Saturday, February 20, 2010

Eating in science class

Religion is about origins, stories about why we're here, great mythologies to explain greater mysteries.

I teach in a public school. While religion is not shunned as much as professional haters would love you to believe (it is perfectly legal for kids to pray in school), I do make a conscious effort not to tip my hand on matters of myth, even myths I happen to believe.

Still, when you dance with energy and life, you rub shoulders with the inexplicable.

If my lambs learn nothing else, they learn that food comes from the air (CO2) and water, molecules joined together by plants, using energy from the sun. We have a riotous collection of assorted (and often misidentified) plants sprouting all over the classroom.

I needed to thin my jungle of basil this week. As I plucked out a small seedling, the roots still holding on to bits of peat moss, I (again) reminded them where plant stuff comes from. The leaves I was about to eat were formed from carbon dioxide that was formed in the deepest recesses of their cells, inside mitochondria deep in their brains, in their muscles, in their bones.

The warm moist breath each student releases every few seconds carries this evidence of this primal act, food back to water and carbon dioxide, so we may live.

As I eat the leaf, I hear a stifled ewww.... My world briefly dissolves into riotous deliciousness that surprises me every time I eat basil. I hope my eyes do not look unfocused. Professionals do not exhibit ecstasy in the classroom.

There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination
intact. And by that force
it becomes real,
to the poor animals
who suffer and die
that we may live.

William Carlos Williams, excerpted from The Host

I teach biology. And while I thrust nonsensical sounds and cycles at the children--NADPH and Calvin and ATP and Krebs--the miracle happens around them, as they breathe, as they eat.

They live in biology--they piss and eat and shit and breathe and some even fuck, all acts tied to life, and we reduce it to safe, nonsensical syllables, which will be tested by something as abstract as "the state" in May.

The simple act of eating a leaf in class becomes a memorable moment because it is tied back to life, to who or what we are.

It's a rare thing in class, going back to origins, and it is a dangerous area in a world where folks kill each other over which myth matters most. So I teach the religion of empiricism, of reductionism.

But even in a public high school science class, using a standardized curriculum polished to a safe sheen through decades of catering to political and religious influences, reductionism occasionally fails to hide what's true.

In moments of clarity for those who pay attention, the world can become incomprehensibly (and beautifully) connected even in a boring science class, taken because you have to, because the old folks around you said so.

The photo is from last summer, fruit from our gardens. A gazillion basil plants, and I can't find nary a picture.


Sue VanHattum said...

Every time you write one of these, I've gotta say Blessed be! And maybe Halleluyah! too. Mmm, gotta grow me some basil this year, so I can stat making my own pesto.

Unknown said...

I don't think I began to understand the life cycle until I began to garden. I even pulled an A in AP Biology and hadn't a clue about life and death beyond the pain of a friend committing suicide (which was still so spiritually foggy that I couldn't completely comprehend death).

My sons think our compost bin is "magic" because stuff disappears in it. It's become a game to see what has and hasn't disappeared.

We're still crappy gardeners. It's not as easy as people think. Not for us at least. Tomatoes and lettuce and basil and peppers all grow easily, but I'm still determined to grow pumpkins and squash.

One thing that shocks me is how little water it all takes. Even in the dry desert, it's as if plants have a self-determined sense of survival. Anthropomorphism, perhaps, but there is something to it that I can't pinpoint exactly.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

Thanks for the words--these are my favorite kind of posts. As far as basil, toss some seeds and stand back. The stuff is as cranky as me!

Dear John,

Pumpkins and squash love the northeast--a little water, a little sun, and they take over.

Survival isn't a human instinct, it's life.

Compost bins, soil, life, all magic, al entwined--your sons are lucky to have a Dad who recognizes mysteries and miracles for what they are.

Peter Scholtens said...

Some of my favourite memories of teaching are of events like these - reminding kids that when they are eating apples, they are eating ovaries.