Open Letter

To: My High School Science Teachers

From: A Screw-Up

Re: My Failures and Yours

08 • 15 • 05

Dear Science Teachers:

I recently read that one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth. And that almost no one in the general public knows what DNA is, or radiation, or a molecule. Imagine the ignorance. I thought everyone knew that a molecule is a collection of styrofoam balls held together tenuously by drinking straws. And that radiation makes the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant a hilariously terrible place to work (but sometimes cures cancer if harnessed by experts who, unlike Monty Burns, use their powers for good). And that DNA is swirly and makes you gay.

Even I know all that and, as you know, I hated science. Or rather, I wasn't good at science, and therefore I began to dislike and avoid it. I understand this phenomenon is, like impotence, common enough and nothing to be embarrassed about. Playwright-turned-pedagogue-extraordinaire John Mighton talks about how easy it is for kids to get alienated from math and science. These subjects are taught sequentially, with each lesson requiring comprehension of the last. In addition, we are all very sure that some people have a talent for math and science while others don't. So when kids hit a wall--and sooner or later almost everyone does--they usually decide that they just aren't among the chosen few who get to be quantitatively competent. Maybe they were good at math last week, but this week (as of Lesson #14: Mixed Fractions) they just don't have that kind of brain. Never did, never will, it turns out. Luck of the draw. (How eager we are to confine ourselves to a few safe streams of endeavour to avoid potential humiliation. Teachers, do you ever sketch, or sing, or fix small appliances? Me neither--not my thing.)

So, like lots of people, I discovered somewhere along the line that I was bad at science. I may have announced this deficiency with more bombast than the average student, as I secretly thought it said something good about me. For example, I was sure that my inability to memorize things (like fetal pig anatomy and portions of the periodic table) was a sign of my mental sophistication: I wasn't an automaton, I congratulated myself; I was a clever, creative young person. (What could you do, my poor science teachers? My teenaged arrogance, like a dense, jet-black toupee, was too egregious to even be spoken of aloud, let alone removed through benevolent intervention.) Yes, I felt fine about being bad at science. It, you know, wasn't my thing. I just had to stagger through a couple of compulsory courses and that was that.

But today, over a decade later, I am full of regret on this score. Science so intrigues me now; it seems so important--not only in the things it accomplishes, but in the things it demands. My impatient adolescent self was put off by the seriousness of it: why did we have to control these variables with such buttock-clenching intensity? Why did we have to complete these arbitrary and repetitive tasks with such ridiculous focus? Why did we have to shade our microscopic portraits using stippling? (Ok--this I still don't get: why every observation made in grade 10 science must be rendered through pointillism.)

I don't really know anything more about science than I did then, but I find myself more able to appreciate some things I dismissed at the time. I can better imagine how a small, mundane task done carefully a thousand times might be related to a larger, more important project. And I can now fathom enduring the former for the sake of the latter. I can see the value of just watching something closely and writing down what you see. I am officially in love with the idea of the hypothesis: for any given thing that's going to happen in life, first say what you think is going to happen. Then when the thing happens, however it happens, you are cornered into contemplation and comparison. The possibility of disengaged observation or, worse, donning a knowing, world-weary smirk in response to the world's unfolding plummets to almost zero.

I missed out on the discipline I now find so alluring because I thought I was bad at it and I didn't much care. What I thought was an irrelevant shoot of incompetence, however, was in fact attached to a long, deep root of jerkiness. If only someone had taken me aside and said: just so you know, while you may think you're bad at memorizing grainy handouts full of stray trivia, you are in fact bad at: noticing things in the world; caring about how those things work; thinking methodically; attending to serendipities of nature; and experiencing wonder at life's machinery and the rules that govern it--rules that generations of geniuses have derived out of thin air using only the brains that we as a species, by the way, have yet to understand. Just so you know, kiddo, not being good at science is not being good at being alive. Have fun in gym class.

But if you believed this, as I do now, you never said it to me. I left high school believing that science was battered textbooks with prisms on the cover and dead frogs in a bucket reeking of formaldehyde. It goes without saying that strictly speaking, all this is my fault and not yours. Nevertheless, I find myself wishing that we had both tried harder. As high school teachers, your job was not just to have Erlenmeyer flasks on hand should some precocious youngster care to give them a whirl. Your job was to wade into the terrible swamps of pubescent arrogance and there do tireless battle with smugness and indifference until, after long and weary contention, those dread sentinels yielded, granting you access to the undefended blob of ignorance it was your solemn duty to pierce.

Let me be clear. I am not asking, on behalf of your future students, for a sales pitch, or (god forbid) more PowerPoint presentations, or gimmicky dumbings-down. I'm not asking you to make kids feel they are smarter and more accomplished than they really are. I'm not asking you to become more charismatic than you are or to work harder. I'm just asking you to make the stakes a little clearer. I am asking, as you explain some dissection or some optical or chemical or electrical thing, that you find a way to signal to your impossible audience that if they will pay attention for a minute, you can teach them a fragment of something they need to know about how to live in their brains in their bodies in the world. And then do it.

To the swamp!

A Screw-Up