When NOLS Executive Director John Gans told me over the phone one of our students had slipped from a well-traveled path in India, I heard in his words a margin of hope. But something behind his words told me he was visiting the darkest abyss that any parent, teacher, or person of leadership can face. I heard the pain in John’s voice say, “We have lost one of our own.”
With passing hours, we would learn about Thomas Plotkin. He was physically strong, balanced in body and mind. The best among us would have welcomed his company. His fall from this trail was unpredictable. Nonetheless, in a brief moment, he was gone. Our words cannot follow him. Our words cannot fill the emptiness. Our words cannot bring sense to the loss.
It is natural for us to ask, “What might NOLS do differently?” but today, we find ourselves without practical answers. Instead, we face the unanswerable. I realized if we cannot learn by studying the path where Thomas fell, perhaps we must learn from the paths where he did not fall. We can honor Thomas by honoring the best that is in NOLS.
The purposefulness and care NOLS instructors and their students take to fully engage with the world stands as an antidote to a society full of spectators. Our students, students like Thomas, stride up mountains, sail across oceans, and romp through canyons with hearts open to a greater good and minds geared toward preparation, competence, and service. Thomas wrote in his NOLS application his goal for this course was that the “simplified life based on meeting one’s basic needs will help [him] understand what is truly meaningful and provide [him] with a new perspective on human nature.” The best among NOLS groups are those most capable of the greatest service, and Thomas was on this course in pursuit of his potential. What our students give to each person is measured by need, and what they expect from each person is measured by ability. NOLSies, Thomas among them, weigh their meaning not by what they can take from life, but by what they can give to life.
Each of us is a blend of dust and divinity. We each have the capacity to be heroic, and we are, each and every one of us, mortal. In a time when we are reminded of that, it’s not the answers to questions that will heal; it is community and family. Now, I find myself turning to our community in a new way. When I first joined the NOLS Board, I was taken aback at how frequently NOLS people hug. My attitude toward such gestures has since softened. There is too much good exchanged among NOLS people to be wrapped in words or conveyed in a handshake. Just as Thomas’s mother told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there is realness to a hug.
“He would smile and put his arms around me,” she told the newspaper. “When he hugged me, it was so real — so much tenderness. I’ll never forget it.”
Tori Murden McClure
NOLS Board Chair