Lots of teachers may wish their students would jump off a cliff, but how many really do anything about it?
Tom Willis, of Payson Junior High School, did. He arranged for a bus one recent afternoon and loaded his 23 students inside. He had the driver, a trusted friend, take them to a remote part of Diamond Fork Canyon, and he ordered the students out. He led a group to a jagged cliff with a 75-foot drop and started sending them over the edge . . .. . . after he had secured them in harnesses and safety lines, of course. Willis was teaching them to rappel off mountains.
It was all part of Willis' "three-hour science" class in field ecology. Classes have also gone fishing and have taken cross-country skiing trips, river runs and countless bicycle trips in the name of a fun and practical education.
"Students apply for the class. This year about half the applicants got in mostly the ones with the higher grades," Willis said. "They have to pay a $40 activity fee and have a camera and a bicycle, and we take it from there."
Students bicycle up Payson Canyon about three days a week and spend the other two in the classroom working on projects or writing essays about their travels. Each student must do an in-depth study of an animal or natural phenomenon and be able to identify 50 forms of plant life before the year is up.
"We spend a lot of time looking at plants," Willis said. "But if 23 kids all started picking plants, it might hurt the environment, so we take pictures." Willis teaches his students darkroom techniques.
He also teaches some wilderness survival, including how to identify edible plants.
"He told us we could get extra credit for eating worms," said Evelyn Hassard, 15. "Mr. Willis says they are good for you. The day he said that, everyone ran around looking for worms, then brought them back to ask how many points they were worth."
Willis, 43, has offered the class for six years, about half his teaching career. He grew up in Los Angeles ("lots of great plants and mountains, but too many people"), and came to Utah to attend Brigham Young University. There was never any question that he would major in science.
"I had one interest my whole life, and it has never changed," he said.
When the school year is over, he works for the Division of Wildlife Resources. He leads crews that clean trails and he tags rattlesnakes as part of a division study.
"Anything to be outdoors."
His students say they learn lots in his class.
"I have learned tons more than in any other class. In English, I don't learn nothing," said Caryl Brown, 15.
Willis says the trips build a sense of camaraderie in the group.
"My last class took a river trip after the school year ended. It was rainy and cold the whole time, but the kids got along great. On the way back they got into their first argument. Know what it was about? The scientific name of the long-tailed weasel."
(Don't feel bad, I had to ask too. It's mustela frenata.)
The red-haired and freckled Willis, at home in jeans and a flannel shirt, wasn't quite so comfortable when he spoke before the Nebo School Board three weeks ago.
He wore a striped oxford shirt, navy trousers, freshly-brushed hiking boots with bright red laces, and a necktie that looked like a fish.
What was the scientific name of the fish on the tie?
"I have no idea. I was scared to death. I don't remember anything."
The school principal had asked that Willis and several students tell board members about the class.
"I took Mr. Willis' class in 1983," said Anne Wilson, 18. "When it was over, I thought, `Now what will I do? High School will be boring after this.' "
Larry Cook, 16, said taking the class changed everything for him.
"It changed my outlook on school and on life. I learned to appreciate the little things happening in nature and I learned to get along with people better. You pretty much have to if you are trapped with the same people three hours a day."
"I was a rebel before the class," said Jared Beddoes, 16. "Now I spend my time climbing trees and looking at birds. My old friends think I'm crazy."
Caryl Brown likes the firsthand experience with nature.
"In a regular classes you learn from books, but in this class, you experience nature for yourself."
Meanwhile, back at Diamond Fork Canyon, how did the kids like rappelling?
"It was scarey, man," said Brandon Bigler, 14. "It's hard to take that first step, but it's easier after that."
"I forgot what I was supposed to do with my hands, but Mr. Willis reminded me," Danielle Martin, 15, said. "It was better than the Colossus at Lagoon. I will be ready to go again as soon as my heart calms down."
"It was fun," said Sherry Trotter, 15. "You can feel how strong they are holding the rope, so you don't worry."
"I wasn't sure I could do it, but I did," said Jenny Willis, 15.
Confidence-building was the main point of the trip, according to their teacher.
"Kids in this class learn to get along with each other, they get an appreciation of nature, and they get a lot of confidence in their own abilities," he said.
Not to mention all the worms they can eat.