By Kirt Wackford, PhD
Mathematics and Science Chair
I have taught students science at eleven different institutions over thirty-three years, with the last twenty-two at private high schools, the last sixteen at boarding schools, and the last six at Idyllwild Arts Academy. IAA is a place like no other.
What distinguishes the students of Idyllwild is their passion for creation. They are not the bored or jaded students I have had elsewhere, young people who would struggle to identify anything in their lives that they care about deeply. Idyllwild students recognize the amazing opportunities they have, and want to be here, despite the equally amazing work loads. Many of them found the school themselves and then had to sell their parents on the idea. Few of the eighty-some students I have each year are considering a career in science, and fewer still will become biologists, but all of them know that they need to pass my class to remain here – and being at the school, with the chance to make their art surrounded by supportive peers and inspirational mentors, is sufficient motivation for them to pass my class. On their worst day, they recognize the necessity of completing Biology to remain in the place they love. At their best, they are incredibly eager and enthusiastic for what they are learning in my class. They are simply easier to teach, and more grateful for what they learn, than any other high school students I have taught. Nowhere else have I had so many students spontaneously thank me at the end of each class.
For me personally, living in a forest on a mountaintop is idyllic. It does my soul good to see the rabbits and quail every day, the deer and bobcat and coyotes on occasion. Having trained as a field biologist in the world’s largest wetlands, I thought that I would have to give up living in such close contact with nature when I left research for teaching. My first high school job entailed a 90-minute commute, each way, through a crowded and smoggy city. In Idyllwild I walk to my class in seven minutes, and along the way I breathe the pine-scented air and know that the abundant lichen is proof of its lack of pollution. I hear the rush of Strawberry Creek on my way to my classroom in the morning and the calls of the frogs and owls on my way home at night. I sample the occasional manzanita berry along the trail when I need a tart pick-me-up. Walking in the fog, I hear the collected dew pattering off the leaves overhead. The crunch of the snow in winter and the bearableness of the summer heat when the desert floor below is baking. The amber or rose afternoon glow on the white San Jacinto peaks above the school. Now, there are certainly plenty of students who find this place to be an unbearable wilderness in the middle of nowhere, but at the very least those who have never experienced nature before will come to know this about themselves and others will discover only after they leave how much they miss it.
I’ve been at schools where the students had to stand up when a teacher entered the room, schools with uniforms, schools where part of my job was telling young people to tuck in their shirts or take off their hats indoors, schools where students were required to address me as “Dr. Wackford”. Here they call me “Kirt” and they are told to explore their dreams and to remember who they are. My days are marked by kindness, and by the concerns of a community of artists. When illness strikes, dorm parents offer to cover one another’s shifts and students bring back food from the dining hall for their friends. Prefects keep track of their podlings, and let dorm parents know when something seems off. Students can cry alone in their rooms, but if they cry outside they are soon joined by others, sitting silently in sympathy or murmuring soothing words. Students collaborate – filming each other’s dance performances, directing each other’s plays, attending each other’s recitals, and, when necessary, sitting in the awesome responsibility of deciding each other’s judicials. This isn’t paradise; there is no panacea for the indiscretions of youth, the pain of adolescence, or the scourge of social media. But if we can’t make a community of caring here, in an enclave of artists, where can we? And if we are making a community of compassion here, among such a diverse population and across all the bounds of nationality, religion, and gender expression, where can’t we? This, for me, is why Idyllwild.