Learning the Ropes

Fisher Fellow Edgar Arceo reflects on his first year at Thacher.


“There’s just so much happening all the time,” says Edgar Arceo, Thacher’s first-ever Fisher Fellow, as we pull our chairs up to a table in the middle of the library courtyard. The sun is out, the sky is blue and cloudless, the orange blossoms are in full bloom. It’s spring, which means we’re quickly approaching the end of his first year at Casa de Piedra. “I like it because it’s non-stop.”

That’s Edgar—full of enthusiasm, excited to dive head-first into whatever’s next, whether that’s stepping unexpectedly into a new role or getting on the back of a horse for pretty much the first time. (He’ll tell me later: “I think it has bought me a lot of street cred with the freshmen. They know that I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m out there trying to get on some cowboy boots and trying to—what do they call it? Lope.”)

The Fisher Fellows program, which secured funding thanks to The Next Peak Capital Campaign and a generous gift from the Fisher family, is meant to attract exactly someone like Edgar: a passionate early-career educator who is looking to grow as a teacher, mentor, and coach in a supported environment. Weekly meetings with mentors, professional development opportunities, regular chances to observe other teachers in action, a gradual increase in responsibilities and class-loads during the course of the two-year fellowship—these are integral parts of the program, and a critical piece in the School’s plan to cultivate and inspire the next generation of great teachers at Thacher.

We sat down with Edgar to get to know him a little better and discuss his first year in the program working as a psychology and Spanish teacher; a track, cross country, and soccer coach; and an advisor to freshman boys.

Tell us a little bit about yourself—where you grew up, where you went to school, that kind of thing.

I was born and raised in Bishop, California, which is a small town in the Eastern Sierra. I lived there until I was a teenager and then my family and I moved to Nevada. The move was more or less propelled by my parents wanting to send my sisters and me off to college. They’re first-generation immigrants—they immigrated from Mexico, both of them, from the state of Jalisco and then met in Bishop and started the family there—and they were working in restaurants and they’re thinking, “How are we going to send these kids off to college and pay for it?” They decided to take over a restaurant in order to make more money and to help us go to college. They took over an American diner, which is kind of amusing to me because they both knew and had always worked in Mexican food and Mexican restaurants.

[The move] was pretty significant for me educationally. When we uprooted to this cold mountain town in Nevada, I was pissed. I had my friends, I had everything going on, or what I thought was everything going on, in Bishop. I was so distraught and I didn’t get it. But I just didn’t understand the financial situation and the bigger picture. I didn’t like school at that time, either. It was hard on my parents; it drew a lot out of them. That kind of put into context the value that they placed on education. I started paying attention in school more. I started flirting with this idea of paying it forward to them by playing Division I soccer and getting a full-ride scholarship. That was my way of doing what I wanted to do but also acknowledging all the sacrifice and love that they had poured into me and my sisters.

Long story short, I get through middle school and high school and I don’t get a Division I scholarship. I was devastated.

How did you cope with that setback?

Luckily, I had a really great mentor, a family friend who was a retired policeman who had a lot of projects in the community. He pointed out that I needed to be a “well-balanced individual,” as he would put it. He’d say, “You need to be sharp in school and be a good citizen in your community.” I started trying more in school, started liking school, and it became easier.

That set the stage so that when I didn’t get an athletic scholarship, I was able to go to college on academic merit. I was able to pay it forward [to my parents] through my academic accomplishments.

Where did you end up going to college?

I went to Kenyon. That changed everything. It cemented the value of education for me. I didn’t study education—I studied psychology and philosophy—but knew that there was a big interest for me there. The two years following college I explored education in a bunch of different ways to see if it was for me.

What kinds of things were you doing to explore your interest in teaching?

My first job out of college was working at a local community college. There was this new program for high school kids taking college-level, entry-level courses so that they could dual-enroll and get both high school and college credit. I was making sure they were going to class, that they had their notes in line, and that they were doing well socially and emotionally. Then I kind of ran the gamut. I was a reading interventionist with little kids, first and second grade. I was substituting here and there at the high school and middle school level.

I was also saving money to go abroad. My dream was to be in Brazil. But I thought, “I don’t know how to speak Portuguese. This could be a disaster.” Then this crazy, serendipitous event happened where it confirmed, I’ve gotta risk it and go to Brazil. I was there for about half a year, volunteering at a community school in a Favela. That was great but it was way more than I had anticipated doing as a teacher. Especially not having much practice under my belt. I thought, “I don’t think I can do this. I thought I could be a teacher, but clearly, I can’t. I don’t have the emotional fortitude for it.”

How did you come back around to teaching?
 
I went on my own traveling to Argentina and Chile and reflecting and thinking about it. That space and time helped, but then the 2016 election really put things into perspective. I thought, “Something is wrong.” Or I just don’t believe that—yeah, I believed something was wrong if this is what’s manifesting. So I thought I can complain and whine, or I can become a political activist or something. Or I could become more active in the classroom—which really was one of my first loves. I came back to the States, was subbing again, was talking to Jeff [Hooper] about the fellowship at Thacher. Subbing at the high school level confirmed: “This is what I want to be doing.”

It’s not like I want to drive my political agenda, but just the mere exposure of—I mean, there aren’t very many Mexican male teachers comparative to our demographics. I felt like that was a valuable thing to bring to the classroom. And again, I liked teaching. It all pieced itself together.

What are your impressions of Thacher and boarding school life so far?

I was going to say perfect, but that sounds so cheesy. The way I understood boarding school was that it’s the triple threat, right? The coaching, the advising, and the teaching. And that’s absolutely what I wanted. I didn’t want to compartmentalize with, you know, I do my sports downtown but I teach in the upper city or something like that. I wanted to see my students both in and outside of the classroom. Because I knew as a student-athlete and as a kid who was interested in a variety of things, I illustrated different shades of who I was in those different areas. Teachers or mentors who saw me in those different roles connected with me much better, appreciated me much better. That was the model that was ideal to me and what I have found Thacher to have. I’m reluctant to say it, but it really has been perfect for me.

Has there been anything that was surprising to you about coming and teaching at Thacher?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly they’ve allowed me to start teaching. I still consider myself pretty raw and pretty young. Michael [Mulligan] often describes these children’s education as a sacred endeavor. And I agree with that.

I see these individuals and they’re so bright and they have so much potential. I think every minute you have with them is really important. Kids here are pretty prepared and they come with expectations to learn and to learn well. So again, it’s been a huge compliment. I’m happy about it. But it’s been a surprise.

Has there been anything that you’ve been asked to jump into on campus that’s been really interesting for you?

My role as a freshman advisor has been really significant to me. I initially came in paired up with Kurt Meyer to observe him in his advisor role. But a position with the freshman boys opened up, so they were like, “Why don’t you try it out?” It’s been one of my favorite pieces of the work here at Thacher. The regular check-ins and the advisor-advisee dinners are so rich because these kids get a chance to not have to be performing, to just relax and be more themselves. So I’ve loved it. I’ve loved it.

What do you think they want and need from you in that role?

A substitute parent, to be honest. There’s no way I’m going to compare to their dad or their mom or what have you. But I’m someone who is going to hear their side first, be their advocate first. Support them through thick or thin.

What’s it been like working with Alice as your mentor?

Awesome. She is a living legend.

If she wanted to—not that she does, she’s always prepared, but if she wanted to, she could roll into class having done no prep and just teach an excellent psych class. It’s humbling, but inspiring, too.
 
She has particularly been great because she’s been hands-off when it comes to my teaching. She asks and genuinely cares about what I think. It’s encouraging and humbling to see someone of her stature still value a perspective that might be young and fresh, but that is still limited in scope.

Beyond the academic side, she is very warm and understanding. And that’s been needed, too. Because there’s a lot to learn. It’s not always easy.

Spring camping trips are coming up. Had you done much camping before you arrived at Thacher?

I had been camping, but not to this extent. Maybe a day trip or car camping. Being literally out in the wilderness, just looking up at the stars, that was a first.

Actually, my first night [backpacking with Thacher] I had this terrible dream that we were being attacked by a bear. In the dream, we try to wake everyone up and we’re making all these loud noises. I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to die.”  Then suddenly I wake up. And then I hear noise. It was this low growl. I thought, “I just had a premonition.” I hear the growling again. And I was like, “This is not my imagination.” It has this regularity to it. I listen closely. And it was someone snoring. And so it just—yeah. Then I was just laughing in my bag. I couldn’t go back to sleep and was left just staring at the stars, which was nice.
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