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Of Students and Salmon

by Rob Phillips, Head of School
Originally Published in Best of SAAS 2015-2016 Magazine.


Digital Graphic Photo of a Salmon

“And that boy was swimming under the water
With his round eyes open. He could not close them.
He was breathing the river through his mouth.
The river's mouth was in his mouth. He saw stones
Shimmering under him. Now he was Salmon Boy.”
David Wagoner

Photo of a King Salmon

Every summer for the past 30 years, I’ve spent part of my summer in the Alaskan wilderness, much of it fishing for salmon—sometimes waist deep in a river, sometimes trolling in the ocean, and at other times scrambling around rocky points where freshwater spills into the inland passage.

The benefits of spending time each year in the same remote places, Out and Away, are many, not the least of which are having time to reflect on the year that has just finished, to look ahead to what’s coming around the bend, and to absorb the patterns and rhythms of  Mother Nature.

Recognizing and adjusting to patterns is a vital skill that we seek to teach our children and our students. Pattern recognition, and a corresponding ability to respond effectively to those patterns, is central, I believe, to a meaningful education.

But there’s a basic problem with pattern recognition: it’s based on an understanding of the past. And a meaningful education needs to prepare students for the future.  

Try as we might, it’s impossible for us to understand and imagine the world we’re preparing our kids to operate in as adults. We literally don’t know what the physical climate – weather patterns, temperatures, ocean levels – will be like for them, much less the economic, political, and social climates.  

Multiple possible futures are flying at them as quickly as the sun slips over the horizon on a winter night. And if that’s true, it raises important questions:

Photo of Seattle Academy Student Fishing in Alaska

What if the future or our society somehow requires a generation of critical thinkers and creative problem solvers who don’t follow the patterns and directions of the main group? Leaders who have the insight, confidence, and resilience to articulate and successfully follow an independent vision?

Those are great questions to ponder while fishing late into the Alaskan summer nights.  Especially when the salmon aren’t where they’re “supposed to be,” or when they’re present but not biting. When the old patterns of where they’ll be, and how you catch them, aren’t working. 

I pondered those questions a lot, but I didn’t make a lot of headway in answering them. 

Until my then 8-year-old son taught me a lesson about fish and fishing, about parenting and teaching, and about the ways that salmon and kids can surprise us. If we let them.

Photo of Misty Alaska Sunset

In each of those 30 summers in Alaska, I’ve spent an extended period of time at a remote homestead north of Ketchikan that was built by my aunt, uncle, and their daughters. It’s a place that’s meant a lot to me over the years—in some ways the place I learned what it meant to be an adult, how to earn the respect of others through hard work and perseverance, and to connect with the natural world on a deep level. And it’s a great place to go fishing.

The act of loading up the boat with groceries, tools, and fishing gear so that we can head out to the house for an extended stay is always a special moment—one of the rituals that is both vexing and exhilarating.

And on this particular day, it was especially vexing and exhilarating because I was taking my 8-year -old son out to the homestead for an extended fishing trip.

The day had been hectic:  getting from the airport to the marina; swinging by the grocery store and the hardware store; and then realizing that I’d forgotten some key items—including a fishing rod for my son. 

So as a short term fix, I bought him a $10 rod to use, until we could rig up a real salmon rod. The fishing rod and reel I bought for him had 3 pound test fishing line on it—not strong enough to catch anything we’d fish for. 

But that rod would be a worthwhile investment if it could keep my always-active and now particularly amped up 8-year-old distracted, while I loaded the boat and got the gear ready before we headed out.

We got to the marina where we’d be heading out from on our trip, and I had a full list of last minute tasks—fishing license, bait, ice, boat, fuel—to attend to.

My son had other ideas. 

He was in Alaska, on his first big fishing trip, and he had a new rod. No matter that it was more toy than real, and completely unsuited to the use he had in mind for it.  He wanted to fish—right then, right there.

And it soon became obvious that I wasn’t going to get anything done unless I let him have at it. So I took him down to the end of the dock, where, I thought, he could safely engage in his hopeless quest. Don Quixote had better odds with the windmill than my son had with that rod, on that dock. 

And when we reached the end of the dock, and we got him set up with the line in the water, he said, “Dad, stay here and fish with me. I’m going to catch a King Salmon.”

I said, brusquely, “Can’t. Have to get a bunch of stuff ready.  Besides, no salmon here. But you might snag a rockfish. So have fun, be careful, and be ready to leave in a few minutes.”

He said, “Dad, what happens if I hook a King Salmon? How do I land it?”

Distracted by the list in my head of Really Important Stuff I Needed to Get Done Right Then, I replied “Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.”

He said, “Yeah, OK, but what if I do? Then what?”

Increasingly exasperated, I replied, “Not Going to Happen. The salmon are out there, not in here. Just try to catch some smaller fish that we can use for bait.”

And he, always one to be persistent and optimistic, said again, “Yeah, OK, but what if I do hook one? A King Salmon. Then what?”

“Yell. But you’d better not be joking around. And when I call you, come on up to the boat, so we can get out of here and start doing some real fishing.”


When I first heard him yelling at the top of his lungs, my first thought was: He fell off the dock. Second thought: He’s goofing off. 

Third thought: He’s busted the cheap rod I bought him. Fourth thought: Maybe he’s really hooked something. 

Final thought: But that’s impossible.

But my son kept yelling. So I got up and headed toward him. And as I got closer, the scene that unfolded left me momentarily paralyzed. 

The cheap fishing rod in my son’s hands was bent over nearly double, the tip stabbing into the water, pulled under by the powerful pressure of a Very Big Fish

Line was ripping off of the reel at an alarming speed, the rod was bucking in my son’s hands like a rodeo bronco, and his eyes were as big as sand dollars.

And there on the surface of the water, powerfully and gracefully slashing through the waves, hook in mouth and line streaming out behind it, moving away from the dock and out to the open water beyond, was the unmistakable silvered outline of -
a King Salmon. 

For a second, my mind was a complete jumble. I remember thinking. “This can’t be happening.” 

Then I looked at the cheap rod, and my eyes got as big as sand dollars.  “That rod is going to break any second,” I thought. 

But the rod held, the line didn’t snap, and my son patiently let the fish run away. Then he slowly reeled it back towards the dock. I grabbed a net off a nearby charter boat, focused on successfully netting the salmon if it got close enough to the dock.

The King Salmon continued to make runs to the left and to the right, but then chose to make a run right at the dock. It came close enough for me to lunge out and get the net underneath it. For one excruciating moment the fish balanced on edge, and the line snapped. But no matter. The salmon slid into the net.

As I pulled the King Salmon up onto the dock, I realized that a crowd had gathered around—tourists, charter boat captains, local fishermen—and they were all as surprised as I was.

But not my son. He smiled, pointed at the fish that was as tall as he was.  “I told you I was going to catch a King Salmon.”

And in that moment I realized, not for the first and not for the last, how capable both kids and salmon are of surprising us. 

If we let them.

Quote: And in that moment I realized, not for the first and not for the last time, how capable both kids and salmon are...
Photo of Native American Salmon Tribal Art

Like salmon,
students have to navigate
countless obstacles. 

Salmon must, in their journey, travel downriver, through the estuary and into the ocean, before returning years later to spawn. As adolescents, they have to navigate out of Safe Water and into the Big Water. Then as adults, they navigate from the Big Water back into their spawning grounds in the rivers and streams that flow down off of the mountains.

And to survive and thrive, salmon must develop in themselves many of the same traits that I hope for in my students, and in my own children: resilience, strength, smarts, adaptability, and independence.

The importance of resilience, strength, smarts, and adaptability is obvious and well understood. It may be less obvious as to how we can develop those traits, but we agree on their importance.

Independence – not so much. 

If we’re honest, we often appreciate independence in theory more than in practice.  Independent kids can be a pain—especially when we as adults want them to respond in ways that are easy, predictable, and convenient.

And if we look at the language we as a society often use when talking about education, it looks and sounds like we’re more invested in establishing and maintaining conformity than in nurturing independence.

Which would in turn mean that, if our students are like salmon, they might be just fine while making their journey through the Safe Water. But surviving and thriving in the Big Water, and then successfully finding their way back to the rivers of their birth—that’s questionable. Especially if they don’t think like all of the other salmon. 

What if they have ideas of their own? What if they want to innovate, explore, and create? What if an ability to break from established patterns is their gift?

Photo of Seattle Academy Students on the 9th Grade Odyssey Trip

Children in the Pacific Northwest are privileged to be able to learn about the life-cycle of the salmon directly—by visiting salmon streams in places like Carkeek Park, by visiting local hatcheries, and possibly even by helping release salmon fry into local streams and rivers. 

And the story of those salmon—from their birth in a stream or river, their journey down to the Big Water, their mysterious life in the ocean, and then their seemingly magical return to spawn and die in the river of their birth—is as fascinating as it is powerful. 

But that story, of the salmon’s journey home, misses one important point: some salmon choose NOT to come home

Some salmon choose to break the existing cycle and start a new one.

The very independence that leads to salmon leaving the safety of the estuary and continuing on into the Big Water also leads a few to venture away from the known. Those few explore the coastline, find new streams, navigate their falls and rapids, and eventually spawn in their headwaters. And in the headwaters that those independent salmon discover and explore, an old cycle then starts in a new place. A whole ecosystem begins to shift and change, as that stream literally becomes a world of new possibilities. A salmon stream.

And those hardy, stubborn few—those salmon who leave the familiar in search of the new—are responsible in large part for ensuring the survival of their species. 

Because sometimes the old rivers are destroyed by natural disasters, climate shifts, or both.  Or the salmon-bearing rivers are destroyed by man-made habitat destruction, through dams, or mining, or logging. Or the salmon population is decimated by over-fishing or by pollution. 

And if all of the members of the species did what they’ve always done—return to the rivers of their birth—salmon would at some point cease to exist. Despite their grace and beauty and strength and smarts and adaptability and resilience. 

The success of salmon as a species has been perhaps best served by a small percentage of Rule Breakers, Adventurers, and Stubborn Optimists.

The success of salmon as a species has relied on a small group—between 5 and 10% of the overall population…WHO DON’T FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. 

Quote: The success of salmon as a species has relied on a small group- between 5% and 10% of the overall population...
Photo of Seattle Academy Upper School Students on the Odyssey Trip
Quote: The assembly line stamped out products like cans of salmon, while schools produced students with standardized knowledg

I can’t help but wonder if our survival as a species doesn’t similarly rely on a small group who won’t follow instructions.

And in turn, I can’t help but wonder what the implications are, then, for education, while also noting the pull to standardization in how we think about kids and about fish.

So much about our human history with salmon, post industrial revolution, has revolved around our social fascination with “efficiency.” Federal and state agencies monitor population numbers, track catch rates, and set quotas; fisheries deploy boats that vacuum whole species off of the bottom and then process them for market on board; fish ladders, fish farms, hatcheries, and canneries all have their place in a giant assembly line where salmon are seen as commodity that can be produced, regulated, managed, and profited from.

Not unlike much of the thinking that informed the creation of the modern American school system during America’s transition from agricultural to industrial society. The assembly line stamped out products like cans of salmon, while schools produced students with standardized knowledge and standardized skills, all measured by standardized teachers using standardized tests.

But what about the 5-10% of students who don’t fit the standardized model?  

Who don’t follow directions?  Or who follow instead their own sense of direction?

What if we really need them? 

What if we need them now more than ever?
Photo of Seattle Academy Upper School Student sitting by the lake
Photo of a Seattle Academy student fishing along the river bank.

How do we treat the student versions of those salmon who wander off? Who look for clean, clear water in new rivers and who refuse to return to the polluted streams of their birth? Who realize one day that, just because you were born a hatchery salmon, you don’t have to stay a hatchery salmon?

I can only imagine the salmon conversations outside the fish ladder, as one salmon, the one who won’t follow directions, sees the line stacking up outside the ladder, sees the hungry sea-lions milling around nearby, senses the toxins in the water coming downstream, and decides, “I’m out of here. There’s got to be a better option, and I’m going to find it.”

And another salmon, oblivious to the circling sea-lions, says, “Where is that guy going?”

To which his friend responds, “Don’t worry about it, he’s crazy. It’s dangerous out there.  He’ll come to a bad end. Don’t follow him, follow us. Our stream is this way.”

A few days after my son caught his King Salmon, we returned to the marina to refuel. While I tended to the boat, my son stepped out onto the dock with his fishing rod and dropped the line in the water. A grizzled old charter boat captain walked up to him, pointed to the end of the dock, and said, “Try fishing over there. Another kid, just about the same age as you, caught a huge King Salmon there, just the other day. First and only time that’s ever happened. I would’ve bet my boat it wouldn’t happen, but it did. So give it a try. You never know—it could happen again.” 

When the captain walked away, my son excitedly ran up to me and said, “See, Dad, I told you there were King Salmon here. I’m not the only one—another kid caught one here this week, too, in the exact same spot as I did! I’m going to see if I can catch another one there.”

And this time, I just smiled and said,
     “Toss your line in. Could happen. 
              You never know.”

Photo of Native American Salmon Tribal Art