Tracy Ruiz | Courtesy

Tracy Ruiz chose to attend Cal Poly in 1991 because it was close to the beach and she thought it was safe. After Kristin Smart went missing in 1996, however, Ruiz realized her alma mater could be dangerous for women. 

Now that Ruiz is a teacher, she wants to pass on critical thinking skills to her students by using the case and the “Your Own Backyard” podcast in her curriculum. Her students now feel connected with the Smart case, and are dedicated to preserving her memory. 

Ruiz graduated Cal Poly in the fall of 1995 and returned to her hometown of Vacaville where she now teaches English at Will C. Wood High School.

When Ruiz heard the now global-hit podcast “Your Own Backyard” in summer 2020, it didn’t just send her back to the Cal Poly she knew in the 1990s, but it gave the case “humanity,” she said.

The podcast, created by Chris Lambert, follows Kristin Smart’s case and how her disappearance impacted her family and the community. 

“Walking through and feeling that loss in the podcast was unexpectedly powerful,” Ruiz said. 

Ruiz saw other teachers using true crime podcasts in their teaching, so Ruiz took those lesson plans and designed a curriculum around Chris Lambert’s podcast “Your Own Backyard.” 

Her AP Language and Composition class had multiple assignments tied to the true crime podcast, including a written letter to the Smart family and a final essay in which students must, using evidence Lambert lays out in the series, “present a viable and coherent theory of the crime that includes the role of Paul, his father Ruben, and his mother Susan.”

Kaydence Garrison is one of Ruiz’s students, a junior at Will C. Wood and a lover of true crime. Having a Cal Poly alumni teaching about the case made the difference for her.

“Knowing [Ruiz] went there almost created a reference point for the class,” Garrison said. “It made it feel so real knowing she was down there around the time when she was abducted.”

Junior Perri Cargill agreed. 

“The fact that [Smart] was around the same age as Ms. Ruiz made it so much more real,” Cargill said. “Seeing what Cal Poly alumni can accomplish with Ms. Ruiz and realizing Kristin wouldn’t experience that honestly made it more tragic.

The letter to the Smart family assignment, which teaches students how to both thoughtfully consider their audience and the purpose of their writing, was Cargill’s favorite assignment of the unit. 

Being able to meet Smart through Lambert’s telling of her inspired Cargill to live her own life to the fullest in Smart’s honor. 

Cargill wrote in the letter, “I see Kristen as my sister, as my mom, as my best friend, as my little brother, as my own stubbornness and wild love for life, I have never thought of her as ‘gone.’ I see her in the moonlight and the sun.”

Ruiz intended for the letter assignment to teach her students empathy and keep Smart’s story alive.

That was one of the biggest lessons I think we got out of this activity, putting yourself in those shoes and trying to figure out what you can say to a family in pain,” Ruiz said

After teaching with the podcast for some time, Ruiz posted about her curriculum on Facebook and became online friends with Chris Lambert’s mom. 

Now with a connection to Lambert, Ruiz then organized a Q&A session over Zoom for her students, giving them the opportunity to speak with the now globally famous “musician turned journalist” as described by the in-class materials. 

Cargill helped Ruiz meticulously review all the submitted questions to make sure the right ones were prioritized for the Zoom interview, and Ruiz even had the class practice their questions the day before their meeting with Chris to make sure everything would go to plan.

“I didn’t sleep the night before meeting Chris, but on the day of the talk, I had to kick the students out after they were 20 minutes late to their next class,” Ruiz mentioned, laughing.

Garrison was excited for the opportunity to meet Lambert, but those nerves washed away when she actually logged into the Zoom and met the host whose voice she had been listening to all semester. 

“You could tell he cared about Kristin and cared about bringing that story to life. He was honest and transparent about all the work he’s done,” Garrison said. 

Teaching the Smart case has increased student engagement in Ruiz’s class, she said.

On the day of the Lambert Q&A, not a single student was absent and every student had their cameras on in Zoom call, eager for their opportunity to talk to the man that has become their connection to Kristin Smart. 

No student has even missed an assignment in the unit, a feat any teacher wishes to have from their class, especially when doing remote teaching in the pandemic. 

“Watching my students be so engaged in real time was unique and something I will definitely remember, it has opened my eyes to moving away from traditional teaching and doing better at getting their attention,” Ruiz said. 

Garrison said learning about the Smart case impacted her life.

“I have learned to step out of my world and insert myself into another person’s life, it changed my perspective on how I interact with people,” Garrison said. 

Learning about Kristin Smart has left an ever-growing impact on the students of Ruiz’s AP Language and Composition classes, with students stopping class in its tracks to discuss the arrests of Paul and Ruben Flores, despite the fact they had completed the unit on “Your Own Backyard” weeks ago. 

Ruiz also mentioned how all of her students kept trying to make plans to travel to the central coast to “find Kristin themselves” at the Huasna site that Lambert spoke about in Episode Five: “The P”. 

Now that she’s listened to the podcast multiple times, Ruiz has become more reflective on her time at Cal Poly. She thinks about the walk Smart took on May 25, 1996 to campus from a party at 35 Crandall Way. 

“Any of us know that walk that Kristin did on her last night, that could have been any person on any night,” Ruiz said. “When you have experienced that walk, it brings it to life even more.”

Update May 20: The story originally said Ruiz taught about the case in her AP Literature class, but she actually taught about the case in her AP Language and Composition class. 

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