Published in Macalester Today
Chris Dwyer '05 is talking about his journey from his days as a Macalester basketball player and geology major to a teaching position at a Jesuit middle school on the west side of Chicago when the conversation takes an unexpected turn.
Actually, Dwyer’s story is full of unexpected turns; he was a self-proclaimed gym rat and science-indifferent “word person” from Milwaukee who, purely on a whim, took a Mac class called Dinosaurs and ended up a geology major who spent his summers out west digging around with
geology professor Ray Rogers.
As Chicago Jesuit Academy’s director of facilities, Chris Dwyer’s role is multi-faceted: He helps students raise chickens and produce—such as the cilantro shown here—and he coaches basketball, as well as overseeing a renovation to the school.
After graduation, thinking he’d spend some time abroad before graduate school, Dwyer lived for two years on the island of Weno in Micronesia, working as a volunteer teacher in a school with one computer and limited access to electrical power.
The Weno experience was a good one, Dwyer says. The island’s Xavier High School was a boarding facility, so the teachers lived with the students. He was teaching a little bit of everything—calculus, English, biology—and coaching basketball. He also admits that he’d been initially attracted to the placement because of the unique geological nature of Micronesia.
“It was a fascinating place on so many levels,” Dwyer says. “Old volcanoes had become coral atolls. The Japanese had used the Truk Lagoon as their main naval base in the Pacific during World War II, and there had been heavy American bombing so there were all these sunken ships everywhere. Our gym still had a hole in the roof from the bombing.”
Dwyer’s time in Micronesia did nothing, he says, to quell his passion for science, but he was also learning to enjoy the challenges of teaching. “At Xavier, because of the nature of the place, I was both a teacher and a de facto parent at the age of 23, and when it came time to leave there I still had in the back of my mind that I was going to graduate school. I also felt, though, that maybe I wasn’t yet done with teaching, or maybe teaching wasn’t done with me.”
Through connections at Xavier, Dwyer got in touch with the Chicago Jesuit Academy, a fledgling (founded in 2005), all-male middle school that offers an intensive college preparatory education to students of modest means. All the students at CJA are on full scholarships, and African Americans comprise 95 percent of its student body. Dwyer signed on to teach science and coach basketball.
“I was really enthused about teaching,” Dwyer says. “But at the same time I had no formal training and had learned as a volunteer at Xavier. A lot of what I was doing was applying stuff I’d learned at Macalester, and trying to excite young people in the way that I’d been excited by people
like Ray Rogers. After two years, however, I felt like even though I loved the students and the place, I wasn’t sure I could commit to teaching. When I met with the staff at the end of my second year, I felt like things were sort of up in the air, and I was honest with them.”
Here is where Dwyer’s journey plunges clear off the average geology major’s career path. “We talked about what I wanted to do,” Dwyer says. “And I told them that in my dream job I would be a bicycle mechanic, gardener, and basketball coach. I’m sure some of them thought, ‘Good luck with that,’ but the school’s president, Matthew Lynch, suggested we talk about it. At which point I was, like, ‘Really?’”
In the end, Dwyer got his dream job(s). For the past three years he has been CJA’s director of facilities and IT. That’s his official title, anyway. He manages the school’s physical property and grounds and
maintains its computer lab. He’s currently overseeing a $6.6 million renovation of the school’s south wing. And he coaches basketball, has turned unused rooms into bike shops, and, working with students, raises produce and chickens on the school grounds.
“I’m the man with the keys,” Dwyer says. “That means if a desk needs to be fixed, I fix it. If somebody vomits, I clean it up. I make sure the computers work. It’s all about maintaining a good, safe, healthy environment for the kids, and the problem-solving skills and curiosity I learned at Macalester are just as applicable whether I’m working in the garden or trying to figure out how to fix a boiler.”
"The problem-solving skills and curiosity I learned at Macalester are just as applicable whether I’m working in the garden or trying to figure out how to fix a boiler.”
The median income for the families of students at Dwyer’s school is $24,000 a year. Suffice it to say that most of the kids at CJA had no previous experience with cleaning out chicken coops, let alone sustainable agriculture, composting, or farmers markets. Some of them had never ridden a bike, let alone owned or maintained one. Dwyer has introduced them to all these things, and has gotten them blogging about their experiences as well.
Lynch, the school’s founder as well as its president, remembers well the day Dwyer’s dream took its most recent dogleg. “I understood that maybe teaching wasn’t Chris’s vocation,” he says. “But our general philosophy is to find good people and then find the things they’re passionate about and encourage them. People might hear the title ‘director of facilities’ and picture a guy pretty much divorced from educating students, but everything Chris does is fully integrated with our educational mission. So many of his programs are the things that get our kids fired up about coming to school. I will admit, though, that when he came to me and said, ‘We need to get some chickens,’ I thought he was out of his mind.”
Dwyer stays in touch with some of his old Mac geology cohort, and admits he can get nostalgic. “I got together not long ago with one of my closest friends from the geology department, and she was just wrapping up her PhD,” he says. “I like to hear about it, and it still excites me, but I’m always happy to go back to my job. A lot of our kids have such heartbreakingly difficult home lives, and I feel like every day we’re providing opportunities and experiences for kids who really deserve nothing less
than a bright future.”
Minneapolis writer Brad Zellar last wrote “Hollywood Roommates” for Macalester Today (Winter 2011).