Off the Wall

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Teacher and professional climber John Mattson.

Hang Time: "When you're climbing things, you're vulnerable and setting goals. It's like learning," says teacher and professional climber John Mattson.
—Photograph by Tom Story

When his middle school students start their inevitable growth spurts, John Mattson can relate. At the age of 12, the Tucson, Arizona, teacher was finally tall enough to attend climbing school, and he quickly graduated from scooting up backyard trees to scaling the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. That was the start of a decade of professional climbing that took Mattson from the glaciers of Alaska to the canyons of South America, experiences he uses to energize his math and science students at Esperero Canyon Middle School.

Mattson's tales of conquering mountains in some of the world's most remote spots aren't his students' only taste of the unknown. They've also explored wildlife in desert canyons and set out to sea aboard a research vessel. His efforts to add a rock wall at Esperero Canyon have been stymied for liability reasons, but the seven-year teaching veteran is quick to point out that he still uses his "big wall" experiences every day: "When you're climbing things, you're vulnerable and setting goals. It's like learning."Beyond the obvious analogies, "it's important for kids to know their teachers are not just teachers," he adds with a laugh. "It lets their guard down a little."

—Mark Toner

Vol. 14, Issue 7, Pages 29-30

Published in Print: May 1, 2003, as Off the Wall
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