Column: To the sixth member of the Academic Team
It’s the end of an era, Ripley High alumni: Barbara Heckert has retired.
I never had Barbara Heckert as a teacher. She has taught the advanced science courses at the high school for as long as most of us can remember, and it will come as no shock to you that I am not an advanced science student. I took my required science classes and my one Chemistry class so I could graduate (thank you to juniors in that class who had to be my lab partners and put my experiments together, and Mr. Hughes who was generous with his grading) and got out of college by taking Geology and Astronomy, which were the lowest-level science classes I could take and still call myself a college student.
I doubt Ms. Heckert was sorry to miss me as a science student. Understanding science is as much an art as any other subject — you either get it or you bang your head on those black two-person tables for a semester until you “C” your way into passing (or “D” your way into a diploma, whatever it takes). And it’s a special person who decides they’re going to spend their whole life teaching complicated, technical subjects to children who like their science in two ways: watching homemade volcanoes explode, and watching “Bill Nye, The Science Guy.” You have to be that combination of science-smart, and also kid-smart, and to hear my friends who took her for advanced science courses, she was exactly that.
And if all Ms. Heckert had been was a really good science teacher for a really long time, that would be enough to put her into the RHS Teaching Hall of Fame (Is this a thing? Why isn’t this a thing?). But she also decided she was going to devote a serious amount of her extracurricular teacher time to being advisor of the Ripley High School Academic Team. And that’s where I made her acquaintance.
For those of you unaware of what Academic Team is, think “Jeopardy” but with a team, and where, instead of a final question, you do a mid-game worksheet. You and four fellow students would face off against another high school while an Alec Trebek wanna-be reads questions and everyone tries to be the first to buzz in the right answer.
Having grown up playing “Trivial Pursuit” with my parents and having enjoyed humiliating them thoroughly, I knew I wanted to be on the high school Academic Team the moment I heard it existed, the one school-sanctioned team activity that I actually had an aptitude for (my sports skills being limited to “watching,” “cheering” and “keeping score”). But a whole team activity built around spouting off useless trivia? That was what I was put on this earth to do, people.
It wasn’t enough to know a bunch of facts to be on the Academic Teams: you had to be able to recall them quickly, and your teammates had to be able to trust in your knowledge so they wouldn’t buzz in with a guess. So if you made the team, Ms. Heckert made you an “expert” in something. Like, Chad Slater was our history and geography expert, so he was expected to answer those questions when they were read; or Daniel Rodgers was our math and science expert, so if there were differing opinions on a correct answer, we deferred to him. Everyone studied their subjects independently, and then Ms. Heckert would bring us together at practice, like Captain Planet and his Planeteers, ready to defeat the other high school Academic Teams with our knowledge, buzzer skills and dirty looks across a classroom.
My specialty was literature and pop culture, with a HEAVY emphasis on the pop culture part. Literature was an important topic, but everyone on the team had some background in Good Books. But you’d be amazed how many games would come down to questions like “Who sang the 80’s classic ‘Billie Jean’?” or “Humphrey Bogart was married to what other film star?” Basically the pop culture expert is the same kid who goes on to win money in college at “Name That Tune” night in the local café (also me), but usually does not go on to perform brain surgery.
The passage of time allows you to evaluate your real place in different events in your life, and while I consider myself a moderately bright person, I’ll admit that I was the lowest man on Ms. Heckert’s Academic Team totem pole during my years. In fact, I think she made me captain of the team my senior year so I’d get to feel more important than I really was. Like, we almost didn’t to go a national tournament one year because Chad couldn’t go, but had that been me? Well she could have given someone a People magazine and a paperback of book quotes and they could have taken my place with a few hours’ notice.
But I’m glad that never became the case, because thanks to Ms. Heckert giving up weekends and summer breaks, I got to experience some really important life firsts. First time on an airplane? The team trip to New Orleans, where we rode the street car, and where we took a Vampire Walk and then trounced the adults in our group at vampire trivia. My first time on a train, and the first time I ever traveled across the country to California? Our team trip to L.A., which was also the first time I ever touched the Pacific Ocean, and the first time I ever visited a real art museum, when finally seeing a Jackson Pollack painting in person at the Chicago Art Institute almost moved me to tears.
For multiple weekends and a few glorious weeks each year, Ms. Heckert shepherded a bunch of teenagers around with good humor and grace and took us to museums, on hot air balloon rides and to historic sites, and knew exactly when to leave us alone to just be rowdy kids. She has that rare quality in adults where they understand kids don’t need to be watched every second outside of school, and if you give them a little freedom, they’ll mostly act right. And when we didn’t, it only took one withering glare behind her glasses to get us back in line.
I think those team trips infected each of us in different ways: Some of us got the bug for travel, some of us got the bug for meeting new people, and some of us got some great life stories to tell. But mostly, those trips were a chance for a bunch of very independent people to be a part of a team, riding in the rental van late into the night, talking about everything and nothing, then falling asleep in a heap of trivia books, Walkman’s and gas station snacks — having the kind of life experience that’s more important than most of what you learn in books.
Having graduated with kids who took Ms. Heckert’s classes, I know she’s a great teacher. She can make science accessible for any student who’s willing to listen, but she can also challenge a student who thinks they know it all to learn more. If you’re willing to do the work, she’ll help you get into your dream school, and she’ll help you as much through college as you need her to.
But what I know for sure is that she gave a trivia nerd like me a chance to be a part of a team, when my highest contribution to said team could only be “reads a lot” and “watches a lot of MTV.” And when I look back on the high school part of my life, some of my best memories are van trips to Academic Team tournaments, and some of my favorite people are in that van with me. And Ms. Heckert is there too, driving us on a trip she’s been on many times, but she never acted jaded about, because she knew we were experiencing it for the first time, and she let us have that moment.
So thanks for everything you’ve brought to the students of Ripley High, Ms. Heckert: the science, the Academic Team and the mentoring of decades of kids who count you as their best help along the way. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement, and just know whenever a random bit of trivia pops into my head, I’ll think of you.