I had thought that teaching college was a challenge. Until I was asked to give a talk to a group of first- and second-graders in my area of expertise, marine biology.
College teaching has spoiled me. My students are rational adults who usually do what I ask. And discipline, blessedly, is usually not an issue. But there is also a constant undertone of passive resistance among university students -- a sense that they are in school under duress, chomping at the bit to get out into the ''real world.''
Recently, I had to cancel one of my classes due to unforeseen personal circumstances. When I made the apologetic announcement, my students cheered and vacated the room in the instant. (At this point, I need to add, in my own defense, that I am considered a rather fine teacher.)
Just the opposite happened when I entered the elementary school with my arms full of sea creatures. The little ones, about 35 of them, began to jump with excitement. They seemed beside themselves that the object of their anticipation had at long last arrived. Their teacher, Mrs. White, escorted me to a large easy chair, and the children clustered at my feet, eager for the lesson to begin.
''Can any of you name a sea creature that's not a fish?'' I asked. My intention was to begin simply, with general questions. Immediately, all 35 hands shot up. I was already wondering who would be the first to say ''rock'' or ''seaweed.'' I pointed to a little boy, who proclaimed, ''Zooplankton!''
This response was beyond what I had expected. I rummaged in my box and pulled out a stingray preserved in a clear plastic block, which I held up for all to see. The oohs and aahs were spontaneous and heartfelt. The children wanted to know everything about it: what it ate, how it swam, where I got it. My every description and explication excited greater emotion among them, and in return they astounded me with their own knowledge. I was face to face with the raw cusp of human curiosity, something I experienced only rarely at the college level.
Between the ages of 7 and 18, then, something must happen in the lives of students. In 11 short years they leap from insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm for learning to the guarded hope that their teacher will cancel class. To an 18-year-old, the teacher stands accused of dictating good taste, whereas to a seven-year-old everything simply tastes good.
I continued to draw strength from my interaction with the children. I showed them a sea urchin, a clam, a marine worm, and even a preserved porcupine fish with its spines fully extended. We discussed the anatomy and habits of all of them, and still they wanted more.
By the end of an hour, my energy was starting to wane, pitted as I was against the unrelenting physical and emotional energy of children. Like a rubber band pulled taut, they were operating just within the limits of tolerance. This meant that their teacher had to be ever vigilant for the unintentional shove that precipitates a fight, the teasing remark, the emergency rush to the bathroom.
In the middle of my talk, a little boy began to wave his hand desperately, his face radiant with enthusiasm. When I called on him, he burst into tears and cried, ''I want to go home!'' I watched helplessly, still holding the porcupine fish, as Mrs. White swept him up in her arms and comforted him.
Teaching young children was clearly a job with many dimensions: There were 35 separate worlds in that classroom, each quivering with boundless energy, each with its own demands, every one of which must be addressed by the teacher (''I lost my lunch money!''). And every moment must be accounted for, the hours paved with one activity after another.
My sea-creature talk continued for an hour and a half, ending only because we were up against the dismissal bell. Otherwise, there was still a crab and a barnacle in my box, and we could have gone on from there. Or at least they could have. I was ready for recess.
As I gathered my materials together to leave the classroom, several children came up to tell me how much they had enjoyed the talk and to share marine biological experiences of their own. A little girl hugged me. A boy gave me a handshake with the enthusiasm of a presidential candidate.
What was unusual about the experience was that they were interested in what I was selling. Despite my affection for my own students, and my dedication to my job, I realized that, by and large, at the university I was selling the unwanted to the non-buying. I don't mean this in a cynical way. In a sense, that's the challenge.
It's an exercise in conversion: My students doubt that I can interest them in my course, and I'm betting that I can. They don't really want to come to class, but they do their best to listen and generally refrain from outbursts. And it has been years since one of my 18-year-olds broke down in tears and told me he wanted to go home.
My talk on sea creatures received rave reviews from teacher and students. Mrs. White even suggested that I apply for a position at the elementary school. I was flattered by her faith in my capabilities, but I could do no less than tell her the truth: that her job was much too demanding.
When I returned to my classroom, I found my students quietly expectant. ''What are we going to talk about today?'' a young woman asked. ''Zooplankton,'' I said, still glowing from my triumph with the kids. The entire class groaned, but I was quick to comfort them. ''Don't worry,'' I said. ''It's not complicated. A seven-year-old could understand it.''