Saturday, March 20, 2010

Donald Hall, biology teacher

Plants strip electrons from water, and use them to help store energy in organic compounds. The left-overs are oxygen molecules. Any schoolchild knows we need oxygen, but few educated adults know why.

If you hold a flame to cool glass, a small patch of condensation forms, a brief patch of fog. It is unexpected, and often missed, unless you look for it. Oxygen is grabbing electrons and protons from the fuel—butane, wax, food, it matters not—and re-forming water.

Along the way the electron has given up energy captured by plants from sunlight—it’s what keeps you alive.

We teach this in biology, or rather we teach a litany of names, a parade of complex molecules that pass the electron down an energy gradient. We focus on the carriers, and in our earnestness, forget that it’s really all about the electron.


If you want to learn biology, read Donald Hall.

In "Poem with One Fact," Hall talks of enzymes and amino acids in a poem, a universe, really, that distinguishes life from what we call living. I trivialize it by trying to explain it--go read it.


If I used Donald Hall’s words in class, my lambs would soar—they’d forget the AP Exam as they watched an earthworm rhythmically work its way through mud, the peristalsis of life, of love. They’d tie the rocking to the rhythm of belly aches, to making love in the back seat of a dented Dodge Neon.

They’d stop worrying about future jobs and Jacuzzis lost in a freefalling economy, and get on their knees to sniff the sweet soil, knowing that’s where life starts, and that’s where life ends.

They’d no longer try to impress their impressionable parents with words like nicotinamide dinucleotide or ATP synthase (as powerful and poetic they sound when pronounced with care) and instead would say “eek… ook… oop… umm” to describe the journey of a particle of life, an electron, as it gets kicked around from water to sugar and back to water again.

What did you learn in biology today, love? Her mother asks. I saw on the syllabus you’re studying electron transport chains and chemiosmosis. Have you been keeping up with the reading? The exam is May 10th, we have work to do, no?

Amanda would scream EEK! at dinner, loud enough to make Grandma look over her diamond framed lens to scowl at her mother, who married well, but, well, not well enough.

OOK!—not quite as loud. Dad silently calculates the cost of 6 more weeks of sessions, and wonders if Xanax would be cheaper for this girl at the table, eeking and ooking, a girl who grew breasts and thighs and became this womanchild he does not know, eeking and ooking and eeking and ooking.

Oop—quieter now. Sam, her much younger brother, unplanned (ah, evolution) but not unloved, plays along. oop…oop….oop…oop. Amanda nods, smiles, and once more…Oop.

And now a very quiet umm, melodic, restful. The electron is back home, wrapped in water.

Clearly, the girl is troubled.

She gets up from the table, barefoot, and wanders outside under the crescent moon to check on her snow peas, their arched new stems breaking through the earth, just visible in the late dusk light, and thanks she knows not who for giving her light and life, while inside the adults sit in silence. The uneaten dinner grows cold, electrons trapped in brussel sprouts and butter, waiting to be released.

Condensation photo by fmanto, used under CC 3.0.


John Spencer said...

Part of why I'm excited about teaching all subjects next year is the overlap between them. I like the notion that poetry and science don't have to be separate entities and now you've given me a resource. Thanks!

doyle said...

Dear John,

I may put together a series of poems for next year's biology class--I'll send along a copy if I do.