Today is both Valentine's Day and my state's 100th anniversary! Happy day! Before that, though, Darwin Day was on Sunday, and I thought I'd share a post on an Arizona teacher I only later came to love. I didn't name names -- I don't know if he'd have wanted me to -- but those who had the same teacher will recognize him, and perhaps there are more like him. Love of science is appropriate for today, anyway, as is Arizonan stubbornness.
My high school years were unremarkable. I didn’t hate them, but they certainly weren’t my glory days. Still, everyone has standout memories from high school. Some of mine -- crashing a school dance, cliques, that one class you take because the teacher lets you ditch -- are fairly universal. Others -- rattlesnake awareness days, meeting friends at a desert lake at the end of a precipitous dirt-road drive or at a restaurant called “The Feedbag,” cowboy fights breaking out at lunch -- might be more local, but folks from my school will recognize them.
The ones I remember the most are a little more unique. The Time I Forgot to Wear Pants. The Pavlov Drooling Experiment in Math Class. The Time My Science Teacher Gave me the Silent Treatment, Forcing me to Accept Evolution and Reality.
Because yesterday was Darwin Day, We’ll focus on that last one today. Sorry if you wanted to hear the pants story.
This may come as a shock to anyone who has experienced one of my diatribes against science haters of all stripes -- but in high school, I went through a brief, extremely enthusiastic, and very embarrassing creationist phase.
Our biology teacher probably wouldn’t survive in today’s school system, at least not with the recent revival of creationist fervor. This was a guy who focused pointedly and heavily on biological evolution, a guy who made it known to anyone who asked that he was an atheist, a guy who drew Darwin fish in everyone’s yearbooks. When a student in class sneezed, he didn’t just refrain from the mildly religious “God bless you.” He said “Go to Hell.” He was an anti-theist, before I knew that there was such a thing.
His class was revered and reviled in equal measure. His worksheets were legendary. The labs were long and difficult, but invariably fascinating. He had a seemingly endless collection of formaldehyde-preserved animals -- hag fish, worms, bony fish, sea urchins, snakes, a shark. When a handful of us saw Peter Benchley’s Beast on television and pestered him about squid the next day, he broke out the squid-in-a-jar so we could see that squid did, in fact, have small curved claws on some of their suckers.
And he was weird. During our fetal pig lab, he offered (seriously, it seemed) “five bucks to anyone who can suck on their pig’s nose till the head caves in.” When my lab partner needed to refill a chemical at our station, he sent her to the refrigerator. She had to reach behind what appeared to be giant fleshy grapefruits. They turned out to be immense ram testicles. In his fridge, for some reason. I think his lunch was in there too.
On test days, he wore all black. He liked to talk about “masticating” whenever he got the chance, knowing what we all mistook that word for. He looked like Satan.
I’m serious. He had salt-and-pepper hair when we knew him, and wore plaid shirts (except for test days) and glasses, but even then we thought he looked like a particularly mischievous Devil, with the goatee perfectly trimmed for the effect. When we found an old faculty photo with all-black hair and goatee, we wondered why the writeup didn’t include “soul contracts signed this year.”
Still, I thought he was an eccentric genius -- until I got it into my head that this “EVILution” stuff was bullshit, and took it upon myself to write a ridiculously lengthy report to that effect. I titled it “A Fairy Tale for Adults,” because originality wasn’t my strong suit at the time. While normal teenagers avoided even the assigned homework, I threw in a 20-page, footnoted, completely unnecessary and not-requested report. Because I was a really devoted little shit.
I handed it to another biology teacher (so I was a chicken shit too), who generously read it and (even more generously) added gentle notes throughout. They were all things like “No Kim. This isn’t true,” and “Your sources have not done their research.” I ignored it all. I knew I had The Answer™.
I spent the rest of the semester doing dickish things like filling out the worksheets with caveats (Question: Give examples of both parallel and convergent evolution. My answer: SOME SCIENTISTS BELIEVE that the eyes of different animals show convergent evolution…) I asked; while thinking I already had the answers; about complexity, the second law of thermodynamics, and mathematical odds. Basically, I was a troll.
I tried to provoke my teacher. I dropped hints about the “studies” I’d cited in my paper. I knew the teacher I handed the report to had let him read a copy. I knew he had read it. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.
And … I never got one.
He had corrected me on every error I’d ever made. Every slight error on a worksheet, or lab, or exam. Every stupid offhand comment I made once I started my creationist kick. He had a portrait of Darwin behind his desk, for crying out loud. But now, nothing.
I finally asked him about it after classes had wrapped up for the year. He responded by referring to his own initials: B.S. He added, “I think you know better," and that was it.
Then he ignored me. He didn’t speak to me for the entire next year. I didn’t have him that year, but we passed. If I was in a group of people, he’d make a point of saying “Hi, John. Hi, Sarah. Hi, Chris … Well, I’ll see you all later.”
I thought, Wow. He’s mad! I got him good.
But really, it was just that he’d said all he could. That’s it. I was the troll, and he didn’t feed me. And, after a while, it worked. Eventually, I went back to reading real science books, and I abandoned the very appealing feeling of having The Answer™. Real life turned out to be less about membership in a secret, in-the-know club; and more about, well, real life. It was so much more beautiful that way.
That teacher is a big reason I came to accept evolution by natural selection once more. But more than that, he let me -- forced me -- to think for myself. By not rising to my ridiculous bait, by not responding except to indicate that it wasn't worth a scientific response, and by not doing the thinking for me except to present information and model how to think; he forced me to change my mind, because I was wrong. I didn’t see it for years, but that was huge.
My teacher really was weird. And maybe he really did hate me. But I don’t think so. I think he thought quite highly of me. And not just me, but all of us. He knew we were better than this. He knew we were capable of thinking for ourselves, of taking the world both seriously and with a healthy dose of dark humor, of reaping the consequences for saying and doing stupid shit. And by all that was holy (which was nothing in his view, but still), we were going to do so. We were going to be challenged.
He died several years ago, and I never had a chance to go back and thank him. It’s sad that he’d probably be in hot water today. I hope Arizona gets its act together about science education. I hope in high school, my son has "jerk" teachers who push critical thinking and love for the natural world. I guess I can probably fill in until that happens.