Ed and I spend a lot of time reading aloud - actually, I do the reading aloud and he does the listening. Ed has a mild form of dyslexia which required me to read aloud to him many of his textbooks in college and seminary, and we have found in the years since that it is a wonderful mutually enriching arrangement for all kinds of interesting books, mostly nonfiction. We take our time, sometimes stopping after a paragraph or even a sentence to discuss what we have just learned. After reading At Home by Bill Bryson, we enjoyed his writing style so much that we bought three other books by him, and we are now reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is basically a history of science, from the atoms through the entire universe, chemistry, geology, biology, botany, astronomy, microbiology, and everything in between. We have read about scientists and philosophers and inventors and physicists and all other types of scientific achievers (and bumblers) who have influenced our perspective of our world. Some were pure geniuses, some were funny, some were off-the-wall personalities who discovered things by sheer accident, and others were mildly to severely eccentric. While Bryson gives details about the people, he also writes about the fascinating details of science - the incredible vastness of the universe, energy, cells, what make up our bodies and what make up our Earth. The whole thing is mind-boggling - the mystery, the curiosity, the awe. And it’s science.
We were only a third of the way through with the book when I just had to laugh at the absurdity of it all - my being fascinated with science at 55 years old! If you had told my adolescent self that I would be reading about science - of my own volition - later on in life, I would have choked in amusement. Science? No way! I’m into music and the arts! I’m into French and Abe Lincoln! I used avoid science and its sister subject, math, like the plague. The only math class I ever had any interest in was that of algebra, and that is because I had a very good teacher who made the subject intriguing.
Of course, in high school, science was a requirement. I spent hours trying to figure out which would be the least offensive branch - chemistry? biology? physics? I think those were my three choices, and they all basically sucked. I was not just disinterested in the curricula - I was horrified by the thought of the time I would have to waste, along with having a dread that I would not be able to maintain the good grades to which I had become accustomed. I absolutely HATED science.
After hearing about dissecting frogs and the like, I discounted biology. Physics was totally incomprehensible to me. So it was chemistry by default.
That is how I ended up in East High chemistry class in my senior year of high school. I had successfully avoided science until I could not officially avoid it any longer. After all, I had to graduate, didn’t I? This was the hell I would have to endure.
Unfortunately, as I had feared, it was a wasted year. My teacher, whose name my subconscious self has purposefully buried for all eternity, was new to our school. On the first day of class, he admitted that he was not trained in chemistry; he was supposed to be a biology teacher, but he was stuck with us as we were stuck with him. I admired him for his honesty, but he was indeed a horrible, ill-prepared teacher, partly because he didn’t really know the subject, and partly because he didn’t have any passion for the subject. I only remember two things about the class: Melting glass beakers into funny shapes over a Bunsen burner, and the final exam. The week before the final exam, again the teacher apologized for not being able to teach chemistry properly, and he said as a sign of recompense, he was going to give us an actual copy of the final exam ahead of time, because, he admitted, it wasn’t our fault that he couldn’t teach chemistry. The rest of the class, with a sigh of relief, memorized the answers and that was that.
For some odd reason, the whole situation was unacceptable to me. I had never “cheated” for a final exam, and I wasn’t going to start now, even if it was teacher-approved. So I threw the exam away and threw myself into studying.
Studying, of course, was just memorization and not learning. I never learned chemistry. But I remember trying to look at some kind of element table or chart where I had to memorize the layout, and I thought to myself, “This looks like a train...this looks like a boat...this looks like a flower...” and tried to memorize the layout accordingly. Total waste of time, of course, but I made an A on the exam without the cheat sheets.
Today in 2011, I’m reading about chemistry and loving it. I’m devouring information on the planets and galaxies and theory of relativity and neutrons and protons and the rest and I’m in heaven. On top of that, I’m a medical transcriptionist and work with information on anatomy, pharmaceuticals, and lab values all day every day. It’s a mighty big leap from that hopeless chemistry class with Mr. What’s His Name. Who would have dreamed? Not even Einstein, I would suspect, could have come up with such an unlikely scenario!
I’ve spent the past month in introspection, trying to figure out why all this fascinating stuff we are reading now didn’t interest me back then, and my conclusion is this: I never had a great science teacher. To be a great teacher, you need three elements, in my opinion. 1) Knowledge of the subject, 2) A personal passion for the subject, and 3) The ability to pass that passion onto your students. I never had a science teacher in my 12 years of schooling who had those three qualifications. My interest was never nudged, my curiosity never piqued, and that passion was certainly never ignited. My goodness! What we could accomplish with our kids if all our teachers possessed this sort of energy and talent! Young minds, already curious, are ready to soak up education like sponges, if only it is done with passion instead of boredom. How would my life have been different had I been able to read this book in high school? Who wouldn’t want to hear about the scientist who was so paranoid about human interaction that he would flee if anyone tried to engage him in conversation? About the brilliant astronomer who, even in the midst of genius thoughts, still believed the canals on Mars were made by Martians? About the intellectual chemist whose unfortunately eccentricity was tasting every substance he discovered - including cyanide? About how Albert Einstein applied for a high school teacher position and was rejected (wonder if anyone was eventually called on the carpet for that one? “You wouldn’t hire WHO?”)? Would you rather read true stories about real human beings with their problems and personality traits or would you rather just memorize a date in history when uranium was discovered? These are the kinds of things that make history of anything - and therefore the present - come alive. Passion is what makes students want to take study to the next level, whether it’s to develop exceptional skills in gymnastics or to discover the next great theory of the universe or the next promising treatment for cancer. That passion - unfortunately - is not something that one can assume will appear. But if the time is right - and the student is ready - and the teacher is passionate - what miracles can occur!
This is why I'm so excited that our oldest granddaughter who just turned 8, Caroline, is fascinated with science in all its forms. She's young enough to form lasting relationships with insatiable curiosity, ideas, awe, and discovery. She has people in her life who are fueling this curiosity and stimulating this drive for knowledge. She is lucky.
Now - do you have any idea, any idea, of how small a molecule is? Did you know that a molecule is so small that the number of molecules found in 2.016 grams of hydrogen gas is 6.0221367 x 10 to the 23rd? It’s a meaningless number to most of us, but think of it this way: that number is “equivalent to the number of popcorn kernels needed to cover the United States to a depth of nine miles, or cupfuls of water in the Pacific Ocean, or soft drink cans that would, evenly stacked, cover the Earth to a depth of 200 miles.” With amazing facts like that, who needs science “fiction”? The truth is enough to engage even the most lazy of minds. I have managed to turn science the enemy into science the friend. And my life is richer for it.