So I should probably mention that I detest public speaking. Had I chosen to enlist as a coal miner, model, or French mime this phobia would not be a problem and in the case of uh . . . mime-ery an attribute; yet teaching necessitates standing before a class of over-stimulated youth and – unfortunately – talking.
Fancying myself Sherlock Holmes (seriously for ten consecutive years, I donned a hunting cap, pipe, and syringe – I was nothing if not authentic) I approached society with a polite but friendly reticence, preferring the company of a few close friends and family to crowded bars and orgies. The rest of the family were more extroverted: Dad and Katie could find themselves stranded amid the snow-capped wastes of, say . . . . Siberia and make fifty new friends within the hour. They’re born on stage. I always chose to work behind the curtain, making others look good while hoisting props and managing the fires; to paraphrase Prufrock, no Prince Hamlet, am I, indeed.
This is not to suggest that I possessed no skills whatsoever in the profession. Somehow my own inherent nervousness in the classroom seasoned my lessons with an honest excitement that cannot be duplicated by an 80-year old professor who recites his lessons with the same enthusiasm a twelve-year-old recites the Code of Conduct.
Moreover, it helped that my level of maturity synched well with the kids. My lessons on chemistry were peppered with references to alchemy, talks of wizardry, potion-making, philosopher’s stones, and turning lead into gold. I compared the strategies of the British army in the Revolutionary War to turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy VI. Wanted posters in Assassin’s Creed formed a good foundation for ‘memory’ in the immune system: “The more posters around, the easier it is for white blood cells to find culprits.” Nearly every lesson on photons, force, and philosophy referenced films: “Back to the Future,” “Star Wars,” or Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
After discussing the science of Star Trek teleporters, I even managed to insert a ten-minute introduction to Schrödinger, his cat and quantum physics — I couldn’t tell whether the kids loved or hated the lesson and thus assumed both (haha, physics humor). At any rate, they listened and therefore cared . . . most of the time.
Of course we did more than just talk. For dyslexics, multisensory is the key ingredient in education this day and age; nearly every administrator at a faculty meeting or parent-conference braces every welcome, debate, and pitch upon the word, much like a priest clings to a rosary in the midst of an exorcism. It’s our totem and salvation, especially when attempting to restore interest in Ferdinand Magellan or Newton’s First Law right after lunch.
For science, we built a giant flower – nearly a meter tall – from PVC piping, construction paper, and hot glue. My fifth graders eagerly dived into the project: constructing thorns, petals, stems, leaves, and even teeth and tentacles – they wanted to make it carnivorous. Afterwards we labeled all the parts in part to instill the basics of plant anatomy, mostly because I felt it was necessary to justify the week-long project. To this day, I still remember the giant plant as one of my favorite lessons during that first month, and the one which I’m still the most proud since the inspiration was all my own. Ironically the kids actually learned something; they remember the assignment and their labels weeks after – even the sepal which I always forget/ignore.
Thus, I came to rely more heavily on projects and experiments throughout the year – if only as a distraction from in-class fighting and chaos. While discussing Native Americans, we constructed paper mache masks. In physics, my sixth grade built balloon racers. My eighth graders built egg devices which we dropped from the school roof – at great cost to life and limb on my part. My seventh grade crafted animal and plant cells from Jello molds. We layered wet newspaper on soda bottles for paper mache volcanoes and set them off with yeast, hydrogen peroxide, and Dawn. I severely burnt my fingers on several occasions playing with dry ice – the kids loved these demonstrations, which was cause for their frequency.
Amid all the mistakes and panic, inspiration and excitement remained my first priority. I wanted to get the kids excited about science and history; to look back at chemistry and admit to themselves: “That was fun! I’ll have to learn more.” If one day, they gaze at a National Geographic, suddenly curious about the wonders the world can hold for them, well then I did my job.