Lash begins 50th year of teachingPreserving history by saving seeds
Waldoboro — Most people say TGIF, but for a Medomak Valley High School teacher his phrase is TGIM.
"The day I don't enjoy it anymore, pack me up and get me out," said Neil Lash of beginning his 50th year of teaching.
Specializing in anatomy and horticulture, Lash teaches pre-med and Lifeskills at MVHS and oversees more than 80 acres of plants and trees in what has been described as a "national treasure," a horticulture program he started in 1991.
Lash started his teaching career at Edward Little High School in Auburn in 1963, and came to MVHS in 1980. Horticulture was part of the industrial arts course, then became an elected science course.
He teaches honors physiology and six students he has taught have gone on to become doctors.
Lash has been instrumental in designing a living history arboretum on the MVHS campus. Also in process is a post and beam shelter constructed all with a broad ax — the way they used to be made in the 1700s. It will be dedicated as the Francis Cross Heritage Center in memory of an assistant principal who was a Civil War buff and brought back many of the seeds used to plant in the arboretum.
All of the trees in the arboretum either witnessed a historical event or were grown from seeds of trees that are growing there. From a Johnny Appleseed apple tree to a Gettysburg Address honey locust, each of the 21 trees has a story behind it — as do the more than 700 varieties of seeds stored in the greenhouse.
An earth oven, made of mud and sand is on site — all to be used for community events. Lash fell so in love with the earth oven pizza taste that he has constructed one at his own home.
Genetic preservation and historic connections is what Lash is trying to accomplish with his seedling program. He has plants from the "Lost Crop of the Inca Indians" called caihua and achira which are a member of the cucumber family and hold medicinal properties.
Lash said that due to restriction in funding, the program relies on money received from grants and a variety of relationships with fellow programs.
He has a seed swap program with Monticello, the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Va.
He hopes to get a grant to have a refrigeration unit installed to better accommodate all the seeds he is preserving. He said if that were to occur, he would not have to keep regrowing the plants for the seeds because they would last longer.
In his historical collection of seeds, Lash has 37 native American tribes represented within the 350 bean seeds and the same amount of tomatoes — including a Thomas Jefferson collection that he received via a swap with Monticello.
Lash said the course that he teaches is a multidisciplinary one — geography and history.
"Instead of talking about genetic loss and reading about it, we are trying to do something to prevent it," said Lash.
The seeds go all over the world from Living History Museums to Monticello to seed swaps. Lash has even sent seeds back to some native American tribes that did not realize they still existed.
Lash marvels at the fact that a teacher in the Bronx contacted him regarding receiving some of his seeds.
"They have a little patch of gravel beside their magnet school, and here we have 80 acres of underutilized space," Lash said.
He also displays a map showing all the various places his seeds have been sent, including most recently to Esker, Alaska.These are just some of the connections he has established.
His next challenge is to become an instructor for the dual enrollment program MVHS has started with Thomas College. This program allows students to earn college credits while taking classes locally. The three courses offered are calculus, English and psychology. They hope to add an anatomy/physiology course with Lash teaching next year.
"I would not be adverse to giving it a try. I like those types of challenges," he said.
Lash has taught a college-level anatomy course in the past.
"As I look back on 50 years of teaching, I can truthfully say that one of the motivations has been my positive relationship with administration and some of the ideas they have supported," said Lash.
Lash said he has witnessed the changing of family dynamics first hand, and tries to keep his family intact.
"There's no more slow down," he said. "People don't sit down for meals as a family and discuss the day."
"The kids are getting as lost as the genetics of these seeds and our culture is being spread too thin," Lash said.
As an example of the changes, Lash said in his second year of teaching, the big discussion at a faculty meeting was whether or not to allow the students to chew gum.
"Now we are talking about how many doors should be locked in case of a lockdown," said Lash.
"We are in a social dynamic spiral that has not been a positive on society," Lash said. "We need to invest more in our kids," he said.
"When the kids are placed lower than 'first' we lose," Lash said. "My goal is to do something meaningful for our kids."
Principal Harold Wilson has observed Lash's level of commitment in teaching for more than 14 years.
"He can teach the whole range of kids," Wilson said of Lash. "He reaches out to the kids and is always cheerful and encouraging. He certainly is a master teacher."
"He can adjust his teaching on a moment's notice and tell when the kids are learning and when they are not," said Wilson.
Lash has the only degree he wanted — a bachelor of science in area science from the Gorham State Teachers College (now the University of Southern Maine).
"The smell and feel of a book is special to me," said Lash about his research. He said it takes four to five hours of research to learn about each seed he comes into contact with. And he enjoys instilling that mentality in his students.
"As you can tell, I am not a classroom sit down type of teacher," said Lash.
Wilson said Lash has a book in his hands every morning.
"The day he (Wilson) does not see that on me is the day he should tap me on the shoulder and say 'it's time old fella'," said Lash. "I cannot lose that enthusiasm."
"I've met a lot of nice people who have inspired me," said Lash. "My goal is to pass that on — if I haven't, I've failed."
When asked about the ongoing contract negotiations, Lash commented, "It's a tough one."
"Given the responsibilities teachers have, there has to be some recognition," Lash said. "We need to convey to the towns that this is a profession — we are the ones working with their children," said Lash.
"Teachers are valuable, but may not be valued," he said. "We have to earn it."
Lash had a nature trail dedicated to him in 2011. More than $65,000 of donated time and materials went into the 1.05 miles of trails. The trail is located behind the high school and Medomak Middle School, and is handicap accessible.
Lash lives on a farm in north Waldoboro with his wife, Bonnie. They have four grown children.
Some of the programs coming up at the arboretum include a garden tour Saturday, Sept. 28, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; an international speaker from the Camden Conference on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 1 p.m.; and a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by students on Saturday, Nov. 16, at 5 p.m. in the Ronald Dolloff Auditorium.
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
594-4401 ext. 125
Beth rejoined Courier Publications' news staff in February 2013. She previously worked at The Courier-Gazette from 1981 to 1990.
Her coverage area includes Warren, Union, Friendship, Waldoboro, Washington, and Thomaston and RSU40.
Beth has a passion for photography, and a degree from the University of Maine at Augusta, in affiliation with the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport.
Aside from photography, Beth enjoys running and walks along the waterfront, as well as other outdoor activities. She has a daughter, Claire, who is 13.
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