Written by Bob Ward
Chris Faison was unique among people, a singularly open, generous soul who always left a joyful glow in his wake.
The longtime 1-2 teacher at the Aspen Community School was endlessly curious and intrigued by everything and everyone around him. Whoever you were, whatever you did, Chris wanted to know more, and he cared. These qualities — along with his rosy cheeks, wool sweaters and smiling face — made him a role model and an iconic elder statesman of the Compass community.
“He was the consummate learner with the heart of a child,” said Principal Jim Gilchrist, who started at ACS as a teacher in 1986 alongside Faison. “He was like an open book to experiences and people. At the end of the day, that’s what we want for our kids.”
Chris died on Dec. 28, 2018 of a sudden, unexpected heart attack — bitterly ironic for a fellow who lived his life straight from the heart — and left a profound imprint on ACS friends, colleagues, parents and students, teaching everyone what it means to love learning and to share that love relentlessly.
“He could talk about any subject, at length and with intelligence and knowledge,” said Kristina Weller, who taught with Faison for years in the 1-2 learning center. “Or he could just sit, be curious, ask questions and come from a place of wonder.”
A husband and father of two daughters himself, Faison retired as a classroom teacher in 2013 but never left the school community. He drove buses occasionally, supported the outdoor ed program in various ways and loved to design the sets for the annual spring musical at the Wheeler Opera House. These habits lasted right up to Faison’s final day. And the cardboard skeletons of dinosaurs, mammoths and whales that he created with his students will never be forgotten. The life-size creations famously cluttered the ACS central area and drew “oohs” and “aahs” from anyone, young or old, who entered the room.
Mike Mines, a Carbondale Community School teacher, caught the skeleton-building bug years ago and brought it to his classroom with Faison’s help.
“It’s a great project, building math and science skills, while bringing conceptual learning to life in a hands-on way that kids really get excited about,” Mines said. “Over the years we built a couple of dinosaurs, a couple of mammoths, an elephant seal named ‘Lumpy’ and an orca.”
Faison was known among teachers and parents for his active, hands-on teaching. The skeletons were perhaps the most memorable projects, but they were part of a larger educational method. His math lessons included estimating the number of hay bales in George Stranahan’s Woody Creek barn — 10 across, five tall and 12 deep, for example — or counting potatoes that Faison brought from the school garden. Gilchrist even recalled a day, just a year or two ago in the ACS central area, when Faison took a chainsaw to a watermelon in a dramatic illustration of fractions.
“Seeds were flying everywhere and Chris was totally into it,” the principal recalled, mimicking the buzz of the saw. “’How many halves is this?!’”
The same fun-loving guy often showed up at Ric Morrison’s on-campus woodshop to plan another project.
“He would walk in, without knocking, of course, and proclaim, “I bet you’re glad to see me!” Morrison said. “Whereupon he would start looking around for a shop drawing to turn over and start sketching one of his famous Picasso-esque designs. We worked details for sets, whales, dinosaurs and even the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Learning was fun for Faison, and he worked hard to make it fun for his students. He never talked down to kids or adults. He was plain-spoken and respectful as a teacher and a human being, and this rubbed off on anyone who met him.
His curiosity was also contagious. Skye Skinner, former executive director at Compass, recalled one year when Faison spotted a dead elk in a pasture near the school, and integrated the corpse into the 1-2 curriculum for the entire academic year.
“He and the students regularly walked over to see the elk, observing the decomposition, looking to see what bugs or birds or critters had taken an interest,” Skinner said. “Students created journals of their observations and even created a Franken-Elk sculpture out of various found bones and sticks.”
Thus did Faison combine science, outdoor adventure, writing, observation and art into an indelible school experience.
Faison’s talents reached beyond the campus, too. Students were accustomed to receiving his postcards over the summer break, wishing them well and reminding them to read in their spare time. The cards were always signed NMMNG (No More Mr. Nice Guy), accompanied by a familiar happy-face with a squiggly strand of hair.
Faison always stayed in touch with, and looked out for, his people.
“I had been teaching art at the Aspen Community School for 13 years when Chris came on as the new 1st and 2nd grade teacher,” recalled Deb Jones, a faculty member in the school’s early years. “We all were never the same. There was no possible way you could escape Chris’s infectious curiosity, his generous spirit, and his kind way with each one of us.”
Jones said Faison was “ an immense gift to the school family and the community at large,” but it’s also true that the school and the job were a gift to Faison.
“ACS was definitely not just a job. It was his passion,” said Chris’s wife, Sally. “We would often talk about how lucky he was, we were, to love a job so much. Not many get to do what they were born to do.”
Over the years Faison’s spirit, both childlike and wise, came to define the school. And any ACS veteran will tell you that Chris’s essence remains.
“He so totally believed in the school. It was his second home,” Sally said. “As a family we all thrived by being a part of the ACS community.”
ACS celebrates Chris Faison on Sunday, May 19 at 1:30 p.m. Plan to arrive no later than 1 p.m., and bring a small rock that reminds you of Chris. Annie the (cardboard) Dinosaur is expected.
If you would like to make a donation in Chris’ honor go to www.discovercompass.org and click donate online.