Inside the Dash: Spelling New Risks

by Helen Zhu, TALON Academics Editor

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This podcast series hopes to slow things down for a few minutes of conversation with someone in this community, and to tell the stories of the lives of our community — inside the dash.

Walt Disney said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” 

Here’s a dream I had, a dream about spelling big words.

Imagine your 6-year-old self, sitting ‘criss-cross applesauce’ on the floor of your elementary school auditorium, eyes glued to the coolest fifth grader, standing confidently at the front of the room with a microphone. 

“Flambeau. F – L – A – M – B – E – A – U.”

Yep, that 6-year-old was me: I wanted to be that girl at the microphone, spelling seemingly impossible words at the time in front of the whole school.

That’s the moment when I decided to try something new: spelling. So I started studying diligently, knowing that I would be a fifth grader in a mere four years.

Finally, fifth grade rolled around and it was time to determine the top speller in my class to participate in the schoolwide spelling bee. I was beyond ecstatic, a huge smile on my face as I squealed in my seat. But there were two problems. First, spelling was still difficult for me. Second, I didn’t even want to stand in front of the class, not to mention the entire school. 

I finally plucked up the courage to try to represent my class in the school spelling bee. After rounds and rounds of quizzing on the way to school or while I was getting ready, I stood in a line of 24 students, all just shy of 5 feet. 

As each round eliminated more and more people, finally, it was just me. I looked around in shock; I was going to the school-wide spelling bee!

Having the courage to overcome fears, or to try something new, or even just to talk to someone you don’t know, are all things we all face daily.

But we care so much about what other people think that we don’t have the courage to pursue what we want to pursue.

If you walk into the Dobbins office, you will see a metal sign nailed above Mr. Keller’s door outlined “The Journey is Everything.”

Mr. Keller’s journey into education was different than many, taking a new direction from the expected path of his childhood.

He grew up in the 1960s in a rural community in Lucama, North Carolina where most people lived and worked on their family farms after high school. During the summers, he traveled a few hundred miles to his uncle’s ranch in Arkansas, bailing hay, cleaning stalls, and going to rodeos. 

As much as he loved and respected his uncle’s business, Mr. Keller knew that he didn’t want to live there for the rest of his life, even though it meant he would have to give up the known for the unknown. 

That was the moment he decided to try something new: a college education.

At St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College, he was a three-sport athlete (baseball, basketball, track). His college gave him a free year of school to get his education degree if he coached and worked in the athletics department. 

So his journey into education started with being a coach before it was being a teacher. 

Throughout his career, Mr. Keller has had various types of coaches, all of whom have impacted him differently.

“The most influential people in my life are the people who treated me kindly and respectfully, and I can turn right around and say that the most influential people in my life were those who did not treat me that way. If you’ve ever watched sports, there’re some people who never raise their voice and some that all they do is yell and scream. I’ve had those coaches and swore I’d never be like that,” Mr. Keller said.

Once Mr. Keller got into education, it became about the students. 

“There are so many jobs where you don’t make a difference. I think I get to make a difference, whatever that might be, and what’s so beautiful about sharing my life with Mrs. Keller is doing that together. Teachers are so impactful; their words are powerful,” Mr. Keller said.

For the next 25 years, he taught in Virginia. Then, a consultant introduced him to Harker. He was scheduled to spend 30 minutes with Student Council, but that meeting turned into a two-hour conversation.

That’s the moment he and his wife Jane – a math teacher – decided to try something new: California.

“I came to Harker to be with the Harker kids. I absolutely love them and love what they stand for and love the direction they want to go. I wanted to be part of it. I’d never met kids like them, that student council group, and I was just fascinated. Those are just the kind of people I wanted to be around,” Mr. Keller said.

Silicon Valley and Richmond, Virginia, are different worlds, but Mr. and Mrs. Keller enjoy Harker for all of its challenges and rewards.

“We’ve gotten to do things that I could never imagine we would do, like going to London with a hundred high school orchestra kids or going to Austria on a journalism trip. Where else can I dress up as Professor Dumbledore and go on stage and play with the orchestra?” Mr. Keller said.

Looking back at the miniscule spelling bee event in my life, it’s easy to gloss right over it. But my dream as a little first grader came true; I became that fifth grader spelling big words.

So, what’s your dream? What’s the comfort zone you’ll push a little out of?