FORT WAYNE — Ashley Esther has been planning a trip to Australia for a decade, and after 10 long years of applying for grants, the Lilly Endowment is going to make her dream a reality.
Esther, an engineering teacher at Carroll High School, was one of 100 K-12 educators in the state of Indiana to receive a $12,000 Teacher Creativity Fellowship grant this year. In June, she plans to use the funds to pack her bags for the southern hemisphere in order to pursue a long-dreamed-of research opportunity.
“It was a week before finals, and I get this email from Lilly. … I swear I read it five times and printed it and took it to my teacher friend, who’s won it before, to read it. I still don’t believe it. It’s very surreal,” Esther said.
Though the fellowship grant encourages teachers to “renew their commitment to the education profession,” recipients aren’t bound by their subject material. In Esther’s case, what she plans to do overseas couldn’t be any further from the world of engineering. Many of the destinations she plans to visit will center around her love of the Pleiades constellation.
“I thought about doing some engineering things because that’s what I teach, but none of that sparked anything in me,” she explained. “But I’ve always had a fascination with astronomy.”
During her month-long trip to Australia, Esther plans to visit the oldest Aboriginal cave paintings on record. The oldest of those paintings retells the story of the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, which the indigenous peoples of Australia believe marked the beginning of creation.
For many years, Esther has felt a connection to the Pleiades, beginning with a trip to Wyoming where she visited the Devils Tower National Monument, a monolith in the Black Hills that is considered sacred by the first Native Americans to inhabit the area.
According to a story passed down by the Kiowa and Lakota tribes, seven sisters were out playing when they were spotted and pursued by a group of giant bears. In an effort to escape the bears, the sisters climbed atop the rock and began praying to the Great Spirit for salvation. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground toward the heavens so that the sisters would be safe from the bears. In an effort to climb the rock, the bears left claw marks in the sides, which the Native Americans believe are the marks that appear on the sides of the Devils Tower today. According to the story, when the seven sisters reached the sky, they became the seven stars of the Pleiades.
“Across the world, there are all these different stories about where the Pleiades come from and, unknowingly, I had sort of been collecting them,” Esther said. “I always had the Pleiades in my head for some reason, and then I found out about these cave paintings in Australia and that they believed it was where creation began. Ever since then, I’ve been kind of fascinated by that whole thing, and I have always wanted to go to Australia anyway but finding all that out, I just felt it was sort of meant to be.”
After her trip to Australia, Esther hopes to retell the Aboriginal story of the Pleiades in a book collecting legends of the constellation from around the globe.
“I’m not much of a writer,” she laughed. “Most of what I write is really short, so I never thought I would write a book, but I love the idea of putting together these stories and telling people where they come from.”
A few years ago, a museum in Australia hosted a temporary display of Aboriginal artwork related to the Pleiades constellation. Though Esther missed the display, many of the pieces have been returned to museums throughout the country and during her month-long stay, she plans to visit several of them.
“Everywhere I go, there will be a museum that has some kind of artwork or something that can hopefully give me some more information for the book,” she said. “I’m hoping as I go that I’ll learn all these bits and pieces that maybe you can’t find as easily online and put them all together.”
During her trip, Esther also plans to visit a dark sky reserve on the South Island of New Zealand, which is home to a planetarium with a clear view of the Pleiades.
Esther has been to five other continents already, but researching the Aboriginal legends of the Pleiades in Australia has been her ultimate goal since she began applying for the Lilly grant annually about 10 years ago.
“What fascinated me about Australia and made it different and a place I wanted to go is it wasn’t just a story. … In Greece it’s just a story, in Japan it’s just a story, but in Australia it’s their idea of creation,” she said. “They can tell where an Aborigine grouping of people have come from based on the version of the Pleiades story they tell. As they traversed over the Outback thousands of years ago, they would pass along the stories in song, so depending on how they branched out as they were nomadic and moving, they would change the story and pass it along a little bit differently. They have these ‘songlines’ of history where they can trace back their roots, and that’s just different than anywhere else. I wanted to see these people, see the artwork and see how it changed their history.”
In the month she spends overseas, Esther will have plenty of time for other activities as well. During her stay, she plans to go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef and cage diving with great white sharks.
Several other Carroll High School teachers have received Lilly fellowship grants in the past. The school’s Japanese teacher, Laura Semba, has been a recipient twice, using the funding to visit Japan both times, and Jamie Drake, a former Carroll teacher, also used the grant to visit Cuba and the Appalachian Trail. Bob Ahlersmeyer, Carrie Wiseheart and Nicole Croy have also received grants in the past.
“At some point, I would have gone to Australia, but I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things I’m going to do without the grant,” Esther said. “Lilly is awesome for doing this, and it’s no benefit to them. They just hope that you are filled with the joy of life and that you will bring that back to the classroom. … I’m excited about doing something outside of my teaching subject matter to show my students how important it is to be well-rounded.”
Four other Fort Wayne-area educators received fellowship grants this year as well: David Broerman (Harding Junior High School), Thomas Bailey (North Side High School), Andrea Harmeyer (Lafayette Meadows Elementary School) and Joshua Saint John (Summit Middle School).