My son's college career has been a rather peripatetic one, sampling first this college, then that; declaring one major and then, unceremoniously, shifting his weight to another. It seemed inevitable that he would eventually wind up at the small Maine college where I teach, and inevitable that he would find himself a student in my biology course.
Alyosha does not come to science gladly. He disdains it the way some people turn up their noses at artichokes. Even though he has to take only one science course for his current major, he put it off as long as possible, hoping, I think, that the school would drop this requirement before he was cornered into confronting it.
It was not to be, and I found myself, a short while back, trying to put the best face possible on the cruel hand that education had dealt him. "You have a lot of science classes to choose from," I encouraged my son, who looked at me in amazement, as if I were giving him a choice between being lost at sea or being fired from a cannon. And then I added, "Of course, you'll have the best experience with a teacher who's dynamic, creative, witty, and sympathetic."
Alyosha raised his eyebrows, as if to say, "And who would that be?"
Smiling sheepishly, I thumbed my chest.
My son's response: a barely audible "Oh."
At the eleventh hour Alyosha did, indeed, register for my class; but I don't think it had anything to do with my speech. It simply seemed the path of least resistance. And so, on the first day of the new semester, in a very full class of 40 students, there sat Alyosha, planted squarely in the middle, staring at me like – excuse the cliché – a deer caught in the headlights. He was actually sitting in a science class. A science class! And his teacher was his father. His father!
For my part, I had no trouble seeing him as just one of my students as I went into my act, commencing my introductory lecture with verve and broad sweeps of my arms, punctuated with droll stories and self-deprecating tales about my rough start in my own college science career. The students were appreciative, and when I was done three of them shook my hand. After everyone cleared out, Alyosha was still sitting there, looking thunderstruck. And then he came up to me. "Well, oookay..." was all he said as he ambled out, headed for his next labor.
As the lectures rolled on, Alyosha dutifully scribbled away in his notebook. I told stories and amusing anecdotes at regular intervals, to give him, and the rest of the class, opportunities to put down their pens, sit back, and just listen. I never acknowledged Alyosha as my son, and nobody, yet, has found him out. The only times I went out of my way for him were when, outside class, I communicated brief, essential messages such as, "Study for tomorrow's quiz," "Don't forget your lab work," or "Be sure you and your partner are working with the same data."
All along, I've had the impression that Alyosha was simply abiding my biology course, sticking with the class because I might disapprove if he were to bail out. Of course, I've always believed that one should finish what one starts, but I would never pressure him to do something distasteful. However, I would use gimmicks wherever possible to elicit a student's interest and make him want to come back for more.
Such was the case when I sensed that my son's, ahem, enthusiasm was waning. I decided on a demonstration to prove that water contains both hydrogen and oxygen. This is easily done by passing an electrical current through water and capturing the gases in separate test tubes. Then I turned out the lights. I hoisted the hydrogen test tube – open end down, because hydrogen is lighter than air – struck a match, brought it to the mouth of the tube, and – Whoosh! A shrill whistle and a blue flame. Everyone in the class, including Alyosha, started in their seats and then applauded.
After a brief discussion the class ended. As the students filed out, Alyosha leaned toward me and said, "Now I'm glad I took this course."
Of course, that was nice to hear. But what will I do tomorrow to retain his interest? I can't blow something up every day.