Lessons of Peace
Byline: Patrick Malee The Register-Guard
There are times when Clair Wiles looks at herself and feels like a walking contradiction.
On the one hand, she's a military veteran who served for a year in the Iraq war. Yet she's spent much of the rest of her adult life as a high school history teacher, working to develop peace-oriented curricula centered around nonviolent movements and intercultural communication.
And now, following a surprise announcement made at a staff meeting last week, Wiles, 39, wears the mantle of the Nobel Peace Laureate Park Project's 2012 Teacher of the Year.
The park project is a nonprofit group that's been intent for years to create a Nobel Peace Park within the confines of Alton Baker Park in Eugene. Project volunteers decided to bestow this year's teacher recognition award on Wiles, who spearheaded North Eugene High's "Peace, Justice and Human Rights" curriculum back in 2003, then helped hone it as the school switched to a "small schools" format in 2010.
More than once, former students have returned to tell her how the curriculum has changed their life path.
The curriculum has no prescribed point of view; Wiles is of the mind that the best gift she can give her students is the ability to form their own nuanced opinions, to recognize that what may seem to be contradictory ideas can actually work in harmony. She is living proof.
"For me, the singular gift I can give students is thinking - (to get them to) think critically about things," Wiles said. "I want to give them all of the tools that they can possibly have.
"If they decide to join the military, I want them to do so with their eyes wide open and be aware of all the consequences."
Always wanted to teach
Wiles' very first pupils were her stuffed animals. Her very first memories, in fact, are of trying to teach them to read, even before she herself could do so. She often stole her older brother's textbooks, paging through them while talking to the animals. Sometimes, she would fall asleep talking to invisible students.
"I didn't have invisible friends, I had invisible students," Wiles said. "So that's kind of silly."
Silly, perhaps, but telling. Looking back, Wiles doesn't remember making a conscious decision to become a teacher. It just happened - she never considered anything else.
Joining the U.S. Navy out of high school was more a stopgap measure than an intentional career move. Wiles, from Portland, wasn't ready to be sitting in a classroom at age 21; she wanted to travel a bit, and needed extra money to pay for school.
But she also cites what she calls "an equity issue."
"The people who serve in the military are the ones who have the most at stake, the most skin in the game," she said. "Someone defended me and my freedoms, and I needed to return the favor. I needed to take my time on the wall."
Wiles was on active duty for four years, from 1991 to 1995. From there, she attended the University of Oregon as a Navy reserve, and began teaching in 1999. The idea for the "Peace, Justice and Human Rights" curriculum came about four years later, when she sat down with Pamela McCarty, an English teacher at North Eugene.
"We were just sort of dreaming," Wiles said. "And we said, 'What if we had a class that was called the Humanities Academy for Peace, Justice and Human Rights?' And so our entire curriculum was focused on a chronological study, but it was all focused on nonviolent movements and the effectiveness of nonviolent movements."
History courses, as Wiles likes to say, "tend to march between wars," leaving gaping holes at the points on the timeline when guns were left holstered, bombs un-dropped. …