trust, cooperation, and flexibility are the only choice for survival. Then to step back and watch them succeed and have a grand time in the process.

I’ve had great moments in the classroom, too. Breath–taking moments with students who engaged with genuine interest in a poem or play and delighted me with insights or perspectives authentically their own. Teaching has always seemed to me a way of life rather than just an occupation. Not just for the hours of lesson planning and grading but for the relationships that are its foundation.

Students on the beach at Ship Island, Mississippi, courtesy of Katie Chustz.

I’ve been on many rivers with many students, and I’ve yet to walk away without new or strengthened relationships. Without watching them grow in their relationship with self, in the belief that they can do things they never dreamed possible. That relationship is the core of character and of education, and there’s nothing like a bit of adventure for building confidence, resilience, and self–reliance.

What follows is a brief article I wrote after my first adventure with Quapaw Canoe Company. It was printed originally in JA’s online newsletter, The Tuesday Raider, and later reprinted by John Ruskey in his Lower Mississippi Dispatch. Enjoy.

I put my foot on the gunwale, stood to full height, and jumped out of my canoe into the Mississippi River. Several times during the previous night, the sound of tugboats pushing barges through that same shipping lane had woken me, but there I was, swimming the mighty Mississippi. As I broke the surface, four 5th grade girls called out a warning. They were coming in, too. Maybe right on top of me!

This year at JA has started with much talk of character: how to build and shape it, how to take children away from the comfortable and familiar to help them discover unique capacities for strength, confidence, and resilience, how to help them engage those capacities in the face of the strange and unfamiliar. I’ve had the privilege to travel on many trips that comprise a significant arm of JA’s character education program, but I’ve never been on a trip quite like this. Canoeing the Mississippi River? With 5th graders?

The campsite at Buck Island, Mississippi River.

It started at Helena, Arkansas, at the Quapaw Canoe Company, where owner and chief guide John Ruskey talked to us about our route. We’d paddle three miles of the tributary St. Francis then meet the mighty Mississippi. The plan included an overnight stay on the sandbar at Buck Island. Ruskey talked about star charts and river levels and the wildlife we’d likely encounter, and I could feel the excitement building all around me.

We stopped for lunch at the juncture of the two rivers. By that time, we’d experienced close encounters with some of Ruskey’s wildlife. Asian Carp had jumped into two of our boats, creating hilarious chaos. Without missing a beat, our 5th graders pursued wildlife into its habitat, seeking out toads and turtle shells, dragon flies and fish skeletons, as we wandered the Mississippi’s muddy banks.

Those who plan outdoor education often speak of “capstone trips” and “community building.” We long for these experiences for our students. We know their potential for character development, the inexpressible chemistry by which such experiences weave themselves into the fabric of self. The equation is elusive and impossible to recreate in a classroom, however progressive or rigorous.

There is a capstone, and it shifted into place on a sandbar along the Mississippi River, under a blanket of stars, as John Ruskey captivated twenty–one 5th graders with talk of the first explorers to the region and the number of houses a beaver will build in its lifetime. It found traction with half a dozen of those 5th grade girls who discovered that they can love Mississippi mud as much as a cell phone or an iPad. Community happened on the river as four canoes of JA students called out a Quapaw “whoop” of greeting to each other across the water.

I traveled to Helena with several students and another teacher, and our car played a familiar game along the road: I Spy. I spy, with my little eye, a mighty adventure. It was strange, and it was wonderful, and I can’t wait to go again!






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