Thursday, April 29, 2010

She (un)blinded me with science

This story originally was written in an e-mail last night to my junior-high science teacher (who, it turns out, still is a junior-high science teacher, 30 years later). I've removed some names here and there, but otherwise, it's exactly as it happened. The periodic-table chant mentioned in the first paragraph was an assignment Mrs. V____ gave us in which we had to memorize, recite, and decode a lengthy mnemonic for remembering each item in the Periodic Table of Elements, in order. To this day, I can remember the first part: "Hi-hee-Li-Bee, B-ka-nof, Nee-Nah, My Gal Sips Chlorine" (Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Potassium, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine, Neon, Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminum, Silicon, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Chlorine). She remembered the chant itself, but not the contract grade it had been part of, so I sat down to tell her the story of what a watershed moment that quarter had been for me.

The contract grade had 16 parts. The periodic-table chant was one of them, and may even have been four of them, since I think you taught it to us in four chains. (I tried to look it up today and only found ONE hit, a 1932 article called, "Methods versus the Mechanics of Instruction," in Science Educator. I'd love to read it if I can find it in a library; online it appears to be part of a proprietary database one must pay to use.) One related gimmick that I picked up from you was that as I recall, we received a grade in one quarter for memorizing the chant and being able to tell you what each one was, and then ANOTHER 100 if we still remembered it weeks later. I used that trick when I was teaching ninth-grade English and would do a poetry unit that involved memorizing and reciting any poem from the textbook that was at least 12 lines long. If I ever get on "Jeopardy!" I'm sure that trick will help.

Another item of the 16 had something to do with clipping and summarizing articles about science. I can still see myself sitting on the brick hearth of our house on M______, clipping articles from
Reader's Digest and really enjoying reading them.

The list was set up so that if we did the first 14 items -- surely to some acceptable standard, yet it was clear that there was a minimum of judgment calls, because I remember very much liking that the element of doubt that I mentioned previously was not there (the hidden "catch" that always seemed to me to be there as a kid - more on that, later) -- then we would unquestionably receive a 'C.' This aspect gave me the confidence to try to do it, because while 14 tasks was a long list, it was a finite one and I could be sure of the positive outcome. Initially I *only* aimed at the 'C,' having found that hard enough to achieve. When those 14 were done, the fact that I had 14 down, just 1 to go, if I wanted a 'B' tempted me into doing #15, a model of something -- the solar system? an atom? -- with sticks and Styrofoam balls that I had to paint yellow, blue, and red.

So there I was, with #1-15 under my belt and still some time left in the quarter. The 'B' that I so rarely earned in those days, especially in science, was all mine, and I could rest. Except ... once again, there was one lone task between me and the 'A's I almost NEVER got in anything, even my good subjects.

What you didn't know, and my mother still vividly remembers discovering, was that I had an absolute and unswerving conviction that I was too dumb to figure out any of the things people had to figure out for science fair projects. In 5th grade at S____, I had to wait for the school bus with my neighbor J_____, and I remember her showing me one day a model she had built that showed how a battery worked. With God as my witness, ma'am: **** I THOUGHT SHE HAD FIGURED THAT OUT ALL BY HERSELF!!! **** She was "only" in High Ac, and I was in TAG
["Talented and Gifted"], but if she could figure out on her own how a battery worked, then it was obvious I didn't have the right kind of mind for a science fair.

Every year, teachers told us to do a science-fair project, and some even gave us an 'F' if we didn't (pretty sure I got one from you in 7th for that). To me, there was no question or option of doing one, because there wasn't anything of the kind that I could figure out alone.

In sixth-grade TAG, we had had to do a yearlong project, guided by a model of the scientific method. Much of the curriculum in that class, I didn't do, for reasons long since lost to me. I suspect part of it is that it was so unstructured, and left to my own devices, I always would choose reading over any other activity. One day when kids were teasing me as they inevitably did in those days, my teacher stopped the class and gave them a long talk about how they should (a) mind their own business about who did what work and (b) reconsider their assessment of my mind, because she'd had a kid like me before and he read the whole encyclopedia from A to Z. After that, he asked for a medical encyclopedia. Eventually he became a doctor. The punchline, basically, was: "I'm not worried about her, and it's between the two of us what she learns, so you quit worrying yourselves about something that's not your business." :) As you can see, I never, ever forgot that. She's over at B_______ Elementary today, as she was when I drove out to see her the week of graduation to show off and to thank her.

I was so impressed I started reading through the
World Book myself, though I never got past the C volumes because there was so much fascinating material there. One topic that particularly grabbed me was about color, in paint and in light. It had this great illustration of an experiment one could do with a light bulb, some wires, and those colored sheets of film that spotlights use. I wanted to do my yearlong project on that topic, but when I went to draw the 16-frame storyboard, I couldn't think what to do after square #3, so I abandoned the project. For the rest of the year, I earned my grade by helping others with their projects instead; one was on sharks, and Sarah B_____'s was on how animated films are made, giving me a chance to help her do a stop-motion animation.

This brings us back to eighth-grade physical science and that tantalizing chance to earn an 'A,' if only I could overcome my phobia of Science Fair. So I went to my mother with my dilemma -- I want an 'A' so much, but how can I get one if it means having to do the impossible and come up with something like that battery model? Her stunning reply: "Well, then let's go up to the library and see if we can find something in the science-fair project books." Me:
THERE ARE BOOKS?!?!?!?!?!?!

The relief, dear lady, the relief! Never had it crossed my mind to think anything other than that J_____, with some hidden depth of genius, had dismantled a battery and deciphered its inner workings. Since I'd known I couldn't do that, then Q.E.D., I was incapable of a science-fair project, even when it meant certain failure. To discover now that all I had to do was find some already-done concept, follow the steps correctly, and show a known principle, was a burst of immense joy and excitement. As Mom and I pored over the books along the back wall of the branch library, it crossed my mind: What about that contraption in the encyclopedia? Would that be anything like these projects? Indeed, I was told, it would.

For weeks I assembled the parts. A friend from church had a son who worked the spotlights for her at W____ High -- eventually he became a professional production designer -- and he wrote down for me the gels I needed and the store to visit. It took a lot of tinkering with the light bulb to get it to come on when needed. Who even remembers whether it worked on the big day? What stays in mind is the project itself and the fact that I (I!) at last had managed to do one.

It wasn't until I was 20 years old and taking education classes in college that I got my first hint of what had been wrong all those years of feeling like Charlie Brown with Lucy's eternal football-snatching ways. Not until I was 30, and in my third year of a combined masters/Ph.D. program (having been admitted to the Ph.D. program despite only having my bachelors' under my belt), did I find out for sure that the stumbling block that had all my classmates -- and some years of middle-school, even me myself -- convinced I was dumb and didn't belong in Honors classes with the likes of them. (Your dad's class, BTW, was where I got my first indisputable proof to the contrary: I received my PSAT scores an hour after everyone else, so I didn't know how they'd done until the person behind me -- instead of passing back my score to me -- started passing it around the room to the others. I'd gotten a selection index of 217, outscoring not only the whole class of '85, but also everyone in the class of '84 save the valedictorian. The kids thought it was a fluke until we got the same results junior year. ;-> )

Finding out I had ADD-Inattentive Type changed my entire life, and my entire viewpoint on my schooling. And interestingly, though I majored in Education in college, and Curriculum and Instruction in graduate school, until that third year of Ph.D. study, not one teacher ever raised the possibility that I might have any kind of disability. I'm not saying that to blame *anyone*, because I don't; I just marvel at how we all can miss the obvious, especially with what some people call the "twice exceptional," kids who are gifted AND handicapped. Documenting my educational history for the diagnostic procedure was actually fun, as the guy couldn't believe how ample the documentation really was. I had all my report cards from second grade at [private school] onward, with their contradictory comments to illustrate just how far back it went.

So the upshot, where you're concerned at least, is --
THANK YOU. That contract grade was one of the single most positive experiences of my entire 1-12 career, and it showed me some hidden depths in myself I might not have found out any other way.

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