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The lessons of 'Captain Canada'

February 3, 2010

Van Bavel uses agriculture education to help local teens excel

By KRIS REILLY, Editor

Troy Van Bavel wants to push his students off a cliff. At least that’s what the sign says in Van Bavel’s classroom at Lucerne Valley High School.

Van Bavel didn’t say anything to his students when he put the sign up — he waited for them to ask. When they finally did, he showed them a video.

The video explains how an eagle prepares its offspring for life on its own. Eventually, the mother eagle must push her child off a cliff, not sure what will happen. And then the young eagle takes flight.

“That’s what we want the kids to do,” Van Bavel said. “I expect a lot out of the kids. I’m going to push you, because I want you to be the best that you can be.”

Van Bavel, who is in his 16th year teaching agriculture at LVHS, is full of little nuggets of wisdom like that. He doesn’t brag, but it’s easy to see that he takes pride in his methods as well as the things he and his students have accomplished. He calls himself “a reacher, not a preacher.”

His tool for reaching teens is the local chapter of the National FFA Organization, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America. FFA decided in the 1980s to use only its initials because it wanted to focus on its purpose as a leadership organization. FFA students learn about raising animals and plants, but Van Bavel says that what they’re really learning is how to become leaders.

Many of them will go into a field other than farming, and Van Bavel’s current students are evidence of that. Senior Ray Porter hopes to enter the Air Force Academy, and senior Andrew Stuart wants to become a novelist. Both said their success in FFA has inspired them to aim high.

“He pushes (the students) to learn more and break out of their shells,” junior Ashley Deleon said.

However, the kids said that Van Bavel also likes to have fun. They sometimes call him “Captain Canada” because he grew up on a farm in Alberta and is a big hockey fan.

“That’s the first thing you learn in this class,” Porter said with a laugh.

Van Bavel, 40, went to Montana State University on a volleyball scholarship before coming to Lucerne Valley (he currently lives on the western edge of town). He’s spent his entire teaching career at LVHS, and he has no plans to leave — despite the recent hardships his program has faced and the economic uncertainty facing the school.

Thieves came on campus over Winter Break and stole the program’s stock trailer (Van Bavel said he and the students are dealing with it and moving on). On top of that, Lucerne Valley Unified School district is in such deep financial trouble that the very existence of the high school may be in doubt.

“I really don’t try to get the kids involved too much with that stuff,” he said. “They’re doing their thing. A lot of times this is their home away from home. They come here to escape that kind of stuff. ... Not that I’m trying to hide anything from them, but I don’t want to burden them with it. ... I’m a pretty positive guy by nature, so I just try to keep it going.”

Lucerne Valley FFA has something of a reputation for excellence at the local, regional and state levels. Several awards are displayed in Van Bavel’s classroom, and an entire wall of Van Bavel’s office is covered with plaques.

Van Bavel was recently recognized by FFA with three regional awards for Southern California, and his students acquitted themselves nicely in a speaking contest last week. Stuart won first place in the High Desert — including the Victor Valley and Antelope Valley areas — for his prepared speech. Zenia Lopez won first place in the novice division and Meggan Walker won fourth place in the extemporaneous speech division.

One of Van Bavel's Lucerne Valley FFA alumni, Neil Gibson, went on to become the California State FFA Vice President in 2000-2001. Gibson is now a U.S. diplomat in the Philippines. He gave Van Bavel a plaque to say thanks to “the man who taught me to reach for my dreams.” Gibson named his son Troy.

Van Bavel talks about the awards on his office wall with a tone of nonchalance and humility. But he brims with pride when he talks about Gibson and other successful students — people who were pushed off the proverbial cliff and took flight.

“He named his son after me,” Van Bavel said. “You can’t buy that.”

Kris Reilly can be reached at kreilly@vvdailypress.com or at (760) 985-8372.