It appears Wright has succeeded in inspiring a passion for exploration in at least one of his students. Chris Duck, left, hopes to spend the summer working at the National Atmospheric and Space Administration's balloon launch facility in Palestine, Texas.
The only things that may indicate John Wright is anything more than your average middle school science teacher are the intense passion and intelligence in his eyes and his well-worn boots. He’s a man whose deep baritone voice lowers as his interest increases, as if he is grappling to rein in his expansive intellect.
At the elite school where he teaches, in a well-heeled suburb of New Orleans, most of the students and faculty don’t know Wright is the man who built the 1,000-mile traverse route from McMurdo Station to the South Pole. “I can always find an adventure somewhere,” says Wright, who now spends his days trying to “infuse young minds with some passion for exploration.”
Wright has spent most of his life following work in mining and engineering, and generally trying to sate his wanderlust. “I traveled for the love of adventure and travel,” he says. Wright spent years working as a laborer, “a hard-rock, grizzled miner,” he says. “That was satisfying because if you’re very good and smart, you can make good money.”
In 1993 he learned of an opportunity to go to Antarctica, where there was a need for an explosives engineer. “The academic exercise of science is dry and unsatisfying to me, but the practice – exploration and discovery - is exciting to me,” he says. “I was the master blaster for five years and then the opportunity of a lifetime came up.”
Miners in taverns throughout the world share a language of braggadocio that elevates almost every project they’ve ever worked into legend. “I and several others had always dreamed of a traverse route. It appealed to me because it was like one more train to rob,” Wright says. “Now, when I meet some guy in a bar and he tells me about working on the Antarctica project, I can look at him and say, ‘I didn’t see you there,’” says Wright, smiling.
How many are able to claim such a part in history? “Eight of us, eight ordinary American men and women, completed this job that had been sort of a grail that had never been accomplished,” he says. That is something no one can take away from a man.
During a recent session of his 7th grade environmental science class, Wright taught students how to use a transit to shoot a line from one of Hurricane Katrina’s flood marks on the school to points around the neighborhood. Wright repeatedly told his students about the importance of accuracy. “This particularly is relevant in New Orleans where there are questions about the elevation of the levee system,” Wright says.
Leading a class project to project Katrina flood elevations around a neighborhood, Wright encourages a student sighting a line to strive for accuracy.
He asks the class, “Who has an idea of what level might be? What does level mean?”
“Straight?” asks one young man. “Flat? Without an angle?” tries another.
“What do you think sea level means? Stretch your imaginations when you consider sea level to think about this,” Wright says. “The earth is spherical in shape. If our line of site goes straight like a razor, it is locally level but not true around the earth.”
He tells students about geodesy, the study of the shape of the earth. “Does anybody know what zenith means?” Wright’s question is met with several blank stares. “Zenith is defined as straight overhead,” he says. “Gravity helps us define what is up and down, and where zenith is. Level is perpendicular to the zenith.”
As they make their way back to the classroom, Wright rambles on about The Great Trigonometric Survey of India, the disruption of the zenith by the Himalayas and other such thoughts. By the lack of response, it was obvious that either the students’ saturation level had been reached or they didn’t share Wright’s passion on the subject.
Student Chris Duck says he is not sure if he wants to be an engineer, but “Mr. Wright has introduced me to a lot of scientific-type projects that I may pursue over the summer.” Duck is interested in a possible summer internship at the National Atmospheric and Space Administration’s balloon launch facility in Palestine, Texas. Wright told Duck about the opportunity after he reconnected with some of his Antarctica buddies there on his way down Colorado to New Orleans.
Wright took the teaching job because he thought it would give him more time with his wife and two young children than he’s had in his recent years of globe trotting to chase the next adventure. However, when he got the call for the position only days before the start of the school year last August, it was too last-minute to uproot his family. “I’m here and my family is in Colorado,” he says.
The Crescent City is a bit closer to his family than the South Pole and offers adventures of its own. When he first got to town, Wright tagged along on a field trip to the levee failure sites that was organized by Steve Nelson, an earth science instructor at Tulane University. “I tried to track the benchmarks from the outfall canals,” he says. “I’m good at this, and I couldn’t find any one of them.”
Wright’s been studying the IPET report, but says the whole Hurricane Katrina intrigue and ensuing scientific analysis is not what brought him to New Orleans. It was the teaching job, which he’s discovered has a different kind of satisfaction. “There is nothing more exciting than seeing that eureka moment when a student gets something,” he says.
As a geologist who has spent a great deal of his life working in the mountains, Wright says he was intrigued by a people who choose to live below sea level, even after Katrina. “I’ve certainly found a different breed of cat who lives down here,” he says. “People are incredibly social here. Women I’ve never met before call me baby and honey. I also see, basically, that gratification is not commonly deferred. People here embrace the love of fun first before work is done.”
Wright is working on the third version of a book about the Antarctic traverse project, a narrative of what transpired to bring it to fruition, everything that made the timing uniquely right. “The National Science Foundation doesn’t want us to tell the story for fear of backlash from environmentalists,” he says. “This story needs to be told, partly out of reverence for others who worked on the project.”
Unlike the original constructors of New Orleans’ hurricane protection system, Wright has “very accurate field notes” of his exploration in Antarctica, he says. “My legacy will be to leave a set of notes that someone else can follow.”