Don Rawitsch rolled out a four-foot-long piece of white butcher paper on the living room floor of his Crystal apartment. He glanced at an open map of the United States frontier from the 1800s. Then he traced a squiggly line from the right side of the paper to the left.
By the time his roommates Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger returned home, the line had become a series of squares leading across a map of the western U.S. Rawitsch was scratching out words on a stack of cards. “Broken wagon wheel,” said one. “Snakebite,” said another.
Heinemann, Rawitsch, and Dillenberger were student teachers finishing their degrees at Carleton College and living together in the sparsely furnished apartment. Dillenberger and Heinemann taught math in south Minneapolis, and Rawitsch taught American history in north Minneapolis. At home, the three shared teaching strategies over communal dinners of varying success—Dillenberger had only recently taught Rawitsch how to scramble eggs.
It had been a difficult semester. In their previous assignment, they’d taught for eight weeks in an affluent suburban high school. In the fall, they were transferred to schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. The lush athletic fields were replaced by asphalt. Resources were scarce and students were unimpressed by the three white college geeks from the suburbs.
Rawitsch, a lanky, bespectacled 21-year-old with hair well over his ears, was both a perfectionist and an idealist. He started dressing as historical figures in an attempt to win over his students, appearing in the classroom as explorer Meriwether Lewis.
By now he’d made it through to the western expansion unit, and he had in mind his boldest idea yet.
What he had so far was a board game tracing a path from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The students would pretend to be pioneer families. Each player would start with a certain amount of money and buy oxen, clothes, and food. Students would advance with the roll of a die, along the way encountering various misfortunes: broken limbs, thieves, disease. In roughly 12 turns, the kids would simulate the 2,000-mile journey that thousands of pioneers made to the West Coast in the 19th century.
He called it “Oregon Trail.”
Dysentery! Every time.