Some teaching days just don’t go right. In the long run, the grand scheme, or the big picture, it doesn’t matter so much, but it still justifies a deep sigh. The first time the power went off on campus this afternoon I knew it was a sign for things to come. Yet, I still sent the lucky 13 teachers off to the computer lab to engage in an online activity. Sure enough, the power went out again, leaving their partial results lost in the neverregions of the interweb. “Are you still in here?” I inquired of the pitch black of the computational lab. Meek voices and illuminated cell phones responded. I sent them home. It was the equivalent of punting on third down*, something you do just to keep morale from slipping further into a pit of despair.**
Conceding defeat, I reconciled a pile of receipts from June. As those who have to keep track of these things will testify, it’s something I can easily put off for days. Weeks. Sometimes more. I took it as a sign from god herself that this meant I was supposed to finish this bit of work, and sure enough just about the time I needed to look something up on the computer, the electricity was restored. Perhaps She does exist.
This is all contrasted with how well and how easily things went last week. I was working with elementary school teachers, conducting a “field day” that was supposed to give them a sense for the ins-and-outs of science, how it’s done, what makes it distinct from other pursuits, etc. I say, passively, that the field days “was supposed to give them” this sense, but I should be more accurate: I was supposed to design the field day to be this way. The field component itself was a hike in the mountains, and I assigned them the task of looking at and recording notes about the world from two perspectives: the scientist’s and the poet’s. What we see in the world is not only created by the direction of our gaze, but the nature of our lens. I wanted them to work on this and experience the contrast.
The challenge was to figure out how to give them an idea of where to start. These were elementary teachers, trained in how to diagnose reading issues, create mathematical manipulatives, and soak up vomit with some of that magic powder stuff. What they know how to do is artful and inspiring, but they haven’t had a chance to think about how to be a poet nor a scientist. Yet, we had had some previous experience reading Samuel Scudder’s 19th century account of observing a fish as a budding scientist. Scudder learned to see, scientifically, by doing it over and over again, practicing on a fish before he was allowed to pursue his studies in entomology. When the good professor Agassiz, Scudder’s mentor, came back to check on the progress he
listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknowns to me: the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fins and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment, “You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued more earnestly, “you haven’t even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is a plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!” and he left me to my misery.
The moral of the essay eventually reveals itself as Scudder discovers that it was the plain, obvious symmetry of all the fish’s organs and features that was perhaps the most amazing and important observation to be made. Yet he had all of these other observations to make in the interim, not simply looking at the fish but also feeling the fish, drawing the fish, and concentrating on it from memory. Even after all this, the “facts are stupid things,” as Agassiz instructed, until they are brought together into something more coherent and meaningful.
The evening before my pursuit with these teachers, I was left with the problem of a poet’s counter-example. Scratching my head, I took the unoriginal tack of opening up Billy Collins, starting with his most recent collection and simply diving into the pages somewhere in the middle. And where should my book open itself but to a poem entitled, The Fish. Collins has a distinctively different relationship with his fish:
As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.
I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.
And I feel sorry for you, too —
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh —
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.
And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow
even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.
And so ended my preparation. It was one of those lessons that simply jumped out of the pond and onto my plate. Not only did I get to use this as an example and point for discussion last week, I now have a poetic companion to one of my favorite scientific essays, filleted and fully prepared as a course entree, complete with the parsley. Sometimes the power goes out and squashes even the most detailed plans. Sometimes, though, things work out better than we deserve. There’s seldom an in-between.
*As a kid I would go with my dad to Oregon State football games. I actually witnessed this strategy on more than one occasion, and it’s stuck with me more than any other programmed play, an image that portrays “desperation” better than any collection of words.
**To be fair, the morning’s activities went really well. We measured both the size of the Sun and the size of the molecule — using rulers marked by centimeters, a little geometry and some inference. Most people have never done either of these things, and we managed both in the span of a few hours.