Nine months of the year, you can find Jim Baldridge at St. Michael The Archangel High School doing what he’s been doing for the past 34 years, teaching French or science to a room full of teenagers.
In the summer, though, Baldridge spirits his students far away from Louisiana to see places the world over. He’s taken them to France repeatedly — no surprise, given he’s a French teacher. But over the past 29 years he also has taken them to Spain, Germany, Greece, Thailand, Brazil, China, Fiji, Africa, Japan and the list goes on.
This coming summer, Baldridge is taking his students to Scotland and Ireland. And he’s already planning a 31st summer excursion in 2020 to Italy and Greece.
“When you teach foreign languages and things like that, you want the kids to have the opportunity to actually go to the places where you talk about, and the best way to do that is to take them there,” said Baldridge, who is chair of the high school's foreign language department.
He is usually accompanied by his wife, Lisa, who is a Spanish teacher at St. Michael. In addition to these summer trips, every other year the Baldridges take students on a Catholic mission trip to Managua, Nicaragua, to work in the Central American heat with so-called “garbage dump” children, the poorest of the poor who live either alone or with their families in or near garbage dumps, often working to sort through the trash for recyclables and housing materials.
“Lots of physical labor and not the best of conditions,” he said.
And last year after two student trips, the couple took a personal vacation to Ecuador to see the Galápagos Islands.
Along the walls of his classroom are maps of the world, one in English and one in French, plus pictures of iconic French locales such as the Arc de Triomphe. Baldridge said these photographs are pale imitations of the real thing.
“A still picture of The Eiffel Tower is one thing,” he said. “To be standing there by it and seeing how massive it is, it’s a totally different world.”
“Students say they learned more on one of my tours than in four years of school,” he added.
A native of Iowa, Baldridge moved to Baton Rouge in 1979 and spent a few years as a geologist for an oil company, but felt the itch to try something else. He applied in 1984 to teach at a newly constructed Catholic high school in town — then called Bishop Sullivan, later changed to St. Michael — and quickly fell in love with teaching.
But he soon decided that the students would benefit from a wider set of experiences, the kind he received on family trips when he was growing up.
“I saw the need in the kids. They have to have a broader horizon than they have growing up in Baton Rouge and then going to Florida,” he said. “Because that is pretty much their world, Baton Rouge-Florida, Baton Rouge-Florida. There’s nothing wrong with Baton Rouge and Florida but there is a whole big world out there.”
After clearing the idea with the school, Baldridge settled on EF Educational Tours, a Swedish educational travel company formed in 1965 that organizes student tours around the world.
That first tour in 1989 — to France, of course — was done in the days before the internet and was organized largely via phone. On each day of the trip, he’d have to find a pay phone to check on the next day’s arrangements.
“Cell phones and computers both make a world of difference,” Baldridge said.
David Rachal signed up for Baldridge’s French class as a ninth grader at Bishop Sullivan in fall 1994. He said he was soon impressed by his smart, patient new teacher, and went on to take four years of French.
“(Baldridge) always had a smile on his face, and the biggest thing was he was fair,” Rachal recalled.
Baldridge pitched his new students on the upcoming trip for summer 1995, and the destination that year was Costa Rica. Rachal persuaded his parents to put up the money and let him go.
The teenager, who had traveled little in his short life, nevertheless had plans to see the world. He’d dreamed since he was 7 years old of becoming a pilot, and later became an Air Force pilot and is now a pilot for United Airlines.
The thought of going to Costa Rica stoked his love of the tropics, with thoughts of beaches and palm trees. He remembers being ecstatic as they gathered in New Orleans to fly out but less so as they landed in San José, the capital. It looked, well, poor and rundown, not like the idealized image in his head.
“You’d see little shacks, everyone’s living in these little shacks,” he said.
But after a couple of days, he came to appreciate the people and the street vendors everywhere. And then there were the rainforests and volcanoes and beaches.
He recalls Baldridge as a steadying presence who could speak French and Spanish and could keep the tour running smoothly. At the same time, Baldridge would let the teenagers be teenagers.
“They had local discotheque and we could go dancing,” Rachal recalled, “but the bus came at 8 a.m. and you had to be there.”
Baldridge said traveling summons self-reliance in teenagers, and the effect continues after they return as they become more focused and their grades improve.
“They’re more about excited about learning,” he said. “They have now a plan, a goal. Because sometimes they have no goals. They don’t know what they want to do with their life.”
Rachal said his GPA, which was about 2.5 his freshman year, improved after the Costa Rican trip to about a 3.5 by his junior and senior year: “That’s about as good as ol' Dave is gonna do.”
Baldridge said he has no plans to stop.
Neither he nor his students have gotten sick during a tour, except for occasional “tummy aches” usually linked to fatigue. And he still enjoys the fast pace, geared toward teenagers with short attention spans, with everyone leaving right after a hotel breakfast and not returning until maybe 9 p.m.
And while he’s been to France several times now, he still relishes seeing the country through the young, impressionable eyes of his students.
“To see their faces when I take them to the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, literally to watch their jaws hit the floor, it is so incredibly beautiful,” he said. “Those things are priceless to me.”
He said he helps teachers start their own summer tour program, but there are fewer than there used to be and relatively few locally.
“I’d like to see more schools offer it, not a lot of schools in Baton Rouge do,” he said.
So what’s left for a man who’s traveled the world over? India, said Baldridge, definitely India: “It’s got a lot of history and culture.”