Mack Williams: Teaching the stars
In grade school in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was known as an astronomy ěnut,î paleontology ěnut,î geology ěnut,î insect ěnutî and son. As far as the sciences were concerned, I was possessed of well-rounded ěnuttiness.î
In my freshman year at East Rowan, 1965, the prescribed freshman science course covered many of those areas of my fairly proficient ěnuttiness,î including astronomy.
Mrs. Clifton was my freshman science teacher. She was a very sweet lady, very slight of build, who wore her hair after the fashion of Olive Oyl. She came across as someone who had been the most studious of students in her formative years, a bookworm (only the most positive connotations of that word are meant in reference to her here).
Mrs. Cliftonís husband suffered from disabilities stemming from his service in the Vietnam War. That war, along with the Cold War and several notable assassinations of the time, mixed with many other experiences into the mold of the person which each of us would become.
Mr. Clifton had a ěgreenî method for keeping his yard trimmed, even before green became ěgreen,î with the use of a couple of tethered goats.
As I was fairly proficient in astronomy, Mrs. Clifton came up with the idea of me teaching that subject to the class for a week. If it had been of longer duration, Iím afraid that the members of the class would have ganged up on me and I would have suffered the same fate as the man my Latin teacher, Mrs. Puckett, had told us about, whose fate is forever linked to the Ides of March.
I say this, because for some reason, I came up with the idea of having a short true-or-false test at the end of each class (made worse by Mrs. Clifton telling them that it would count on their grade) each day for a whole week. (The reason for my doing this probably having something to do with the old saying: ěAbsolute power corrupts absolutely.î)
Years before there would ever be a ěBill Nye the Science Guy,î for that week I was kind of like Bill Nye, but my inspiration for daily quizzes (which counted), made me seem like ěBill Nye from the darkside,î (or from a similar place to which the class probably would have liked me to go).
It is true what they say in sociology (and stand-up comedians) about a crowd having its own distinct personality. As the week went on, I felt that the ěseated crowdî before me became increasingly indisposed to me, not just as a teacher, but as a person.
As evidence of my attitude, I even got carried away with myself on the true-or-false quizzes and threw in a totally nonsensical question: ěThe planet Mercury is made of bubble gum,î incontrovertible evidence that I was becoming a smart aleck or something else with the same meaning and initials, the same word ěsmart,î but with another word, also beginning with the letter ěa,î substituted for the word ěaleckî.
One day, while talking to the class about meteorites, I turned my back to them to write something on the blackboard and felt something strike the back of my head. Instead of a meteorite, it was a small, balled-up paper sphere infused with spit.
I have attended a few of the reunions of East Rowanís Class of 1969, but no one made mention of my week as a science teacher, proving that these people are too nice to bring up the subject (or that this is just further evidence that unpleasant things are repressed and forgotten).
I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for my uncalled-for, over-zealous testing of the class, as well as for my attitude that week, and I hope that the one who checked ětrueî about the planet Mercury being made of bubble gum knew then, (or does now) that when I gave that question, I was only being ěBill Nye the wise guy,î but maybe that student was being a wise guy, too.