VMS Then & Now

Originally Published in VMS Alumni News December 9, 2016 

“Would you like fries with that?” are not words that you might expect to hear from VMS Science Department Chair, Ross Sappenfield, but the story of how he landed in Vail and came to VMS begins at the local Wendy’s 26 years ago. This year, his daughter, Sydney, will graduate from VMS. With nearly three decades as a VMS teacher and more than one of them as a VMS parent, Mr. Sappenfield has a truly unique perspective on Vail Mountain School that he shared with us during an interview for this inaugural issue of VMS Alumni News. Look for our next issue in May.

How did you come to VMS?
“After I graduated college, I came to Vail for the 1990-91 season. I wanted to move to Jackson, but my college roommate was already here in Vail. I worked at Wendy's and Cookshack to get housing and a ski pass. I skied every day and spent no money. By January, I realized that flipping burgers was not what I wanted to do with my life and set out to find a ‘real job.’ I worked as a ski instructor to maintain my pass, but also full-time at the Town of Vail Library where I met Jane Hart and Susan Boyd, who had kids at VMS.

"The school needed a science teacher and I began my career as a substitute. Mr. Abusi told me that the kids liked me and thus began a one-week interview. Shortly thereafter, Peter asked me if I could finish the year. Although I was a recently certified teacher, I had never taught before, but I remember clearly sitting around a table with a group of juniors and having a really impressive dialogue about problem solving. These kids were engaged and motivated beyond my belief and it helped me to realize that this is where I wanted to be. This aspect of VMS is still something that I draw on today."

What has changed at VMS and what’s still the same?
"Last week, each student in my chemistry class thanked me for teaching them. It surprises me that anyone would express such gratitude for teaching them, but they did it two decades ago and still do it today. Obviously, the building is bigger and nicer and the school as a whole has grown, but this is still a place for kids who want to learn and who value the process of learning. The cross-age aspect of VMS is also still at the heart of our school especially since we are all in one building. The genuine exchanges that take place in the halls and during all-school events is really special and grounds the students in a developmental perspective that they would not have in another place. I think this helps contribute to the empathy that characterizes our students and helps break down the natural tendency to be egocentric."

Your daughter is a senior at VMS. What are the most important qualities that you’ve seen grow in her?
"Over the years, we’ve traveled a lot for soccer and we recently drove to a tournament in Albuquerque. We had a lot of windshield time that was filled with really great conversations. It’s remarkable how deep her education has been. She can contribute to conversations about neuroscience as easily as mythology or classic literature, while also being able to converse in Spanish. Simultaneously, she has an unrelentless drive and shows tremendous character by pushing through Calculus BC, which is a real challenge for her. After hearing a podcast on Radiolab about surveillance, she said to me, "I want to send this to my ethics teacher because it’s a great dilemma about invasion of privacy and betterment of society." The fact that she’s talking about this kind of stuff at 18 really represents the power of education. Being surrounded by peers and teachers who really value ideas and education and who care deeply about each other is transformative. Education is a two way street and through this mutual respect, teachers teach the kids and the kids teach the teachers."

What are your favorite memories?
"I always admired the way VMS would take a relatively simple event and make it really challenging by including the entire school. When taking an all-school photo with our aging school in the background became passe, we decided to load everyone into every vehicle we could find and head up to Piney Lake. Somehow I got stuck with the old red van, ready to roll with no side window and badly in need of a brake job. I recall Mr. Holmes seizing the moment as we were about to snap the photo and wrestling a passing sheep into the photo, which made the lower schoolers’ day!"

"Our all-school orientation trip was also an adventure. I guess we were running out of ideas when we decided it was time for a real adventure to the Green River near Desolation Canyon, UT.  I remember bussing through the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservations on unmarked roads looking for a river that we thought we would never find. As it turns out, we did not find it the first night and ended up sleeping in the desert as we considered how to get the tour company’s high sided bus unstuck from the arroyo crossing. Our morning scouting party found the river and we were able to put in by noon the next day with a real challenge to make up for lost time by paddling the flat water for the next two and a half days.

"What I realize is that we have grown up a lot as a school. The same sense of community and adventure is still alive and thriving at VMS, but we have learned how to overcome the challenges and we do it REALLY well now."