36: The Beatnik of Lincoln

36: The Beatnik of Lincoln

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

The Beatnik of Lincoln

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.

~Martin H. Fischer

The edges of the aqua-colored notebook have eroded, exposing the hard cardboard base. The cover is wrinkled and smudged with brown markings. The binder is hideously corroded.

I open it, and my nasal passages are filled by an overpowering, musty scent—the same scent I used to notice when I looked through the Depression-era books in my grandmother’s upstairs room during the 1960s. Except that this is 2009, and this book is from the 1967-68 school year at Akron Elementary in Akron, Pennsylvania.

The hand-drawn title page says ANIMALS ON OUR PLANET. Below that are drawings of a worm, a frog in mid-flight and a jellyfish with ominous-looking tentacles. The next eight pages describe and illustrate “Experiment: The Development of an Animal.” They end with my impressions of the final result: “Three chicks were hatching. We were expecting more. At 1:25 PM, two chicks were walking around. They hatched on Feb. 25. The membrane stuck to one chick. The first three dozen were duds.”

The next 271 pages are a mixture of information, notes and intricately colored drawings of animals—everything from a Ceratoid Angler to a Swinhoe’s Pheasant. They don’t look like drawings I could have made at age ten—or even now.

The notebook tells the story of a passionate, compassionate teacher who brought science alive for a student who hadn’t cared whether a nautilus had tentacles or twelve-inch wings. It tells the story of a recent college graduate who dared to defy convention and conservatism. It tells the story of a grand experiment that, instead of blowing up like liquid nitrogen at room temperature—as some fellow teachers suspected it might—blossomed into an incomparably beautiful canvas of fragrant, tropical flowers that would be forever preserved.

Aaron Hostetter arrived at Akron Elementary in the fall of 1967, a twenty-three-year-old fresh out of nearby Elizabethtown College. He energetically stalked the room in his suede jacket, the tail flapping wildly behind him. He would have been unique if he had simply been the first male teacher in the school’s history. But from the very beginning, everybody knew they had stumbled upon an unabashed maverick, a powerful prodigy, a true visionary. “The Beatnik of Lincoln,” they had called him in his teenage years in the nearby town of Lincoln.

He didn’t really teach from a textbook. He reached deep into his soul and summoned everything he could offer to ignite our imagination.

We didn’t report to a classroom every morning. We enthusiastically returned to an interactive laboratory/jungle bustling with discovery and fascination. It looked like it had been designed through a collaboration of a mad scientist and the creator of The Addams Family. You’d walk in and think, “Wait a second. Where’s Morticia?”

He stocked a fifty-gallon aquarium with more varieties of gold-fish than we had ever seen—Black Moor, Fantail, Lionhead, Oranda, Ryukin—and we were responsible for feeding them. Next to that was an aquarium with a black snake. Geraniums were planted around the room.

In the back of the room was a piano, which he’d occasionally play for us. But to get to it, you practically had to hack your way through vegetation with a machete—it had been bookended with a massive banana tree and a four-foot Philodendron. He had wanted to major in music in college, but decided on biology. He ended up giving us both disciplines—with gusto.

In this stimulating place, our senses were heightened in ways we had never felt.

And he didn’t feel like he needed to keep us confined to the room, as stimulating as it was. If the spirit moved him, we’d break from a lesson and take the classroom outside. One time he marched us outside and we had an airplane-making/throwing contest. I’m sure Mr. Hostetter threw in a lesson about aerodynamics and physics to justify the excursion and fend off the complaints of a few outraged fellow teachers—and they did complain.

That’s why the students in the other fifth-grade class—taught by a veteran teacher with restraint, defined borders, and conventional wisdom—were insanely jealous of us.

“What did you do this morning?” one of them would ask me during lunch.

“We went outside and studied the movement of earthworms,” I’d reply.

“You didn’t!”

“Yes, we did! For two hours! Na-na-na-na-na-na!

I wanted very much to please Mr. Hostetter. I wanted to do my very best because I knew he cared so passionately.

That’s where that aqua-colored notebook came in. He’d use his prodigious artistic talent to draw a multitude of animals for us to study. Then he’d mimeograph the sheets, give them to us and tell us to put them in our binder. He had a master notebook that showed us exactly how it should look after we used colored pencils to depict each animal’s characteristics. He’d give us one-on-one instruction, telling us the sequence in which we should apply the shadings in order to get it just right.

I was one of the students who wanted to get it just right. He’d compliment me, saying, “Ricky, I love the way you did the purple and black shading on that Blue Mud Dauber’s wings!”

At the end of the year, all of us were crestfallen. We had always wanted to bust out of that school and frolic in the summer heat. Not now. We knew he had to set us loose, but the goodbyes seemed cruelly painful.

The next year, I saw Mr. Hostetter just about every day in the halls of Akron Elementary, and I remember being filled up with warmth that seemed to emanate from my very core. But in seventh grade, I was shuttled off to Ephrata Junior High School and entered the world of bus rides, locker mates and corporate, schedule-oriented education. After college, I moved away from Pennsylvania forever and had little contact with anyone from my school days.

I always wondered what happened to Mr. Hostetter, so I called Akron Elementary early in 2009. Much to my surprise, the secretary knew exactly who he was—she said he had taught there until his retirement in 2002. Much to my distress, she said he had passed away in 2006. She promised to track down some former teachers and ask them to call me.

Two days later, the phone rang. “This is Janice Hostetter, Aaron Hostetter’s widow.”

Over the course of the next week, we talked three times for a total of more than two hours. We laughed and we cried. She told me so many things I did not know, so many things that opened a new window into his soul.

She said that when he retired, the school constructed a wooden bench with a plaque just outside the entrance, and dedicated it to him while 200 current and former teachers and students looked on. She said that she is still working through profound stages of grief. Sometimes, on a difficult day, she will drive five miles to Akron Elementary and sit on that bench.

“Just to be close,” she said.

I told her nothing would make me happier than to join her on that bench.

~Rick Weber

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