While reading Jean Lee Latham’s 1955 classic, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, my students became entranced. They fell in love with math, Latin, and the sea as they traveled with Nathaniel Bowditch on his adventures. I don’t blame them – I fell in love with the story, too.
Nat Bowditch was born just before the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. As a child, Nat had a natural talent for math and dreamed of attending Harvard, but Nat’s father could only afford to send him to school until he was twelve, when Nat became indentured to a ship chandler. Through it all, Nat refused to give up his dream of learning. He found unconventional ways to learn and share his knowledge.
As a teacher of fourth graders at a classical charter school, I have the privilege of introducing students to seminar-style discussions, a form of learning they will continue to use for at least eight more years. During one such discussion, I brought ten students into the school library to discuss a few questions based on the events of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch that they had been prompted to think about. I asked my students what the author meant when she referred to an “anchor to windward.” Students chimed in to describe the metaphor. When a ship is in a storm that pushes it toward the shore, the ship comes in danger of being destroyed on the rocks and reef near the shore. The ship must cast an anchor to her windward side – the direction from which the wind is coming – in order to keep from being blown over or crashing on the shore. A person who is an “anchor to windward” encourages someone during a difficult situation by helping him remain strong despite hardships.
“Who are Nat Bowditch’s anchors to windward?” I asked.
Students contributed the expected answers, and we soon switched topics. We began talking about the role of stars in the story. Nat used stars to help him navigate his ship. But when he had a bad day, he also used the stars to “shrink his day-to-day troubles down to size.” Whenever something went wrong in his life, Nat would look at the stars to remind him that his struggles were quite small in comparison.
After the conversation wrapped up, I lined up my students so we could rejoin the rest of the class.
“Oh!” I hear from the back of the line. “The stars! The stars are Nat’s anchor to windward!”
A smile spread across my face as I asked the student to repeat her thought for the rest of the group. They were as excited about the connection as she and I were. One student said, “I get it now! I get why you like seminars so much.”
As I brought the next two groups of students to the school library to discuss Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, they were given different questions. Somehow, the conversation returned to the metaphor of “anchor to windward.” This time, students argued that math and Latin, the two subjects Nat tirelessly taught himself when he realized he could not attend school, were Nat’s anchors to windward.
“How so?” I asked.
“They distract him from the things that upset him,” a student said.
“I can go home after a bad day and watch a movie. It distracts me from my bad day. Does that mean it is my anchor?” I prodded.
“Well, no,” the student answered.
“What is it that makes something an ‘anchor,’ then?”
“Learning makes Nat happy,” another student piped up.
“Ice cream makes me happy,” I said. “Does that mean it is my anchor?”
The students sighed collectively.
“Keep thinking about this question,” I encouraged them. “It’s worth it.”
I promised my students we would talk about this topic again, and they refused to let me forget it. So, with all twenty-nine students on the edge of their chairs, I reminded them of the ideas they had pitched to me.
“So, how are the stars and Nat’s education his anchors to windward?” I asked.
After a few minutes of struggling, I quietly said, “Look at the patch on your shirt.” Every student wears a patch that says the name of our school and underneath the motto of the charter, “Verum, Bonum, Pulchrum.” The True, The Good, The Beautiful.
One student raised her hand. “It’s like what Mrs. King says when we do a really hard math problem. She tells us to look at how beautiful it is. The stars and the books remind Nat that there is still beauty in the world, even when he feels like there isn’t because something is going wrong in his life.”
Since this discussion, I have told this story to friends, some of whom are teachers and some of whom are not. It brings me close to tears every time. The tears are not because I am proud of my students (though I am), nor because they worked hard and one person finally put into words a correct answer (even though that was what happened). The tears are because my students are buying into the project of pursuing what is true, good, and beautiful. At ten years old, my students are searching for answers to timeless questions. They beg for more seminars, and they are so excited that the next eight years of school mean they get to discuss ideas like this each day. They are becoming a part of the Great Conversation, and they are starting to see the ways it can affect their lives.
When state testing rolled around, one student whined, “Why do we have to take tests?”
“So the state knows what you’ve learned. I know that you’ve all learned a lot this year, but the people in charge of education in our state need to see it, too,” I explained.
“Why don’t they come see us in a seminar?” asked the same student. “Then they would know what we’ve really learned this year.”