A higher education

A small bat clings to the bulkhead outside my high school’s library. Soon, a Xerox of an encyclopedia page on bats is taped to the glass door beneath it. We ponder its arrival with our physics teacher. No one ever sees the bat move, but it changes positions once or twice. In a couple days, it disappears.


My classmates are bright and quirky, as are most of the faculty, who generally give us as much as we can handle. In our ninth grade Civics class we read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and some of the Federalist Papers. We memorize landmark Supreme Court decisions, volunteer with political campaigns. At 14, we know more about good citizenship and the foundations of our government than most American adults.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are prone to subversion, even mutiny. When we are required to attend the swearing in of an alumnus to the school board, some of my classmates walk out on the unmistakably Christian prayers. I do not, but I feel uncomfortable. My friends are Jewish, Hindu, Jain, Bah’ai, agnostic, atheist. After the event, I run into the favorite Catholic priest of my childhood. This time, I can barely look him in the eye.

In AP American History, two of us escape to the office to complain about a hostile substitute with a crazy haircut and a bright purple suit who overuses the word “apropos” and insists we debate with him. By the time lunch is over, he has been removed. It is we who are in charge of our educations, and we demand, if not to be challenged and respected, then to be left alone.


My physics teacher, Ira Nirenberg, is a skinny, balding, bearded vegan and animal rights activist. He is the faculty sponsor of the environmental club, and once or twice a year, he tries to introduce all his students to vegan hot dogs. He wears t-shirts and runners with his trousers, and the mental image I will always carry is of him jogging in a tight circle, his outstretched arm the radius, his downward-pointing finger the center. He is talking about electrons.

Nirenberg is my first science teacher there and my last. I have him for both Physical Science and AP Physics. He is also the founder of Physics Dress Up Day. I paint my face like a cat and carry around a small cardboard box on which I’ve written passages from The Dancing Wu Li Masters. As Schroedinger’s cat, I am simultaneously dead and not dead. A classmate from a different year dons a sombrero and serape and wraps pieces of a vacuum cleaner around himself. He has come as Pepe the Partial Vacuum.

The grand event on Physics Dressup Day is the scavenger hunt. Nirenberg takes the time to tape a Physics problem to the door of every classroom. He gives us the first problem, the solution of which is the room number of the next problem, and sends us solving.

Nirenberg spoils us by doing real science. Absentmindedly bouncing a superball on the lab table, he notices the bounce goes dead when the ball hits a piece of paper, and we wonder for a few minutes about the shock-absorbing properties of paper. When he receives some posters in cardboard mailing tubes, he puts “reduce, reuse, recycle” into action by inventing a challenge for us. We try to predict where to put the tube so that a ball bearing rolling off an angle ramp will fall in the opening of the tube.

Nirenberg hates memorization, hates what he calls “formula grunts.” He can’t stop us from memorizing the formulae for use on tests, but insists we derive them ourselves at least once.

We enter every endeavor this way, not knowing what the answers are. It is entirely up to us what we deduce and write in our lab reports, what we take our best fit curves to mean about the speed of a ball bearing rolling down the hallways. We are rewarded not so much for being right — he doesn’t know the answers either — but for how we think about the questions.

When I take my first college science course, freshman Chem at Duke University, the canned lab experiments depress me, and the lectures, memorized to the 12th decimal place by the famous Dr. Bonk, bore me. I stop attending Bonkistry altogether.


When I return to university after many years, the picture is still as bleak as a Vancouver winter. Sometimes, the sun breaks through and the teaching — and learning — are superb. We soak it up while it lasts.

Often, though, there is a succession of dreary days. My high school classmates would have been to the administration by now demanding an education, but no one has ever told my classmates at the university that they deserve one. Few complain. Many leave. The rest quietly accept what is offered, focus on survival, and commiserate outside the classroom.

I am too committed to finishing my degree to consider quitting, but in some courses I become the kind of student I don’t even recognize: bored, present in body only when my attendance is required, skipping sometimes when it isn’t. I do the bare minimum to get the grade I want, or settle for something slightly lower. I am too polite to text in class, but a couple times I sit in the back and hide a crossword puzzle in my binder.

I feel bad for these profs, whom I imagine being driven to drink by long sessions grading papers we couldn’t be bothered to put our hearts into and by the dearth of class participation. I get the sense from the way they talk in class that their expectations of us are low.

We do our best to live up to them.

Image of bat used under Creative Commons license from binux’s Flickr stream.

Ira Nirenberg is still kicking around. You can read his book, Living With Math, free from his website.