Thursday, January 7, 2010
Death of an Inspiration
Leaving my career as a journalist marked one of the most difficult times in my life. It came after a wrench forced me to find a way to raise a family on my own without working nights, weekends, holidays. So I searched for a way to marry my love for writing with my passion for meeting new people, and the answer quickly emerged: teaching.
Fortunately, as an education writer at the time, I had met a number of inspirational teachers, people who truly wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. People who thought outside of the four walls of a traditional classroom.
Greg Ritter was one of them.
I met Ritter in 1995 while covering an assignment to write about the award-winning program that he developed for East Hills Middle School in the Bethlehem Area School District. His self-contained program, entitled "Monagacci," was a non-traditional, team-taught program that entwined the environment with core subjects. Monagacci, which earned him a national award, involved students in academically based projects in the wilderness. The year I interviewed him, Ritter had 160 middle-schoolers apply for the coveted 56 spots. The beauty of his endeavor? Monagacci included all levels of students: honors, special education, emotionally disturbed, middle-of the-road. Basically, everyone from across the spectrum. It was one of the most heterogenous models around.
His work fascinated me. Who'd want to spend long hours with a highly challenging group of kids, some of whom came with tremendous baggage and needs to which most of us cannot relate?
Ritter firmly believed that kids--all kids--could learn life lessons through personal connections to nature, by working with peers, by eliminating barriers that entrap so many of us. Based around Gary Paulsen's novel "Hatchet," the students gained insight about survival, about how nature falls clearly into the paths of our existence, about how we can push ourselves to conquer the limits placed before us. I needed to see how this all worked, how he made it work.
So over several days in 1995, I spent time with Ritter, some of his colleagues, and 30-some middle-school boys. I watched them collaborate on building shelters out of sticks and leaves. I saw them struggle to make collective decisions that were best, or at least manageable, for the group. I joined them on a daylong sojourn down the Delaware River where they would all let go of their fears and plunge from a rope-swing into depths of unknown waters. Here's part of my observances from that article:
"Consider Ritter's classroom for three days last week.
Hundreds of cloud-reaching hemlocks surrounded Ritter and teacher Scott Denofa as they prepared more than 30 boys for a camping venture in Trexler Scout Reservation in Monroe County. The boys -- who as teams built their shelters for the night out of logs, sticks and leaves -- faced an 8-mile hike on rugged terrain, through waist-deep water and into a field of thorns.
They shouldered weighty backpacks, started their own fires with flint and steel, and cooked their own meals when they were hungry, not when the school clock said it was lunchtime.
"I think it's cool because we get to be outdoors and learn about nature and the environment," said Tyler Zeigler, 11. "I feel sorry for the other kids because they're stuck inside."
His affable personality, his innate ability to multi-task, his ease to deal with a bounty of adolescent conflicts, his penchant and unmatched knowledge of the outdoors -- they collectively helped him create a dynamically successful situation that most of the students would have never experienced. His recognition and laurels grew.
A few years later, as I was leaving the newsroom for the classroom, I remembered people like Ritter, and I knew that I was making the right decision, as conflicted as i felt.
During my first year at Freedom, the high school into which East Hills feeds, I taught ninth-grade English. When my students discussed people who created an impact on their lives, the fortunate Monagacci students readily offered: "Mr. Ritter." Hands-down. This man and his program shaped their young lives in a way that no other teacher could match. I clearly remember Josh Moretz, a boy with whom I haven't spoken in years, telling me that Mr. Ritter changed the way he felt about school, that he learned so much about himself through the hurdles that class presented. He actually looked forward to going to school in an otherwise difficult adolescent phase.
I would soon discover that the Monagacci students became risk-takers in my classroom. They embraced challenges. They boasted confidence in the classroom, leadership in the community. They all shined, no matter what the track they were in. They knew who they were. They had a sense of direction. They had focus. And as I would learn more about all of my students, it all went back to Monagacci. It didn't take me long, but as the years progressed, I could confidently ask:: "Were you in Monagacci." Chances were, I already knew. "Yes."
Time progressed before the news broke last year. Allegations arose: Ritter faced charges of inappropriate contact with a teenager from another district.
The fallout at Freedom was tremendous. The former Monagacci students who had deeply trusted their mentor sat shell-shocked for days in my classroom. They couldn't believe it, didn't want to. Who did? No one. We sent some of them to guidance for counseling. How could this be? They didn't believe it. I didn't want to either.
Over the months, everything seemed to die down after his arrest. He was out on release. I left to teach in another district, forgot about the tragedy.
The news? With one day before his trial was to begin, Greg Ritter shot himself to death.
His public defender told the press that Ritter was "disheartened over the prospect of the trial."
I felt empty. This sense of bitter loss covered me. By the time my husband arrived home, I had cried for a bit, confused by what to think. He offered it rather succinctly: What is disheartening is that we are all too often judged by one mistake, and that mistake incorrectly defines who we are.
Yes, Greg Ritter allegedly made a mistake. But he was more than that mistake. And he needs to be remembered for more than that. He had no shot at redemption. He left this world in a cloud of darkness. What upsets me the most about his suicide is that he didn't follow his own tenets, the beliefs he passed on to his students. As Ritter told me in 1995, his program was meant to built confidence and self-esteem. It taught them, he said, how to survive.
Unfortunately, it didn't teach him to survive. For in the end, his final lesson was to give up in the face of adversity, to not accept the challenges that awaited him. I wish he had hung in there, found a support system, learned that this mistake did not define who he was to the hundreds of people whose lives he positively shaped and affected.