Williams column: In biology class, Mr. Peck was a genius

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 6, 2011

Those of us who fell into the category of ěcollege prepî at East Rowan High School in the latter 1960s had the great fortune of having Mr. Jerry Peck as our biology teacher. I think that he represented my first encounter with true genius in this life. Mr. Peckís genius was not just in memorization of the material of the science of biology, but in his mental organization of those facts, and knowing how to use them to pose scientific hypotheses, making fresh challenges out of the classical biological literature for his students.
In great music, there are the underlying components of counterpoint which make up the sound. In Mr. Peckís class, such was also the case with biology. He had a wry smile that seemed to say, îI think you are getting the idea, but donít get too sure of yourself just yet, because thereís more to this beneath the surface.î
One of the first biological experiments which we carried out in Mr. Peckís biology class was within our own mouths. He gave each of us a saltine cracker to eat, the consumption of which, nowadays, would probably require a signed permission from home to eat said cracker (most probably expressed in Latin legalese) that would be filed away somewhere in a cabinet within the schoolís main office.
He instructed us to chew the cracker slowly and to notice how the taste changed as we slowly chewed. The saltiness of the saltine gradually changed to sweetness, as the enzymes in our saliva processed the starch into sugar.
Thinking now about that sweet taste reminds me of Mr. Peckís affliction of Type I Diabetes since childhood. He had to maintain a strict diet and administer his own insulin through self-injection. I heard that when he was in high school, he had rebelled against all of this dietary and medicinal strictness (somewhat similar to all teenage rebellion, but in his case, a rebellion potentially fatal), passing out one day on the streets of Salisbury, necessitating a trip to the emergency room.
Sometimes a young personís medical condition can inspire a great deal of interest, perhaps his lifeís interest, in that subject. I wondered if Mr. Peckís daily battle with the diabetic aspect of his own personal biology, led him to make biology his field of study and life-long work.
Another experiment in Mr. Peckís class involved the heating of vegetable protein in a test tube. He said that heating vegetable protein was much safer than heating animal protein, because animal protein, when heated, would spatter about, sometimes reaching far from the immediate area of its heating. I at once thought about my mother frying bacon for breakfast, being careful of the spattering grease.
One day, our class received dead frogs packaged in plastic packs containing formaldehyde. After having ěcut our lab teethî on the previous dissection of an annelid worm, we dissected the frogs. My mother gave me the Christmas present of a biology kit with similarly formaldehyde-packed specimens, including a worm, frog and fish. The other day in the grocery storeís meat section, there were frog legs, as well as herring packed in plastic packages filled with salt water, looking every bit like those preserved fish in my old Christmas present. I made many purchases the other day, but certain memories curtailed my purchase of the frog legs and brine-packed herring.
Mr Peck led us on a field trip one day, and the object of our trip, reached by crossing U.S. 52, was literally, a ěfield.î We were instructed to each stake out a plot of ground. The size of each earthen plot was roughly 10 times the size of the plot of earth which will be staked out for each of us someday. Within this plot of ground, we were instructed by him to make a list of the types of living organisms that we found there, taking specimens of each. We were amazed at the number of living things present. This wasnít the Brazilian rain forest, but eastern Rowan County. I remember being somewhat jealous of Steve McCombsí finding of a salamander, which topped all of the rest of our findings. It was cool, both figuratively and literally.
We were truly fortunate to be Mr. Peckís students, for he taught us much about biology and about overcoming physical adversity. As I said before, he was the first true genius whom I have encountered in this life, and so far, in reflection, the last.