25 April 2011

Ninth Grade Insurrection

In "A Study in Scarlet," Dr. Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes.  The latter stuns the former by declaring a prideful ignorance of many key subjects, among them politics and history.  They mean literally nothing to the famed detective.  That's largely how I felt about science classes.  I understood they were important to other people, and I readily accepted that I had benefited from scientific endeavors undertaken by inquisitive people I would never meet.  The social sciences (history, political science, sociology); these made sense to me, because they were about people.  I couldn't care less which critter belonged to which phylum, nor did I care about the chemical composition of salt.  It was enough for me that other people knew these things and had a use for them.  Still, I soldiered on as best I could, feigning interest when addressed by my teachers and trying to go through the motions.

The third class of my day during my freshman year was Interdisciplinary Science.  One day near the middle of the school year (I recall wearing a heavy jacket), we had a test that included a lab assignment.  Only a few work stations were set up for us, meaning that we went in waves of small groups to the sinks.  Eventually, it was my turn.  I cannot tell you now what the specific requirements or objectives of the test were, but they involved using plastic pipettes to transfer X mL of liquids A and B.  Now, as it happens, my hands shake.  They have since as far back as I can recall.  There's a psychological component to it, which I know because the more conscious I am about needing my hands to be steady, the worse the shaking becomes.  I can do nothing about it.

It took little time for me to become demonstratively frustrated with my inability to transfer the specific, minuscule volume of liquids.  How did my teacher respond?  She accused me of putting on a show for my classmates and ordered me to clean my materials for someone else to use, and informed me I had failed the lab portion of the test.  I tried to appeal her summary judgment against me, but of course she was the teacher and I was now the unruly, disruptive student.  I saw it was hopeless and went about cleaning my materials as directed.  After a minute, though, I was further charged with drawing out the cleaning process as part of my alleged sideshow display.  I am by nature a thorough person, and I'm certain many of my former coworkers can attest to this.  I was habitually the last to leave each night because I was not content to gloss over my cleaning tasks.  I abandoned the incompletely cleaned materials altogether and took my seat, dejected and frustrated.

The bane of my shaking hands's existence.
The next day, our teacher began class with a random "book check," where we were required to verify that our textbooks were present.  I did not have my book with me, which came to light when she reached my place on our alphabetized roster.  Here is the exact dialog of our exchange.
Teacher: Travis, where is your book?
Me: I deliberately left it at home.
Teacher: "Deliberately?"
Me: Deliberately.
Teacher: May I ask why?
Me: I find this class to be excruciatingly dull.
Teacher: I'll see you outside.  Go now.

I've never seen the resemblance.
As on the previous day, I did as I was instructed.  I rose from my seat and exited the classroom.  How long I was in the hallway, I cannot say but I know it was long enough for me to count every ceiling tile within my field of vision from one end of the building to the next.  Eventually, my teacher emerged, along with two of my classmates.  One apparently endorsed my show of defiance and yelled, "Go, Beaker!"  (For whatever reason, he insisted I reminded him of the Muppet, and took to calling me by that name.)  To this day, I cannot tell you what the other classmate did to earn his ejection.

We were directed to the office of the vice principal.  He was a dour looking toad of a man, I thought.  I hadn't read LeCarre then, but if I had I may easily have thought he fit the description of George Smiley given in Call for the Dead.  I had never really spoken with him; this was, after all, still the middle of my freshman year and disciplinary issues were wholly unknown to me.  My turn came and I sat across his desk.  He politely asked me if I would tell him my side of the incident.  I started at the beginning--what I perceived to be the injustice of the previous day.  I conceded that my outburst may not have been the most helpful or appropriate reaction, but I pressed the point that my efforts to explain myself during the test had been dismissed out of hand.  If reason and fairness were not allowed in the classroom, I was left choosing between subservient acquiescence and an act of defiance.

The vice principal then asked me, "Are you religious?"  The query caught me unawares; I'd not anticipated matters of faith entering a conversation with a school official.  I replied that I was more spiritual than religious, that I had some beliefs but I wasn't a practicing member of any organized congregation.  "Well, let me ask you this: are you familiar with the Golden Rule?"  I replied that I was.  "Would you tell me what it is?"  I replied,

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

He nodded.  "Right.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he repeated.  "Not, 'Do unto others as they have done unto you'."  I'm sure other people may have balked at this whole line of discussion, and may even now be irate reading about it here.  I, however, recognized it as an offering from him.  He recognized that I had a legitimate reason for my disdain, but of course he could not condone what I'd done with my energy.  I was intrigued by the philosophical nature of our interview, and I inquired how society would ever address the disrespectful if no one was ever treated with the rudeness they dispensed.  That, I was told, was where faith came into it.  You just have to trust that these things have a way of working themselves out.  I wasn't sold on it, but I could tell he was entirely earnest about his beliefs.  Even when I disagree with someone's values, I can respect them if they're sincerely felt and put to me in a reasonable manner.  I felt his had been, and I told him I would consider the point.

In consequence for my disruption of class, I was assigned one school day in Time Out.  I was to spend the entire day in silence with a few other students in a room the size of a motel shower.  I did it, without raising a single objection or making any attempt to test the conditions of the punishment.  It was how I would get square with things, I reasoned.  The day after my stint in Time Out, my science teacher approached me before class began.  She apologized to me for being so abrupt with me over the test and while I could tell she didn't want to have to say this to me, the fact was, she had done it.  There can be no doubt the apology had been ordered by the vice principal.  I appreciated that he had made that effort on my behalf; he could easily have taken her side entirely and ignored me as she had done.  I accepted her apology, feeling that I owed it to the vice principal to do so.  Whether I apologized for my actions, I cannot say.  I have the vague memory that my teacher made a remark that she considered the matter resolved since I'd spent the day in Time Out atoning for my protest.  Regardless, even though I no longer held any respect for her and I'm sure she was just grateful that we were nearing the end of the year and she would soon be rid of me, we did bury the hatchet.  Not an antagonistic word was exchanged between us the remainder of the year.


  1. Which science teacher was this? I know I wasn't there for freshman year, but I do recall people talking about it in chemistry our sophomore year..

  2. Which science teacher was this? I know I wasn't there for freshman year, but I do recall people talking about it in chemistry our sophomore year..