After almost four decades as a teacher, Mike Cantlon still doesn’t have all the answers.
But he does know the right questions – provocative, open-ended ones that bring out the best in some of the brightest kids in Spokane.
Cantlon is Spokane’s gift to the gifted and the patriarch of the Libby Center, where a generation of children has found motivation and inspiration from the man they know as “Mike.”
“He’s sort of the wise grandfather,” eighth-grader Duff Overstreet said last week.
However, Cantlon is a real-life grandfather as well, and it’s time to retire.
Cantlon isn’t sure what to expect. “You’ve been busy for so long and all of a sudden it’s not there anymore,” he said.
“I love what I do so much, the fear is you’ll lose your identity,” said Cantlon, who has many: beloved teacher, founder of the mind-broadening Satori Summer Camp at Eastern Washington University; and guest conductor for the Spokane Symphony’s annual Holiday Pops concert.
For that role he dresses as Santa – an easy transition for a man with flowing locks of gray framing round-rimmed glasses and a gentle face.
His debut didn’t go as planned.
“I took this big candy cane and was using it as a baton,” Cantlon said. “I accidentally smashed it against the podium, and candy bits splintered everywhere. You could see the orchestra members ducking to one side.”
They included his wife, Barb, who played English horn and oboe with the symphony for 37 years.
Cantlon may lack his own musical pedigree, but he excels at helping children.
First they must find their voice, a concept Cantlon appreciated in his first years as a teacher.
“I’ve learned to be a good listener,” Cantlon said. “That builds a bond, and when you’re willing to listen to someone in an honest way, then you can connect.”
Those connections were forged almost by accident. After graduating from Gonzaga Prep, Cantlon earned a degree in biology from Eastern Washington University.
“But there weren’t any jobs available,” said Cantlon, who worked as a clothing buyer for the Crescent department store while volunteering in a gifted education program at Post Falls High School.
“It was pilot program,” said Cantlon.
And it changed his life.
Later, at an educators’ gathering at EWU in the late 1970s, word got out that the Kent School District in Western Washington need someone for its gifted program.
“Someone popped up and said ‘call Mike,’ ” recalled Cantlon, who soon got an over-the-phone job offer.
With the support of his wife – “the greatest human I’ve ever met in my life,” Cantlon said – he took it.
He also took the job sight unseen. It was an eye-opener in several ways: He was greeted by breathtaking views of Mount Rainier, but also the news that he would be responsible for finding his own teaching materials.
“This is a gifted program – I didn’t think you needed books,” the principal told Cantlon, who had three days to put together lesson plans.
He found them at the University of Washington bookstore, along with “more freedom to create a curriculum.”
Back in Spokane, Cantlon helped start the Odyssey program in 1997.
Today, Odyssey includes 320 gifted students in grades four through eight inside the walls of the old Libby Middle School. The school building a block south of East Sprague Avenue in the East Central Neighborhood also houses the Tessera program, a once-a-week complement to Odyssey which serves about 400 third- through sixth-graders.
There is no typical day at Odyssey, which is a reflection of Cantlon. Biology projects share display space with calligraphy. Geometry takes form in paper buildings constructed by the students.
Said eighth-grader Georgia Kettrick: “I like how he talked about angles and related them to real life – like how you can tell how tall something is by the shadow.”
As the father of gifted education in Spokane, Cantlon casts a big shadow, but more intimate than intimidating with his flowing beard and leather vest stuffed with pens.
Since the beginning, Cantlon has been on a first-name basis with his students. But instead of losing their respect, he gained their trust.
“He has such a strong philosophical understanding of gifted students,” Libby principal Debra De Witt said.
“I feel like he’s been this soul mate, someone who really understood what gifted kids need, but also that all gifted kids are different,” De Witt said.
Those children will return to Libby in the fall, but Cantlon won’t be there. He and Barb may visit the Netherlands, home to his son and grandson.
“My daughter-in-law told me it’s time to retire,” Cantlon said with one eye on the future and the other on his beloved classroom.
Cantlon takes a look around.
“These kids have a lot of wonderful, creative thoughts, and they need to be heard,” Cantlon said.