Twenty-two years ago, a Vinalhaven summer resident, Peter Richards, who is one of the country’s gifted teachers, had an idea about how to teach important math and science concepts to his fourth and fifth grade classes in Atlanta. Instead of just memorizing their times tables and long division, Richards asked his class to write postcards to contacts who live between Key West, Florida and Fort Kent, Maine. In the fall, correspondents, like my wife, get a neat, handwritten, stamped postcard that reads, “We saw the first blooming daffodil on ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________________.” As the postcards trickle back into class, the students stick pushpins into a map on the classroom wall and chart the rate at which spring unfurls itself along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

In order to be scientifically rigorous, Richards’ students have recruited participants who live within 10 miles of Route 1, minimizing the flukiness of the data. In addition to the towns at either end of highway, the class’s respondents, who now number more than 80, live in places including Miami and Jacksonville along the Florida coast; Augusta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia and in the cities of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, New Haven, Providence, Boston and Portland, Maine. Who does not know a daffodil when they see one or recognize this harbinger of spring?

One of my wife’s and my unexpected pleasures in participating in this project is hanging the postcard on our refrigerator, where all winter we remind ourselves that spring might actually appear one day again in our cove a half-mile from Route 1. And this morning, on my way to my writing cabin under the oak and spruce trees, I saw my first clump of sunny yellow daffodils, somewhat stiff and bent, like me, after surviving a 28-degree Fahrenheit night. I immediately and dutifully reported the sighting to my wife, the family correspondent, who informed me she had spotted the daffodils three days ago (April Fool’s Day), after I had apparently walked by them and unaccountably failed to notice these trumpets of spring. Now the postcard is in the mail to Atlanta, while we look forward to this year’s results.

I can report, however, that Richards’ students a year ago noted, “the southernmost daffodil arrived in Jacksonville, Florida March 4, and the northernmost daffodil arrived in Ft. Kent, Maine, April 27, 2011.” Furthermore, they carefully measured the distance between the two sightings at 1812 miles. And since the reports were 56 days apart, the mathematics of this exercise revealed that spring had traveled 32.4 miles per day, or about 1 1/3 mile an hour last year. This pace is undoubtedly faster than you or I could walk—maybe even bike—during the same period.

But the science part of Richards’ daffodil project is even more fascinating and potentially more important to the world at large. During the previous five years, the daffodil project students calculated that spring had sprung at rates of 12, 16, 20, 23.4 and 23.5 miles per day, leading one to wonder whether spring is running faster or working harder? Or are daffodils changing their habits? Or is something else happening to the world—to the world these students are inheriting?

Well, that is the $64 billion—or is it a $64 trillion question—which they are going to have to answer during their lifetimes.

But in the meantime, they can reflect on what a truly gifted teacher means to their lives. I pulled out a sample of comments about Peter Richards from a “rate your teacher” website. “Best teacher ever. I actually learned something in math that year,” one wrote. Another wrote, “I learned SO MUCH in his class. Important things that resurfaced in school all the time.” But my favorite was, “he’s defiantly a legacy.”

I agree, a legacy, defiantly.