I love this feeling. It usually births itself around June, or so. Truth is, I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be because I'm not in Lansing, which has been a little bit of an enormous pill to swallow for some people in my life. It isn't personal. I mean, it is personal, for me. My life, my happiness, my education, and my potential require me to be as far away from Lansing as I can drive, so I happily oblige.
It's incredibly energizing to be out here teaching astronomy at Badlands National Park. Often times, I momentarily think about the amazing fact that I'm here, doing exactly what I love to do, and how simple it all was. There is something humanly magnificent, magnificently human, about gracefully achieving a personal goal; it makes me smile for that brief second of thought.
I'm getting used to working nights again (sort of) and using the night sky as my own personal chalkboard in my vast universal classroom. I get to talk about lots of things. Things about which I'm well-versed, and things about which I have some knowledge, and things about which I want to learn. Crazy things, non-intuitive things, mind-blowing things. I love how curious, inquisitive, and clever our visitors are; in particular, I love how excited people get when they see solar flares or Saturn's rings for the very, very first time. I've had people from the countryside, people from the city, amateur astronomers, and all of their children.
Oh hi there, baby fever. Welcome back! You guessed it: the kids are my favorite.
There have been a few particular tots who have captured my heart lately. One very young little girl was given the opportunity to see the Sun through a solar telescope, through which the viewer can see solar flares and sunspots on a big, red circle of a Sun. It's always hard to know whether or not the kids can see what's in there, because most of the time they have to be picked up by mom or dad to get to the eyepiece. To both of our delights, she saw the Sun and triumphantly declared: "Circle!!" I told her that she had done very well, and that the circle she had seen was the Sun. And my heart melted.
Today, I was climbing one of the buttes behind our housing units, and two little boys from the house across the field came over to keep me company. One of them, clutching a plastic figure of an alien, told me that he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Then, we talked about what kinds of aliens we would like to discover; what they would look like, how many arms they would have, and of course, how many balls they could juggle. And my heart melted again.
Then tonight, while Tina and I were setting up the telescopes for the Night Sky folks to see the Hercules cluster and Saturn, I was in full-on teacher/fact-spewer/excited scientist mode. And the moment that melted my heart beyond any possibility of repair happened while showing Saturn. Another very small little girl, being held up to the eyepiece by her father to see Saturn, squealed in the most perfect, ecstatic little voice: "You can see its rings, daddy!!"
I died. Of joy.
Because I want them to experience what I do and think that it's the coolest thing they've ever seen. Not for my benefit, but for theirs. In one of the several NOVA Science Now episodes that I've watched today, a female Japanese scientist who is developing incredibly intelligent prosthetics has devoted lots of her time to becoming a role model for young girls, future scientists. She nailed it when she said that she hoped that "they would do better than me." Educators do not educate for their own sakes, or for vanity, or for heaven's sake, the salary. We educate because we haven't given up on humanity. And because kids are damn clever. Smart and resilient and curious; they already are scientists. I am glad to work in an environment where that curiosity is encouraged rather than snuffed out of them by rigidity, rules, and standards. They can breathe a little bit easier out here, and so can I.
Also, the video for Rusted Root's "Send Me On My Way" was absolutely filmed in the Badlands. You all now have every reason to be incredibly jealous of my life right now. Guys, I'm happy.