When a reporter told Jen Reiter's third graders at Gilman School that he was there to write a story about their teacher's upcoming trip "north to Alaska," the students froze and Reiter exclaimed, "Oh, my God. It's their favorite song ever."
The children then serenaded the Messenger with a lusty version of Johnny Horton's 1960 hit, "North to Alaska."
Alaska is on the tip of everyone's tongue at the boys' school these days, as Reiter, 44, prepares to hit the proverbial trail for the this year's 1,049-mile Iditarod dog sled race through the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome, as well as a 200-mile Junior Iditarod.
Race officials selected Reiter from applicants around the country as the 2014 "Teacher on the Trail," making her the face of the race that begins March 1. She will not actually drive a dog sled in the race, but will ride along with musher Nathan Schroeder, of Minnesota, for the first 11 miles, and then will fly in "bush" planes to 26 checkpoints along the trail.
Her last day of school at Gilman will be Feb. 13, after which she will be gone for about five weeks, including spring break, so that she can keep a journal, Skype and blog with classrooms as far away as Canada and England, teach classes in small villages along the route and generally promote "Iditarod in the Classroom," a popular teaching program for educators worldwide. Her husband, Joe, a teacher in Carroll County, and their son, T.J, a second grader, will visit for a week.
In the meantime, Reiter, of Rodgers Forge, is checking off a list of things to do before she leaves, including planning lessons for a substitute teacher in her absence, preparing a PowerPoint presentation that will be shown to schools before the race and sewing patches that her students designed on her parka and sleeping bag, part of the free official gear that race officials have already sent her.
"I might actually finish everything on time," she said.
Reiter and Gilman have been living and breathing all things Iditarod since last April, when Reiter was named Teacher on the Trail after the 2013 race ended. For the past year, her classroom has been a happy mess of "Happy Trails" posters, photos and drawings of huskies, and blackboard lists of "trail chores."
Also ever present is "Denali," a stuffed toy husky that Reiter has been using as a teaching tool. It was wearing a harness on Jan. 30 as Reiter and teacher Ellen Rizzuto taught students how to make harnesses out of paper, using the correct angles they would need to make the harnesses work.
But the real fun started when student James Gammie tried on his teacher's gear in front of his laughing classmates. The parka came down to his ankles.
"You're having fun on the trail," Reiter said. "This is what the mushers will wear."
James was dubious as he wore Reiter's gloves, boots and hooded anorak Eskimo coat with its coyote fur ruff.
"It's really hot," he said.
For the opposite reason, the Stevenson boy wouldn't want to go on the trail, "because it's cold."
Last year's third graders spent much of their final semester immersed in Iditarod-related activities and lessons. Reiter has been living with the Iditarod much longer than that. She and Rizzuto, a science teacher, won a $10,000 grant from Gilman last year to attend a dog-mushing school in Ely, Minn., and a teachers' conference in Anchorage, in conjunction with the 2012 Iditarod.
After the race was over, the Iditarod's director of education, Diane Johnson asked Reiter, "What's your next step?" and suggested that Reiter apply to be the next Teacher on the Trail.
In January 2013, Reiter learned that she was one of three finalists. And on April 2, Johnson phoned Reiter in her homeroom to announce that Reiter had won the all-expenses-paid trip as Teacher on the Trail
"The kids were very excited," Reiter said last year. She said students had already given her a gift certificate for Christmas to take dog-sledding lessons at a kennel in western Maryland.
This year's third graders have been living with it since the school year started, and they're not quite as excited..
Classmates Luca Pavlovich, of Guilford, and Anay Agarwal, of White Marsh, are a little bit tired of all the activities, including a challenge for the whole school to read 1,049 books from the start of the race to the first musher's arrival in Nome.
"Everywhere we look, there's something about Alaska," Anay said.
Luca admitted it's getting a little old, but he's happy for Reiter.
"It's exciting that she's going to do it," he said. He wishes he could do it too.
"I'd go in my pajamas," he said. "It's not that cold."
In fact, Luca is right. The weather is actually warmer in Alaska than in Baltimore right now, and the route might have to be adjusted accordingly, Reiter said. It's one of several things that could go wrong during the race, she said, admitting that being snowed in at a checkpoint is a possibility. Also possible is losing Internet connections along the way, because service is spotty, she said.
Gilman's adults are still plenty excited, even if some kids aren't.
Headmaster Henry Smyth considers Reiter's role to be a feather in the school's cap and a personal triumph for Reiter.
"She's brought her enthusiasm for a really cool event back to the boys," Smyth said.
"She's the one to go," Rizzuto said. "This was her dream. I'm a little jealous I'm not going with her. But she's got such a passion for it."
For Reiter, the passion for exploring will live on after her stint in the Iditarod.
When asked what's next for her, she said, "I want to do the Lewis and Clark trail," and plans to apply for another Gilman grant.