Monday, May 4, 2009

For Hercules the Turtle

I want to tip my hat to all the biology teachers and the animals and plants they introduce to their students.

This spring I have been thinking about my seventh grade life sciences teacher, Mrs. Hessenbruch, who had a nifty little fishbowl in the back of the class with leaf litter and planarians in it. I used to sit back there and peer into the water occasionally and watch those oddly cross-eyed critters glide smoothly across the soft brown leaves.

Mrs. H gave us a wonderful assignment in the spring. We had to choose one deciduous tree and one conifer—the trees had to be available to us daily—and we had to use colored pencils, or markers, or crayons, or some other medium to draw detailed pictures of the emergence of new leaves. I think it was daily chore, or maybe every other day. We also had to take a sample of the bud and emerging leaves each time, to show what we were illustrating, press it, and include it alongside the illustration in our final project.

Doing this forced us to really see what was happening as the scales stretched open and the tender leaves emerged, reached out, pumped full of life and sap, changed colors, finally matured. The differences were striking even with the conifers.

I will never forget that observational exercise and how it forced me to see that transformation in all its magical detail. Forever afterward, I felt like I somehow knew my chosen oak tree and juniper, like I somehow understood them. I felt an affinity and affection for them, and then, by extension, I had a similar feeling for all the other trees of the world.

Well, I just found out from a friend, who is a high school biology teacher, that her class pet, Hercules the tortoise, had died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend. And she had to break the news to her students, most of whom had adored little Hercules.

And I want to thank all the science teachers who go to the trouble, and indeed undergo the grief, that comes with having living creatures in the classroom. On top of all the other stuff educators do, it’s not easy to clean the cages, to monitor the feedings, and to have to explain to the class it’s time to focus on their upcoming finals when tragedy has struck and everyone’s mourning.

Because here’s the deal: Biologists study life; we all love life, but biologists love it so much they make it their career. And it just hurts to lose a thing you love.

Meanwhile, I think it’s all worth it. If I can remember those planarians, the oak buds, that juniper, then Hercules will be remembered, too, with affinity and affection, and perspectives and lives have been forever changed.

Rest in peace, little Hercules.

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