Saturday, August 31, 2019

Science Lessons

When I was a kid growing up in Florida, I lived down the street from a biology professor. He taught at the same university where my parents taught math, and I was friends with his three daughters. One, Theresa, was my age -- the other two were slightly older.

Theresa and I spent a lot of time together. Her family had a weird two-story concrete-block house with linoleum floors and an unfinished feel. Her back yard was literally a swamp, with a long boardwalk leading down to a lake. The boardwalk passed a gigantic old mossy cypress stump that her father dubbed "the old troll."

Theresa's room was always chaotic, with a ton of stuff everywhere -- toy horses, games, dishes, papers. Upstairs was the professor's office, as I recall, and I remember it being sort of rough-hewn with exposed wood beams.

Every once in a while, we'd climb up the stairs to find Theresa's father, and we'd beg him for science lessons. As a biologist, he was certainly qualified, and he had a huge set of Time-Life science books covering subjects from cellular structure to the universe. (I believe it was the Nature Series, which focused on life science as opposed to physics or chemistry, though he may have had the Science Series too.)

We'd select a Time-Life book and he'd go through it with us for fifteen minutes or half an hour, teaching us about insects or rodents or space. Those Time-Life books were full of pictures, so they were interesting to a six- or seven-year-old. I remember being fascinated. I loved our science lessons.

I've always thought this professor's attention helped boost my interest in the natural world -- that and living in a rural area with lots of swampy wilderness. I learned the names of trees and weeds and animals, and I learned to respect and preserve all that diverse life -- even the snakes and spiders. You see the evidence all the time in my posts here, when I'm writing about garden insects or the forests on Hampstead Heath.

It doesn't take much to focus a kid's attention and he did us such a favor by spending that time with us. A few years later Theresa moved to another neighborhood and I saw her much less often. By the time we were in high school our paths had diverged. She now helps run a family ranch where she works with horses, and I've seen her only once in the past 35 years -- and that was about 20 years ago. But I'm still friends with her on Facebook, and we exchanged fond messages not too long ago about our science lessons. (I think today is her birthday, in fact!)

Interestingly, when I went to college, I took a class with this same professor. He was always patient and personable at home, but in an auditorium classroom as an older man, working with college students, he seemed gruff and severe. I was struck by how different he was in that environment!

(Photos: From top, a great willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum, that grew by itself in a pot on our patio; A deep red dahlia; A better picture of our Chinese lantern, now bright orange; A Stokesia "Blue Frills" that Dave bought at the supermarket.)


  1. A nice memory. One's private and public personas often need to be different - especially in the world of education. It wouldn't surprise me if pupils at The American School secretly referred to you as Grumpy after the dwarf that guarded the chargers and sent out the vaguely threatening overdue letters from The Snow White Memorial Library.

  2. Your post reminds me of the power of having other good and caring adults in children's lives, besides family members, as evidenced by the memories of your science encounters with the professor. Would that all children had positive role models (both family and others) to open their eyes to nature and other adventures--while not having one eye focused on their smart phones. Pure undivided attention. Even if just an hour. What a gift.

  3. I envision the Nutty Professor and the chaos that ensues around him. Was there a nutty mother too? A great memory.

  4. Isn't it amazing how such things can spark a lifetime interest? How kind he was to take the time to give you two kids a science lesson. I'm sure you learned more as a little boy from him than you did when you were in his classroom.
    This reminds me of being very young and looking at a National Geographic book (I think it was) that my grandfather had about early peoples on this continent. The pictures were fascinating to me and Granddaddy would answer all of my questions about what was going on in those pictures. I will absolutely never forget that.

  5. We had both of those Time Life sets at home and I did go on to get a science degree so they may have been an influence to make science interesting!

  6. What a great memory and experience for you. I grew up on the edge of town before Houston got to be so big, piney woods and fields, the bayou just a short walk down the street. I don't know if that led me to gardening but it was a great environment for growing up.

  7. Now I know why you have a much better knowledge of plants and animals. I'm always amazed at your use of the Latin terms. Yes, adults can have a big influence on kids.

  8. I fear that there are way too many parents these days who don't spend enough time with their kids and their kid's friends to make that same kind of impact. It's fascinating to me to learn about the kinds of interaction you described and how it influences a young mind. What a wonderful memory you told us about today. And, with gorgeous photos to go with it.

  9. I love this story! You were so lucky to grow up with a biology professor in the neighborhood. What a wonderful way to discover the world around you. It is so wonderful to know how much of an impact those lessons had all these years later. I saw a news piece the other day that was talking about children and "nature deficit disorder." It's so vital in every way to connect with our earth. Thank you for writing this down.

  10. Wow, that is a sweet and lovely story and I love the way you told it. Thank you for sharing it with us. Your photos are great; I especially like the lantern and dahlia. Your are such a good writer and photographer!

  11. If only all children could have such an introduction to nature, maybe our collective attitude toward saving the world would be better. You were indeed lucky to have that professor in your early life, helping to cultivate your interest.

    The stokesia is lovely - I thought it reminded me of an aster and lo, Wikipedia tells me that another name for it is Stokes' aster. The Chinese lantern is coming along nicely!

    Hope your medical procedure went well.

  12. Good memories and WONDERFUL pictures.

  13. What a sweet memory ~ how wonderful it would be if this man knew what an impact he had on your life!

  14. YP: I wouldn't be at all surprised, either. I definitely feel like Grumpy some days! I do TRY to be more like Happy, though.

    Mary: Absolutely! It takes a village, as they say. We both definitely appreciated that time.

    Linda: I hesitate to use the word "nutty," but they were all unusual characters!

    Ms Moon: It makes such a difference for kids to grow up in a house that has books lying around. Kids discover things just by browsing through them, and all the better if there's someone to discuss them with. We had stacks of old National Geographic magazines -- about two decades' worth -- that I used to read for fun.

    RedPat: I think those books probably influenced a lot of people!

    Ellen: I think exposure to nature makes a HUGE difference in the lives of children. Growing up in an environment with a bit of wilderness around makes us aware of so many things -- life cycles, food chains, birds and insects, you name it.

    Red: Well, don't be too amazed. In most cases I look up the Latin names -- I don't know them by heart! I use them because the common names for many plants and animals vary depending on which country you're in.

    Sharon: Time is the biggest, best gift an adult can give a child, without question.

    Robin: It WAS wonderful to have them as neighbors and to have him invest time in us. "Nature Deficit Disorder" is a real problem! So many kids just sit inside and play video games or watch their phones.

    Joanne: Thank you! I'm particularly proud of that dahlia because I grew it from seed! That blossom is much darker red than any of the others have been -- most of them are sort of orangey.

    Jenny-O: Yes, it is an aster! (As are many garden plants -- Asteracea is a huge family.) I agree kids would benefit greatly if they had such adults in their lives. Too many people see themselves as set apart from nature, rather than part of it.

    Catalyst: Thanks!

    Lulumarie: I know! I did talk to him here and there later in life, but I don't know if I ever expressly told him what a fond memory his "science lessons" were for me. After they moved away we saw them much less frequently. He's no longer alive, sadly.

  15. You were very lucky to have such a person in your life to teach you all these wonderful things about nature. Learning, especially as a child, is priceless. That beautiful dahlia looks like you just painted it with watercolors. You have a great day, hugs, Edna B.

  16. Oh My Goodness, I had several of the Time series for my kids growing up. They were eventually all sold at a Swap Meet about 15 years ago. One series really stands out in my memory, The Wild Wild West series. They were leather embossed and cost me a fortune and sadly my boyfriend sold the entire collection for $60.00... I could have brained him. I didn't know he had snuck them out of the house let alone sold them so cheap.

    It is really nice to have someone spend time with you teaching and inspiring a life long love. It is really sad that age and an auditorium turned him in to a gruff but understandable.

    Have an awesome day!