Teacher as StoryTeller

It had not occurred to him at all that his dozen years in the classroom, he had been, all along, a storyteller. Once upon a time, there was a leaf; a pancreas; a salamander; a mountain bog. Every lecture was a kind of narrative–even Human Anatomy and Physiology–but especially in freshman survey-of-bio classes.

There were characters, settings, plots and outcomes. Not all of them were cliff-hangers, but many–if the listener had any curiosity at all about the living world around them–had a point and a relevance in the real world: Out there where a student would spend their days; their lives.

Perhaps this equivalence between learner and learned would not hold as well in an algebra class, but he was convinced that, where living things (from cells on up) were involved, subjects inhabited and enlivened objects. We are matter that lives, and that matters, he used to say.

In every instance, his stories of living things from organelles to biomes consisted of two intersecting and complementary storylines: the truth; and the consequences. Someone had once said that, in establishing the validity of any story there are two important elements: Oh Yeah? and So What? What are the facts? And why does it matter–what is the moral of the story?

The matter of the story is that a pancreas and a salamander do what WE do: they live and they die. And they are made out of the very same matter and energy on the very same Spaceship Earth. They breathe the same air, swim in the same water our cells swim in, and partake of the state of incredible order we call LIFE. Such stories were easy for him to teach with enthusiasm and joy because being alive was eternally and bewilderingly wonder-ful. And his enviable job was to tell others.

It is a shared and eternal epic, a grand tale that we live in together with all these groups of creatures he covered so briefly in a survey class–creatures by the millions with their own personalities, strangeness and superpowers. How could a student NOT be drawn into such a story? And yet, of course, most are not.

Maybe his failures to engage so many freshmen desk-occupants stemmed from the fact that he was providing answers to questions they had not yet asked. There was not much perceived “need to know” the world beyond the weekend party details. He once said of the frustration of his obligatory faculty advising that “you can’t steer a parked car.” A discouraging number of students came to college with no forward motion to shepherd and direct.

And it was also true that, in a freshman-level course, there could be an awful lot of “oh yeah” jargon and facts that would be on the test. You have to be able to handle brick by brick of fact if you are, some day, to assemble an edifice of knowledge. And bricks aren’t sexy.

But the end point of a practical and aesthetic comprehension of the ways the living world works–in an organ system, a broad-leaved forest, or the human brain–certainly makes it worth the learning of some terminology. The so-what is to have become an informed inhabitant and steward of one’s own body, of their water and soil and forest; of the planet–but also it is worth the work to not be blind every day of their young lives to the fragile beauty and poetry of the whole of life on the Blue Marble where their futures would unfold.

The end point of a full education–and especially for him, a biology education–had always been more about gaining wisdom–the Great So-What–than about accumulating more and more facts. There would always be a bigger, more universal, not-quite-graspable “so what” just beyond the edge of his comprehension, earnestly if imperfectly pieced together year by year from all the bricks he handled over a lifetime of biology watching.

Out of the incremental bricks of biological process (a realm mostly still not fully grasped even as we do the biosphere potentially terminal harm) has emerged over the millennia the unfolding Grand Ecology of a working Earth. From those building blocks of atoms and organelles arises an elegance of form fashioned from living tissue, a “poem in protoplasm” he once called the living world–the ultimate PLACE whose goodness and beauty of form and function he sought each day to more fully know.

The quest would last until the end for him, he knew, and this was perhaps one of the most satisfying assurances in an uncertain lifetime. The ring would always be just beyond reach. The mountains and their creatures were more than enough to keep him curious, eager and immersed in wonder, even when his students were not.

But there came a time when it became too painful any longer to be immersed in the realities of a beleaguered world become mere economic engine. And so in 1987 he left teaching. He left biology watching. He buried his head in the sand–for 17 years. But he never –at least in the closed room of his own mind–stopped being a storyteller.