DON'T KNOW MUCH
10 January 2003
I can remember that line of the old song, and the next "don't know much
biology..." but it starts to get fuzzy after that.
"The Today Show" is doing a teaser for an upcoming series on American History
(which looks to be as much of a hit as Ken Burns' "Civil War" was). They started
with asking a bunch of history questions to people on the street--kind of Jay Leno-esque.
I was imagining how I would do with the same questions. I knew a bit more than the
respondents they showed did, but not much.
But they started yesterday's segment by asking what the Wright Bros. did before they
built their plane. I don't remember the four choices (they made it easy: multiple choice),
but I intuitively knew that they had built bicycles (and not because I ride one either).
Today it was which wife wrote to her husband while he was attending the Continental
Congress, and of course it was Abigail Adams--and easy question (I think).
Pulling those answers from the dusty corners of my brain where I store long unused
information I haven't needed since I left high school, I was immediately catapulted back
to my sophomore year at St. Vincent's High.
I don't remember the name of our history teacher, but she was a lay teacher (i.e., not
a nun) and I remember she was small and perky and loved history. History was always
a very dull and boring subject for me. It was a series of memorization of dates and events
that happened long, long ago and I could care less about.
But this teacher made history come alive. From day one I loved it. I loved imagining
myself back in the time of the Revolution and what it must have been like to be there.
This was a whole new experience for me--learning to love history.
But three months into the year, the teacher's husband was transferred and she had to
leave. Her replacement (who still teaches there, some 40 years later!) came in that first
day and asked what we had been learning. When she saw how much we had covered in the first
two or three months of the year, she was appalled. We hadn't done nearly enough.
She wasn't a very exciting teacher to begin with--kind of a Julia Childs look alike,
without the sparkle that Julia has, but the same kind of voice. From day 1, she stood at
the blackboard, and wrote down names and dates and held quizzes to see how well we'd
memorized them. History died for me that day.
Ironically, when I read books, I would read historical fiction and enjoyed the author's
take on various events. But I never again felt as inspired as I did for those first few
months of my sophomore year.
When I think back over the years of my schooling, which ended abruptly when I flunked
out of UC Berkeley gloriously after a semester and a half (sometime I'll go back and write
about my brief time at Berkeley...it's sometimes amazing the insight I get when I just sit
here and free associate), I think about the teachers who stand out. There are those who
stand out because they were so good and those who stand out because they were so bad.
Poor old Sister Colette. She taught us biology in Sophomore year. I don't think Sister
Colette was meant to be a teacher, but convent life is about obedience, and so she was
obedient. Biology embarrassed her. It all embarrassed her, whether because she
didn't know what she was talking about or because she was genuinely embarrassed. We didn't
learn much that year--and the only thing I take from that year is the amusement that we
all felt when she said we would skip the chapters on reproduction. Poor Sister Colette
just couldn't handle teaching a bunch of teen age girls about mating behaviors, even of
single celled lifeforms. We learned so little that year that if we were going to go on to
college, we had to take the class again in our Senior year.
But then there were teachers like Sister Mary William. She taught English and there
was a lady who knew how to excite and inspire her students. To this day, I credit her for
getting me started with writing. And I will never forget how special I felt when, at the
end of my freshman year, she asked me to join the yearbook staff as the sophomore editor
(working my way up, over the next three years, to senior editor).
It wasn't only the high school teachers who stand out. When I got to Cal, for those
brief months, I began taking required courses and enrolled in Physics 10, which was taught
by Owen Chamberlain, 1959 Nobel Laureate. Now you'd think that a Nobel Laureate would be
able to inspire his students. Maybe he did if you were "physically inclined,"
but I hated loathed despised and abominated Physics. To this day, the only thing I
remember from that class is the Doppler effect, and then only because a friend practically
beat it into my head.
Ironic that having hated Physics so much, I ended up working for the Physics Department
(and, briefly, for both Chamberlain and co-prize winner, Emilio Segre). While
working for the Physics Department, I had occasion to sit in on the class taught by my
boss, Fred Reif. Fred just had a "way" with students. Even though this was a
class for graduate students, and even though I didn't understand most of it, I really
enjoyed his style of teaching.
Teaching is often a thankless task. I so admire anyone who does it for a living,
especially those who can make an impression on kids after they leave school. I don't know
who is responsible for me knowing that the Wright Bros. built bicycles or that Abigail
Adams had opinions which were important to her husband's participation in the Continental
Congress, but I'd like to think it was because of the fire that long-forgotten teacher
started in me for the brief time that she touched my life.