Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thomas Hardy, science teacher

I’m reading The Mayor of Casterbridge again—it has long been my favorite novel, though I only read it every decade or so. This is my first time reading it in my 6th decade.

Thomas Hardy sees things, obvious things, I fail to see. That's why I read fiction.


Yesterday I wandered out into the our version of Snowmageddon to look for crocuses. (That we’re now referring to snowstorms in Biblical terms fit for the National Prayer Breakfast makes me shudder.)

I didn’t find any crocuses, but I did see a patch of gold under the ice of the pond. I waited long enough to see it slide ever so slowly. Still alive.

Still alive. As I am. And you. As none of us will be in less than a lifetime.

We are threaded together as part of the living, a patch of gold sliding under the ice, a crocus yet unseen, you and me. Most things alive start out as single cells.

I teach to the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (NJCCCS), and (occasionally) teach science. The standards were written by a committee, and committees, like corporations, are immortal.

We are starting the cell division unit. My lambs will learn the stages of mitosis (“I pretend my apple talks”), memorize a few words, and maybe, just maybe, a few will see mitosis as it is instead of arbitrary divisions of a process that has occurred trillions of times within themselves.

If you do not grasp the awe, the joy, the fecundity of life within your own carcass, memorizing the action in anaphase won’t do much for you.

So here’s my task—tying the process that got each one of my students from the size of the period at the end of this sentence to the spectacular creatures they are now, then tie that to every other living thing on this planet at this moment.

The NJCCCS opens the science standards with a quote from President Obama:
“Today more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation.”

The sentence makes no sense, unless we have some top secret technology capable of literally blowing the planet apart.

We are not planets. Science will not save us. And security for organisms as individuals is a mirage.

Michael Henchard, the Mayor, is dead, or perhaps was never alive, yet he affects me. Those of us immersed in words live in a mirage even as we pretend to know otherwise. Ambition does funny things to us.

And so I wait for the crocus, and settle for the flash of gold beneath the ice. The fish breathes under the ice, feeling a world beyond my comprehension, but feeling it nonetheless. We are tied to life, not the other way around.

That's science, not fiction, but until we learn how to teach science, the novelists will lead the way.


Sue VanHattum said...

I am grateful for the words you put onto this web. We can only connect through words (and images) in this strange world we choose to spend hours inhabiting. We don't smell one another, or see one another in the usual ways. But the connections still feed my mind. And your words feed my soul. Blessed be.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

I am grateful for your words as well.

We don't smell one another....

I'm glad you put it this way--smell is a vastly under-rated way to see the world, at least among humans, and has a profound effect on how we view things. It amazes me we work so hard to obliterate it.

There's a whole world out there. (But you know this already.)

Sue VanHattum said...

I'm a bit chemically sensitive. Perfumes are so intense. I used to get headaches from people's perfume, now I just feel like that's all I'm breathing.

I don't mind smelling a sweaty friend. To me, that's much nicer than all the junk people wear. ;^)