Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Our Friend, Brian Raven

In the end, I think it was exactly what he would have wanted.

Oh sure, he made it clear that he didn't want a memorial service. Anyone who knew him for more than five minutes could have called that. He was always one to lay aside any direct praise or recognition, preferring to let his jokes and quick wit direct attention back to either his students or his subject matter.

But all of us whose lives were touched, enriched and beautifully transformed by this man needed a way to come together and talk about his life, so that is what we did.

Photo credit: Heidi Conahan

Here at Edmonds Beach, on the shore of his beloved Puget Sound, is where the friends of Brian Raven gathered yesterday to mark his passing and to honor his life. By any accounting, he was a complex man, and the stories we told one another barely began to capture the outlandish dimensions of his personality and skill set.

Yes, Brian was an amazing teacher. After all, that's how most of us came to know him - for the last couple decades, Brian has wandered Snohomish County, teaching science classes for homeschooled kids of all ages. Many of his students, like my daughters, studied with him for all their schooling years and loved him like a favorite uncle. 

But Brian was also an education rebel who steadfastly refused to fit into the traditional straight-jacket of typical K-12 teachers. Now, make no mistake, Brian was a gifted and effective teacher. His classroom style was effortlessly fluid and adaptable, he could manage a room full of high-spirited boys like a seasoned cowboy roping a day-old calf, and he had a special knack for making each student feel included and important. Though the idea was often suggested or even pressed, Brian balked at the notion of getting proper teaching credentials; he stuck to the principle that science is best taught by scientists rather than professional educators, and in doing so, won the devotion and admiration of countless like-minded homeschooling parents. 

Photo credit: Heidi Conahan

Brian was a passionate scientist. His infectious enthusiasm for the natural world lit us all on fire, and his curiosity for exploring that world through boating, whale watching, hiking, kayaking, scuba diving and photographing it all brought us into his fascinating universe. In his classes and frequent field trips, Brian never went soft on content; he held his students to high standards and delivered sophisticated scientific concepts and precise vocabulary to his kids right from the start. 

And to his students' infinite delight, Brian was a jokester extraordinaire. His quick wit and lightning-fast mind produced a never-ending flow of puns and word play; he invented wildly creative nicknames for his students and peppered his lessons with so much lively banter that his students learned effortlessly. Brian's wacky sense of humor made the leap to the world outside the classroom; his students all got used to hearing their pet nicknames and favorite punch lines booming down the hallways and echoing through the courtyards as Brian encountered them around school. 

Photo credit: Emma Streicher

These thoughts filled my mind as I stood on the beach yesterday, acutely aware of the natural beauty around me, this affectionate gathering, and this larger-than-life man that we all admired and loved. Sharing an open mic, we poured out our favorite memories of Brian and spoke of the gifts he has given us for a lifetime. I thought and thought and thought of what I might say, but in the end, I decided to tell my favorite story of Brian here, where I can treasure it forever.

* * * * *

Brian could go toe-to-toe with the sassiest, naughtiest, attention-seeking students on the planet, but he could also be incredibly sensitive and sweet with his more tender-hearted students. My daughters treasured this side of his personality, and felt safe in knowing that Brian would never embarrass them or take his teasing too far.

One day, as I sat in the back of his classroom, as mothers often did, soaking up the scientific goodness and laughing along with the usual barrage of snot jokes, I witnessed a remarkable example of Brian's gentle soul.

Twelve-year-old Harry was frustrated. Following along as Brian showed the class how to cut shapes from construction paper to make a model of the ear, Harry was intensely focused on getting the pieces to fit together just right. But Harry's handiwork was not meeting his own exacting standards, and his Asperger's condition set in motion an instantaneous red-hot meltdown.

Undoubtedly, Brian saw this coming, as he had known Harry and his volatile moods for many years. Brian's reaction was immediate and intuitive. Calming his classroom voice from a 10 to a 2 and bringing all his concentration to the crisis at hand, Brian encouraged Harry to make peace with his creation. "Yours is really good. See how it curves just like mine? You did a great job."

Poor Harry was not impressed. He pointed out flaws in his work, and flailed despondently in his seat. 

"If you want, you can try again, There's plenty of paper," Brian suggested gently. 

Harry sulked. Tears began to flow.

The rest of the students were happily trimming out hammers, anvils and stirrups while Brian continued to focus completely on poor, sobbing Harry. "Hey, buddy. I have an idea. Do you want to use mine?"

His head suddenly lifted off the now-soggy desk. The storm clouds parted, and Harry's face beamed through the tracks of his tears. "Can I??" 

"Here you go," Brian handed over his creation. Harry joyfully set about pasting it to his paper as Brian quickly snipped out a replacement, and returned to his broadcast about the workings of the inner ear, punctuated as always with jokes and puns galore. 

* * * * *

Photo credit: Jennifer Thames
Photo credit: Jennifer Thames

This is who Brian Raven was: 

a teacher, 
a rebel, 
a scientist, 
a jokester and 
a deeply sensitive, compassionate man. 

This is why we gathered on a wide beach under a clear blue sky to celebrate his life.

And in the end, I think it was exactly what Brian would have wanted us to do. 

10 comments:

  1. beautiful and perfect, diane. thank you. -h

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    1. thank you, thank you, my friend. and thanks for your perfect pictures.

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  2. Thank you, Diane, what a wonderful description of him! I never minded being the one Mom in the back of the classroom, raising my hand probably more times than the average student. He was an amazing teacher and mentor to all of our students. What an excellent portrayal you have captured. Brian was such a personality with such a great heart, words are difficult to convey, you've shared well!

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    1. Thank you, Kristen! We all have so many sweet memories of Brian, and as sad as I am that he's gone from us, it's been so lovely to reflect back on these special times and be grateful for what he brought us. Thanks again for your comment!

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  4. Wish he was here to explain why and how the heart can feel so heavy <3 God Bless Brian Raven <3

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    1. He would probably have not only a scientific insight but a good joke on the topic. He was truly one of a kind.

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  5. Patience O'DonnellMay 4, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    Brian was definitely one of the best teachers I ever had. I'll always remember his entertaining and informative teaching style. He was among the very first people who I had the pleasure of meeting in my formidable years who helped spark the passion I now have for animal sciences. Because of him, I will never forget how to spell, or properly pronounce, the scientific name of Washington state's beloved green sea urchin - Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis.

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    1. I love to hear what meant the most to you about him. So cool to think of all his students carrying forward different parts of his legacy, each in their own way. Thanks for sharing what you loved most about Brian!

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  6. Brian Raven was such a insparational human being and even treated his students like his children me being one of them i know we also inspired him he will be greatly missed we know .es up there teaching and wheny changed a bit brian raven you are immortalized and will never before gotten or fade away may you rest in peace we love you

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