In 1968, Gordon Corbett began teaching science in my hometown on the coast of Maine. He was a larger-than-life Navy man and oceanographer who had survived two near-sinkings and decided to come ashore to teach sixth grade.
That man — champion of space exploration, consummate storyteller, inventor of endless experiments, the embodiment of kindness and goodness — that man shaped my childhood and my future. He is my model and inspiration as a science teacher today.
The August 2017 gas explosion at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis brought Mr. Corbett back into my life, as he shared his own life lessons with me about explosions and tragedy in ways that helped me begin to move forward.
Nearly 50 years ago, Mr. Corbett prepared us like NASA astronauts-in-training for the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing. He took us in tow to marine labs, pipelines, beaches and the Boston Museum of Science. So innovative, passionate and infectious he couldn’t be contained in one classroom, he received Maine’s 1980 Teacher of the Year Award, saying he “wasn’t the best but represented the best.”
When President Ronald Reagan announced in 1984 that a teacher would soon travel aboard the Challenger space shuttle in the Teacher in Space program, more than 11,000 applied. Mr. Corbett became a finalist with his proposed lessons to teach American schoolchildren the science of the yo-yo in space. Instead, NASA selected Christa McAuliffe (famous for the motto, “I touch the future: I teach”).
Mr. Corbett and other finalists were at Kennedy Space Center in Florida that cold January morning in 1986, watching as the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. I remember seeing him on television that night, tears streaming down his face. “I’ve always taught my students that space is the future,” he said. “Now what do I teach them?”
A new science teacher myself by then, I needed him to answer his own question. And he did. Mr. Corbett returned to his students with renewed determination. It is humanity’s destiny to fly, he taught them. Space exploration — like any worthy enterprise — has no guarantee of safety. To rebuild is essential. Keep pursuing the dream.
In 2007, when McAuliffe’s backup, Barbara Morgan, finally completed the successful Teacher in Space mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, Mr. Corbett wrote to me. “Finally after 22 years a teacher has flown. The dream was and still is alive! It has been a long wait and was an unfinished chapter in aerospace history. Now the torch is passed to a younger generation of astronauts, scientists, educators, students and dreamers.”
Mr. Corbett passed the torch to me, and for 20 years I’ve tried my best to pass it in turn to my science students. For three of those years I co-mentored Minnehaha Academy’s International Space Station team, designing, building and launching experiments to the I.S.S. We lost our 2015 experiment when the unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying it exploded shortly after launch.
Dealing with that disaster, I could hear Mr. Corbett’s voice: “It is our destiny to fly. Space exploration isn’t safe, but it’s essential. Rebuild.”
On Aug. 2, 2017, I was in the Minnehaha Academy computer lab when a gas explosion destroyed much of the Upper School and killed two colleagues. In recent months, I’ve leaned once again on Mr. Corbett’s hard-won wisdom when facing unexpected tragedy: Commit to the essential work of rebuilding. Pursue the dream and the destiny.
I had the privilege of welcoming Mr. Corbett to my Minnehaha Academy science classes in April through the generosity of a Schuler Shoes Teacher Appreciation grant. We also gave a chapel message together to the Upper School.
He spoke passionately about Christa McAuliffe’s motto, “I touch the future: I teach.” He told the students: “I love these words. I’ve touched the future — she’s sitting right here beside me, and she’s touching all of you. Some of you will go on to become teachers — you just don’t know it yet. You will touch the future. And that’s a very big responsibility and an awesome challenge and a great honor.”
To Gordon Corbett and my teaching colleagues everywhere during this 2018 Teacher Appreciation Week (May 7-11): Receiving the torch is an awesome challenge and great honor. Let’s pass it on with responsibility, gratitude and fresh dreams.
Nancy Cripe, of Minneapolis, is a high school science teacher.