THE ways in which teachers influence us are as unexpected as they are various. As someone who even as a toddler probably seemed headed more in the direction of the arts than of the sciences, I am always surprised when I stop and consider the fact that the teacher who made the strongest impression on me in the formative years of early adolescence was not an English teacher - or even a history teacher - but my seventh-grade science teacher. What science we had been taught in grade school had not been terribly exciting. I had dim, dull memories of the ``experiments'' deemed suitable for children: hard-boiled eggs whisked into heated milk bottles; seeds sprouting into plants when watered, withering when not; litmus paper turning colors at the touch of carefully selected solutions.
The only aspect of science that had then appealed to my imagination was astronomy. How often my attention would wander, during the sleepy routine of elementary classroom teaching, to the back of the room, where the teacher had pinned a map of the solar system to the bulletin board. I would chant the order of planets from the sun, ``Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto,'' and ponder the comparative sizes of the heavenly bodies: the smallness of Earth, the largeness of Jupi ter, the unimaginable hugeness of the sun, the vastness of the solar system, itself but a tiny part of our galaxy, which in turn was only one among who knew how many...? This was the universe: the real world, out there, and it seemed stranger than any ghost story. We hadn't studied much astronomy in class. What I knew I gleaned from books I'd read on my own, inspired by that fascinating map, and by the spectacle of the sky at night. It was the kind of thing that made you wonder - but my wonderings were more in the realm of metaphysics than physics.
And then in the seventh grade, the first year of junior high school, I met Mr. Weinstock - and the scientific method. The subject that year was biology - an area that had never much appealed to me. I was the squeamish sort of girl who cringed at the sight of a worm, ran from spiders, and didn't even want to hear about scorpions or centipedes, let alone reptiles. (Another reason I liked to think about other planets, I suspect, is because they didn't seem to have life on them: no b ugs.) Yet, biology was about to become my favorite class.
I must admit, it probably had something to do with the fact that our teacher was a good-looking, dark-haired man in his late 20s, and I was one of a dozen or so 12-year-old girls just awakening to the charms of the opposite sex. But our class also contained a like number of 12-year-old boys who were just as responsive to our teacher's enthusiasm for his subject and for teaching it to kids of our age.
Far too many teachers at every level, from kindergarten to graduate school, tend to lose enthusiasm for their vocation - if they even had it in the first place. But enthusiasm alone may not always be enough, if you cannot convey it to your students. I went on to do some teaching myself years later, and I'm still not sure exactly how it's done. It has something to do with humor - and with giving your students the feeling that you respect their intelligence, even when they may happen to be pretty ignorant about what you're about to teach them.
Mr. Weinstock seemed to expect us to do well. He didn't bother much with the assigned textbook. He didn't give us specific homework, but we were expected to know what we had learned in class and written down in our notebooks. We were, however, assigned special projects and reports, told to expect the unexpected 10-minute quiz as a means of testing ourselves along the way, and told about the two important tests that would count: a midterm and a final. Somehow, the long histories of the plant and animal k ingdoms, from the lives of one-celled protozoa to the complexities of earthworms, spiders, reptiles, and human bodies, seemed a story too fascinating to miss.
Spiders? Worms? And me? For one thing, the attractiveness of the teacher compensated for the repulsiveness of the subject matter. But another factor was also at work. Mr. Weinstock was presenting the class with the concept of an orderly universe: something that could be scrutinized, systematized, and understood rather than feared. It's often remarked as a kind of paradox that adolescents, an age-group labeled as rebellious, should have a deep need for order.
``Science,'' as Mr. Weinstock defined it, was ``the search for truth'' to enable us to better ``understand ourselves and the universe.''
The notion of truth itself had an overwhelming appeal for me. Although nowadays we worry a lot about the moral, social, and aesthetic values that tend to be overlooked, it may be just as well to remember that truth itself is a value - if not the only value, certainly an essential value that cannot never be left out of moral, social, or aesthetic considerations. Back in the seventh grade, I was beginning to think that truth was the main thing, or rather, that anything but the ``scientific tru th'' was probably just a frivo-lous fairy tale.
But one of the other important concepts we learned in biology class was that material science is tentative, always subject to being disproved by new evidence or new ways of looking at old evidence. The discipline, Mr. Weinstock made clear to us, was not a repository of absolute, incontrovertible truths, but a method of testing for what might be true.
Science had enormous prestige and, in a quiet way, glamor, in those days: the early part of the Kennedy administration with its emphasis on the future, which all seemed to be reflected in the bright new classrooms and laboratory equipment with which they'd surrounded us, the putative next generation of inventors and discoverers. Even as we peered into our handsome microscopes, scientists were unlocking the secrets of DNA, planning forays to the planets, and speculating about the origins of life on earth .
It seemed natural to me at the time to ask my science teacher questions about the origin and meaning of the universe, the meaning of human life, and the best way to organize society. Mr. Weinstock and I - and some of my friends who sometimes joined us for conversations after class (we liked to drop in and visit him, even in the years after we had taken his class) - used to discuss Utopian societies, which were my obsession at the time. It was pretty clear to me that he was as wisely skeptical about the possibility - and desirability - of creating a Utopian society as I now am, but he took my ideas and my questions seriously.
WHEN it came to the big metaphysical questions - the ones about the meaning of the universe, however, he always had the same answer: ``Science can't tell you why. If you want to know why, ask a philosopher.'' There was, perhaps, a touch of scorn in this for philosophers and other humanists, theorists, and religious thinkers who spent their time pondering questions that could never be resolved by subjecting them to experiments conducted in a controlled environment, like a science laboratory. But since I still wanted to know why - or to keep asking why - at least I knew now that there were some questions that science by itself would never be able to answer for me.
But there are things I learned in science class - ways of seeing and thinking and evaluating what I see and hear - that serve me well in my work as a writer and critic. I know it is important to try and see things freshly, to look at something and see what it is without being blinkered by preconceptions of what someone claims it is supposed to be. Don't believe something just because everyone else assumes it's true. Trust your own perceptions, but be prepared to revise what you think in the face of new evidence.
As we looked ahead to high school, some of us asked Mr. Weinstock if perhaps he wouldn't like to teach at that level: We were hoping to have him for high school biology. But no, he told us, there was something special to him about kids in junior high school: open, full of wild ideas, not yet worrying about getting into college or choosing a career. When last I checked, he was still involved with that age group, as principal of what is now no longer called a junior high school, but a ``middle school.'' W hen I look back and think of how silly I must have seemed as a seventh grader, I like to think that I had a teacher who appreciated the quirky ways of 12-year-olds as much as we 12-year-olds enjoyed his class.