On the night of Friday, June 14th, the middle school where I work was hosting the annual 8th grade formal. I originally did not intend on going. During my previous two years here, I had never attended this event. However, on the day of the dance many of the students asked if I was going to be attending and I started feeling a nagging at my heart. You see, I teach 6th and 8th grade chorus, and also have some interactions with 7th graders beyond saying hello in the hallway – if they are involved in the musical theater productions, for example, in which I teach the music. This graduating 8th grade class was my first 6th grade class. We started in this building at the same time and have been traveling in tandem for three years, but now they are moving on and I remain… Ok, I need to stop myself; this is not really what this particular blog post is about – the reflections of my first three years and this class will come in another post. I must save the sentimentalities for a later time. Rather, I merely wanted to inform you, the reader, of my dilemma in whether to attend or not, particularly when I already had other plans for that night.
Well, I went. And I had a blast. My students were quite excited that I showed up. The fellas were mostly wearing shirts and ties, although some wore vests and even a few suits. The young ladies were decked out in prom-like attire, many with their hair done, fancy shoes, sparkling dresses, etc. Another teacher and I had a dance-off, which the kids found quite amusing. (In case you were wondering, I won with an execution of “The worm.” The kids came up after and said, “Mr. Starr, I didn’t know you could dance like that?!” My body didn’t know either, and my thighs in particular claimed otherwise while doing the Russian Cossack dance. Yeah, I’m out of shape… moving on!)
All too soon, 10 pm arrived and the event drew to a close. Students started pouring out of the gymnasium. A few of my students remained with one of their mothers. It was a gorgeous night: the Moon was a glorious waxing crescent, Saturn was high and mighty, many stars were visible even as we were bathed in the lights of the school. While I talk quite a bit about astronomy in the classroom, rarely do I ever actually have an opportunity to put it in the context of an actual nigh sky. Chances like these are few and far between, so I grabbed it by the horns.
I walked up to B, G, A, and A’s mother (I will not use their actual names) and said, “Hey guys, can I nerd out with you for a minute?” “Sure!” was their response. I told them to look at the Moon. I said, “Notice how you can actually see the dark side of the Moon?” They looked for a moment and when their eyes adjusted accordingly they agreed that, whoah, they could totally see it. I went on to explain Earthshine, how it works, and such.
Afterwards, we looked around for a moment in silence taking it all in. B said, “Is that Polaris? The North Star?” pointing at a star in the Northern skies. I said “Let’s find out.” I showed her the Big Dipper, which stood quite prominently on the tip of its bowl rim. I told her to draw a line from the 2 stars forming the right side of the bowl (I did not use the names Merak and Dubhe) and they would lead to Polaris. The math teacher with whom I had previously had a dance-off (he got served), Mr. M, used to want to be an astronomer and is still a wealth of knowledge. He walked over to our collective and seeing us star-gazing asked me, “Are you following the arc to Arcturus?” We laughed knowingly; the kids looked quizzical. Returning to the Big Dipper, I led them to the handle and told them how the middle star of the handle was actually 2 stars, Mizar and Alcor – well, not actually 2 stars as there are binary systems and such that make the total 6, but that wasn’t what was important at the moment. What I wanted to impart upon them was that there are indeed two stars that are visible to some people, and how ancient armies and cultures used the ability to resolve the two stars as a test of excellent vision. A thought that was a really clever idea on their part.
Next on the sky-tour was Saturn. They stared for a few moments in silence, seemingly awed. I like to imagine that they were trying to picture the rings in their minds’ eyes, maybe even dreaming that if they squinted hard enough they’d just eek out a hint of the disc.
Suddenly, something caught my eye. It was moving pretty quickly against the background of the unchanging stars. Was it…? I hurriedly pulled out my iPhone, opened up the Star Walk app, did a search, and found it to be so. No. Friggin’. Way. On this night of all possible nights, when I just happened to be outside with a handful of students giving a brief tour of the night sky for an extremely narrow window of time, the International Space Station was passing over head. I excitedly called their attention to it. The two assistant principals saw us staring up and our palpable exhilaration and asked at what were we looking. When I told them, they were first shocked that it could be seen, which was followed by a chorus of, “I see it! There it is! Where, I don’t see it?! Oh I found it!” Someone else came over and asked what we were looking at. “People in space,” I said, without turning to see who asked. I then suggested, “Let’s wave to the men and women in the ISS, in space.” And we did. As if the pleasure of sharing my passion for the universe with my students within the actual context of the night sky wasn’t enough, the thrilling surprise of the ISS passing overhead certainly made the evening that much more special.
I went to the 8th grade formal with the purpose of celebrating the bittersweetness of my students moving up and on to the next stage of their lives, another milestone in a list of many this year – their last performance in the middle school play, their last chorus concert as middle schoolers, their last day of classes in these hallowed halls, etc. What I got instead was the opportunity to bask in the wonder of the universe with these students, even if for but a few moments.
What a gift for these students at the culmination of their middle school careers, standing on the doorstep of their uncharted futures, to be reminded of the audacity of the human imagination, and the eternal endeavor of exploration.