Tuesday, August 7, 2012

With gratitude for good work, well done.

I stopped this evening on my way home from teaching.  I was driving the scenic route, a winding highway with tall trees and high hills and not much else.  Mostly home, a long view caught my eye, and I pulled over and got out.

It was a long view over green hills, tall white poppies rising up on the slopes and shaking in the wind, redwoods in the distance, the smell of summer under one of those unbelievably blue skies.  I didn't stay long but I stood for a few minutes, quietly under the sun.

It was five pm and I had been talking, nonstop, since noon.  I was going home to my two boys, who would tackle me with love and conversation for the next several hours.  It was good to have a few minutes, with no one, to be glad of a job well done.

If you haven't read the last few posts, you should know that in the summers, for the love of it, I teach.  College level oceanography at the local university.  I have a hundred students, and lectures are three hours long, twice a week, with an hour review session before each lecture and usually another 30 minutes of conversations with students after.  They're long days.  With a lot of words.  I'm hoarse after every single one.

And it's a tough subject.  An introductory oceanography course dabbles in geology, physics, meteorology, chemistry, ecology and biology.  It's a lot to learn in 6 short weeks, and I push my students hard.  I don't expect them to like me:  I teach old school, banning such modern innovations as laptops, and camera-phone photos of my lectures, texting and sleeping in class.  They hate it.  I make them use the library, not the internet, and bring me photographic proof thereof.  I ask question and expect them to answer them in class.  I grade hard.  The average class grade is usually in the 60s.  You learn or you fail. I'm not nice.  In today's lecture alone, I snapped at them twice for infractions, and made one student apologize to me in front of the class for rudeness (texting while I talk).

Today was the last lecture of the session.  Thursday is their final.  Many of them will fail.  The lecture was on climate change; always the last of my lectures, and I dread it a bit.  But the ocean and our climate are intimately connected: it can't be skipped. Every lecture leads to this one.  Everything points here.  I show the the hypotheses, the predictions, the data, and lead them to the inevitable conclusion: we will mitigate, we will adapt, or we will die.  There's a moment of quiet when I'm done.  I let it hang in the air, and break the tension with a rueful grin and a question: "That was depressing, wasn't it?"   They laugh, and they agree.  So I bring it to a close with a few words, I'll see them on Thursday, and good luck on their final. 

And today, instead of standing up to go, or swarming the podium with questions as they usually do, they stayed in their seats.  And they started clapping.   I was confused.  I wasn't at all sure what to do, and I'm sure it showed in my face.  After a minute I said "thank you."  The clapping went on.  So I said thank you again, and later, a third time. And they kept clapping, so I finally curtseyed, and that made them laugh, and they stopped.

And an hour later, when I was done answering questions and exchanging contact information and (to my surprise) receiving gifts, I stopped on my way home, to stand under a blue evening sky, and spend a few moments being grateful. For six weeks  I get the privilege of doing good work, of touching lives, of changing the way a few people see the world.  A little more carefully, with a little more understanding of how we and this planet are intricately, intimately tied. And despite my curtness, and my demands, and my insistence on hard, quality work - apparently that is appreciated.  I am glad.


It is not all terror and tension:  The ocean is a gorgeous place, full of gorgeous things.  Saturday I took 30 of them tidepooling.  Of the group, only one had ever been before.  She wasn't the one wearing these shoes:

I always give a list of what to bring and what to wear.  There is always one girl who disregards my shoe warnings. Yes, those are sandal accessorized with feathers.  At least they didn't have high heels.

Hiking the cliffs above the pools to find the way down. 

I love these pools for the linear splits in the rock, which make these lovely long rivers to the sea.  It keeps the pools cooler than isolated pocket pools, and life teems in the cold water.

Getting down in there to see what they can find.  When they find new creatures, they shriek like children.  Sometimes it's shrieking with joy, and sometimes  it's just shrieking.

This photo of seaweeds, taken by a student, blows me away at full size.  Click on it - it's like a Monet.

A giant green sea anemone, approx. 50 years old.  The glowing green color deep in the tentacles comes from a symbiotic algae.

I love leading them to these gorgeous spiky purple urchins and seeing how long it takes before they notice them, burrowed into solid rock in the walls of the tidal canyons

An orange sunflower star.  Isn't he gorgeous?

Look at that lovely deep color, and all his hydropowered-suction tube feet.

We talk about diversity and how rich and dense life is in these transition zones.  They count as many species as they can in a square foot of tidepools - I count 10 in this photo.

And 11 in this, though you need it larger to get them all.

I love this bright little Lemon Drop Nudibranch hiding in the weeds.  They're one of my favorite tidepool finds.

Happy little goofballs

I'm like a Mama Hen


  1. Great post. I approve your toughness in class. I too, long ago, was a tough teacher. If my students didn't learn, I considered that I hadn't done my job.

    Yours have had a fantastic experience thanks to you holding on to your standards of teaching. They will carry the experience into other fields of their educations, and perhaps even pursue life courses that they may not have done without you to inspire them. It might not happen straight away, but they may well realise, in time, that what they learned from you could apply to other subjects, other parts of their lives, other possibilities.

    We know the reach of a bad teacher can be long, leaving a profoundly negative impression on a tender young life. Only yesterday I heard a successful scriptwriter explain that for many years she never attempted anything that required a leap of the imagination in her work, because a schoolteacher had ridiculed a flight-of-fantasy she'd made in an early writing project. I was put off French by a malign teacher who made my life in his class a misery. However, we know that the good teacher can open up the world and change lives for the better.

    You deserved your applause, Rebecca. I'm sure it was a spontaneous realisation and appreciation of what you'd done to hone these young people's minds. Brava! Brava, brava!

  2. Thank you, Clive. It was really so stunning, but lovely of them!

    Oh the early experiences that scar us for life. I think most of us have a school teacher memory like that, or if not, a playground memory. We are so good at holding on to those negative feelings. A biology professor once explained that we are programmed that way: natural selection favors those who get hurt and learn not to repeat the behavior, over those who keep repeating a painful pattern. So our brains are hardwired to hold onto the negative memories.

    But luckily, that's not all we hold on to. I have deep and abiding memories of those teachers who were particularly kind when I was young, or who taught the strongest lessons when I was older. A chemistry professor in college who threatened to fail me on a lab assignment for carrying a beaker of water across the lab without safety goggles on. I protested it was only water and she stood firm on the side of protective gear in lab. Years later I sent her a thank you note, when wearing protective gear paid dividends in the lab of a not-so-careful chemist.