Risk & Reward

Chris Leigh, rock-climbing risk taker, filming Working Class documentary from the Shawangunk mountain range.

I am a cautious risk taker. As much as I enjoy exploring new opportunities, I am fond of tradition and grounded in the familiar. (Grounded is a key word.) So, when invited to climb the boulders at Mohonk Preserve last fall during a video shoot for the latest episode of the Working Class documentary series, I politely declined.

Fortunately, the series’ co-creator, director and editor Chris Leigh took the challenge. Assisted by Eric Ratkowski, an experienced climber with the accredited guide service Alpine Endeavors, Chris made his first climb in order to film a practice session of the Shawanpunks youth climbing team for Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters.

You might wonder how mountain climbing fits into the script of a documentary series that connects academic studies and technology-based careers. It seems like a stretch until you meet Michael Cherry, who created a math superhero in The Addventures of Plusman comics. He also climbs and coaches the Shawanpunks.

The essence of delving into a mathematical concept or the complexity of movement required to complete a rock climb are essentially parallel creative processes.

Addventures of Plusman creator Mike Cherry wears a heart-felt message on his climbing t-shirt.

“Math and climbing are similar in that they’re both hard,” according to Mike, whose biography on the Alpine Endeavors website states: “Although people approach puzzles differently, they share the same joy in solving them. The essence of delving into a mathematical concept or the complexity of movement required to complete a rock climb are essentially parallel creative processes.”

The process of creating a documentary about the importance of math in education and the workplace led Chris to take a risk and climb Mohonk’s internationally famous rocks in the Shawangunk Mountains near New Paltz, NY. While I kept both my feet on the ground, I photographed Chris in action and admired his courage in making the climb.

Coach Mike explained to me how fears about climbing are similar to the fears some students face in their math classes.

“In a situation in class, you may initially feel very uncomfortable because you don’t know if you’ll succeed … In math and in climbing, I think getting through those fears is really a key to being able to learn and being able to just let yourself explore.”

Brave warriors of the Shawanpunk climbing team get ready to take the mountain.

While I was not a brave mountain warrior during our day at Mohonk, I did overcome another kind of fear in producing the Working Class: Game On! Math Matters documentary. I took a chance – a long shot at best, I thought – and requested an interview with a real-life superhero.

It all began after the release of the first episode of our documentary series, Working Class: Dream & Do, when Nolan Bushnell began following the series on Twitter. Yes, the Nolan Bushnell who brought video games into American homes in the 1970s.

Much to my surprise, my request for an interview was accepted by the man who starred in the Silicon Valley saga, founded Atari, created video games like Pong, introduced Chuck E. Cheese to pizza and game loving kids everywhere, and wrote a book about hiring a young Steve Jobs.

We talked via Skype late last year. I confess that I was very nervous. He, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic conversationalist who spent the better part of an hour sharing his thoughts on technology, education and what today’s kids need to prepare for the future.

Portions of Nolan’s interview appear in Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters. I will share more details about the interview in a future Working Class producer’s blog. For now, I will just say it was an incredible honor to speak with such a fascinating man –  one of “50 Men Who Changed America” according to Newsweek. It is an opportunity I would have missed had I not faced my fear of rejection and reached out with my “longshot” request.

At the end of the day, risk can bring reward. A kid can learn to climb a mountain or solve a math problem. An adult can step outside his/her comfort zone and make a good project better. People can work together to provide education that is relevant to present and future needs and to ensure that natural resources, like the beautiful Mohonk Preserve, are protected for future generations. The potential rewards are worth the effort.

I would like to thank Mike Cherry, Eric Ratkowski, and Alpine Endeavors for allowing us to experience climbing from a variety of angles (and for keeping Chris safe on the side of that mountain). I would also like to offer a special thanks to Mohonk Preserve’s Jon Ross, associate director of visitor services, and David Toman, deputy executive director and chief financial officer. David approved our request to film on location and Jon spent an exceptionally lovely fall day driving us through the breathtakingly beautiful mountain preserve.

You can see Mohonk’s famous boulders and more on Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters during its premiere broadcast on WVIA Public Media on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m. or watch it now via the series website http://workingclass.tv/.

Check in next week to the producer’s blog for more highlights of the latest episode in our series and for updates on Telly-Award-winning episodes Working Class: Dream & Do and Working Class: Build & Grow Green.

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