Tag Archives: teaching

339. Teaching Space

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years. It was often fun, but not always. Helping the kids make projects to demonstrate simple machines was a blast, but chemistry was no fun at all. It was a challenge to make astronomy appeal to my kids, but I think I managed.

Teaching space had its ups and downs.

The space race had everything, exploration, political intrigue, danger – both in space and in the Cold War which was the real reason for going to space – technology and a chance to participate. When I taught Gemini IV, I would put two chairs on their backs on a table and have two students lie back in them to represent McDivitt and White. Then I would take “Ed White” for a  space walk.

I was big and they were small. I would pick “Ed” up by the waist and take him spinning and “floating” around the classroom before he returned to the capsule. Great fun for both of us. I always chose the smallest student to play Ed White and, of course, always a boy. Sorry feminists, but if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why.

I could use the movies Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff, and that was a big help. But the space race was teaching history. What was happening in the world outside the classroom during my teaching career was less fun.

The Space Shuttles were practical. Five craft made 135 trips into space, expanded our knowledge, launched the Hubble, and built the ISS. They called the shuttle NASA’s pick-up truck. It was a good analogy, but what twelve year old wants to go to space in a pick-up truck?

Nothing was really new, just more and better of the same old stuff. Nobody was going beyond low Earth orbit.

(“When are we going to the moon again, Teacher? When are we going to Mars?”
“Damned if I know kid. It’s beginning to look like never.)

There were promising new programs. I watched several of them as they were announced, begun, and then cancelled. I’ll recap them later.

I taught the space shuttle with more enthusiasm than I actually felt. We followed its progress, and there was a lot of it during my teaching career. There was also tragedy.

When the Challenger blew up, my class wasn’t watching. Our school got TV’s for the classrooms a couple of years later, so I didn’t know what had happened until recess when I went to the teacher’s lounge and saw faces suitable for a wake on my fellow teachers. It was a long afternoon, first explaining to the students what had occurred, and then going on with our work as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t face another day like that until 9/11.

I remember sitting with my friends in the teacher’s lounge after Challenger blew up, listening to the radio. When the announcer said that the mission commander had flown fighter jets during Viet Nam, I knew that he had found a more honorable death than that war could have given him.

When Columbia returned from orbit the last time, I was excited to see it. By that time I had moved to the foothills. Columbia’s flight path was to pass north of my new house, and I was up before daylight to watch its fire trail across the sky from my balcony. Instead, I only saw dense fog. I waited around until the projected time and at least heard it’s sonic boom. Five minutes later and a thousand miles to the east, it broke up and fell to earth.

It was Saturday morning. I had two days before it would be time to talk to my students about what had happened.

335. To Save a Life

I once saved a little girl’s life. True, but not as exciting as it sounds. I’ll tell you about it further down in the post.

In 1975, a whole bunch of things came together. I came back to California with a master’s degree and started writing novels. My wife’s parents lived in the same small city. Her father was a life long Red Cross volunteer, so when help was needed in the Swine Flu clinics, we all three volunteered. I had spent four years as a surgical tech in a Naval Hospital, so it was natural that I continued to volunteer after everybody had had their shots and the Swine Flue had not appeared.

(Cynics called the Swine Flu the cure for which there was no disease, but no one knew that at the time. Hindsight is always accurate, but sometimes cruel.)

About that time, the Red Cross was given the responsibility of teaching the then-new technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. My wife, my father-in-law, and i took the county’s first CPR class one week, then took the first CPR teacher training the following week. After that we taught as a team.

At that time there were no EMTs. We taught the local ambulance drivers to do CPR, then my father-in-law taught the park rangers at the local lake. We taught civilian classes every week or so and after a few years, we had trained hundreds.

In those days CPR training included the Heimlich maneuver and many other things I won’t even tell you about. Year by year, the training contained less and less. Dumbed down, in my non-medical opinion. To be fair, we weren’t teaching doctors and nurses. The amount that you can expect a civilian to learn in a short class, and remember in an emergency a year later, has to be fairly well restricted.

When I wrote my second published novel, I had the hero save a life using CPR, and in the front pages, placed a statement about CPR with a call for the reader to get training.

I never had to actually use CPR. That just means that nobody ever dropped temporarily dead in my presence, and I’m glad they didn’t.

However . . .

About twenty years later I was teaching middle school. It was the end of the day. The bell had just rung and my students had started getting into their back packs to file out, when one of them yelled, “Suzy’s in trouble!” and another student yelled, “She’s choking.”

The girl (not named Suzy) had slipped a hard candy about the size and shape of a marble into her mouth. She wasn’t supposed to do that until she was outside the classroom, so she was being sneaky instead of careful, and it lodged in her windpipe.

I slipped into the mode teachers use for bleeding, fainting, and fist fights. I went to her at a walk that resembled a run. Her face was desperate. I spun her around and stripped off her backpack while calmly saying, “Let’s get this off you. Let’s get you turned around so I can get that out, so you can breathe.” I put my hands in the right position and jerked up sharply — but carefully, since I was three times her size. The candy shot across the room.

That was it. It was over. She was shaken, but unhurt.

Humility would have me say that she would probably have been all right anyway, but I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.

So, what is the takeaway — that I’m a hero? Not likely. People’s lives are saved every day by the Heimlich maneuver. I have a friend, a teacher, who used it successfully twice during her career.

The takeaway is that CPR, rescue breathing, and the Heimlich maneuver are easy to learn, and if you ever have the chance to same the life of a loved one, or even a stranger, and you don’t know how, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

End of sermon.

314. Fleming Fellows

300px-oklahoma_medical_research_foundation_nimaphoto by Nima Kasraie

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is a major research institution, but not a household word. Let me explain its importance in my life.

Everything that happens to a writer passes into his memory, sinks to the bottom, and grinds around there, knocking sparks off every other experience. Years later, it emerges, transmogrified, as stories or parts of stories.

My soul as a writer and as a human being was forged on a small farm, working essentially full time in addition to going to school. I was an only child. School and home were kept strictly separated. Except for one treasured cousin, none of my school friends ever entered my house.

I was a very smart child in a very small place. I worked hard, got strong, and loved the outdoor life, but my mind lived in other worlds, brought to me by books of science fiction. I decided to become a scientist. In that pursuit, I was torn between space science and ecology. When I was a high school junior, I put those two together (yesterday’s post).

That same year, among the many standardized tests we took, was the test to become a Fleming Fellow. There was also an application to be filled out in which I was to explain my aspirations and offer any personal projects to prove my capacity. I wrote up my ecosystem in space project.

I was notified that I was a finalist, and scheduled for an interview in Oklahoma City. At that time, I knew almost nothing about the fellowship or the OMRF.

Incorporated in 1946, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation was dedicated in 1949 by Nobel Laureate Sir Alexander Fleming. In 1957, OMRF started a summer program for students, which was quickly named the Fleming Scholar Program. It has evolved over the years, but in that era, from four to seven Oklahoma High School juniors were recruited, and spent eight weeks at the OMRF the following summer.

In the spring of 1965, I sat before a panel of scientists for my interview. I had expected questions on science. Instead, they asked questions on meaning and morality. What did I think of the bombing of Hiroshima? What did I think of capital punishment? Behind the questioning, they were clearly trying to find out my level of self-confidence, as the interview became quite adversarial at times. After I said that I was still uncertain about my stance on executions, one of the scientists asked, rather sharply, “Don’t you think it is our duty to think about such things?” I remember being irritated at his high-handedness. I snapped back, “I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it. I said I hadn’t decided yet.”

I said to the panel that I intended to pursue a Ph.D. The whole panel tried to convince me that I should be getting an M.D. instead. I held my ground, and when the interview was over, one of the panelists admitted that most of them had Ph.D.s, not M.D.s.

Fortunately, self-confidence – or arrogance, if you prefer – is something I have never lacked. I received a Fellowship. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

313. Weightless Ecology

ecoopwegt-lessI’ve been putting off this post since I started the blog. It’s embarrassing. I’m proud of what I did, but telling it makes me feel a little like one of those old guys who never stops talking about the night his forward pass won the big game.

Still, if I hadn’t done what I’m going to tell you about today, I would never have done what I did the summer after (tomorrow’s post), and if not for that, I would still be driving a tractor in Oklahoma. So here goes.

1964-5 was my junior year in high school. That was the year I took both junior and senior English because I was running out of classes to take, and that was the year I discovered science fairs. We didn’t have one in our tiny school, but their was a regional competition one county over. I had recently discovered Shirley Moore’s Science Projects Handbook, which was the bible for the science nuts (nerd wasn’t a word yet) of my generation.

America was in space; the Mercury project was completed and Gemini was waiting in the wings. I was enthralled with space, but also with ecology. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was about to make ecology a household word, but no one in my world had heard of it yet. I decided to put the two together and build an “Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness”.

Lets get real. Boy scientist builds spaceship and flies to Arcturus only happens in the very old pulp stories. I wasn’t going to build something that would actually fly in space. It was an exercise in design, with as much building as I could pull off with limited resources.

The idea was that at that time NASA needed to keep to keep some creature in weightlessness long enough to see what it would do to its body. Laika the Russian space dog hadn’t lasted long, and the longest Mercury flight had been 34 hours. I proposed a design that would put two mice in a closed ecosystem with algae. It was set up so that the algae tank would spin to provide just enough gravity to keep the water separate from the air, but the mice would be weightless in a separate chamber.

The fun was in the details. The mice would be housed in a two part plexiglas bubble, with a wire mesh floor at its equator. Waste would pass through he mesh, carried by the airstream and drop down into the algae tank.

That part actually got built. I made the algae tank of plexiglas, heated and formed around two round pieces of wood. I blew two half domes with a plywood form, an air compressor dragged up from shop class, and an oven borrowed from the home-ec teacher.

As I’ve said before, most of my education came outside of the classroom, thanks to indulgent teachers. They did the right thing, but it would get them fired if they did it today.

I bolted the half domes together through flanges formed during the blowing process. With two mice, Hing and Ho (named after the meerkats in Andre Norton’s Beast Master) in the upper chamber of the dome and a mass of Ankistrodesmus from a local stream in the algae chamber, connected by an aquarium pump, the ecosystem was as far finished as I could manage by the time of the science fair.

The physical result was limited by my resources, but the design went much further. To transfer the food to the mice, I had designed a pump, patterned after a Wankel engine (all the rage in Popular Mechanics that year). It was to send algae laden water up through a tube where it would be flushed over a fine mesh screen. The water would return to the tank on the airstream, leaving the algae for the mice to eat.

I did actually experiment with feeding them Ankistrodesmus. I strained it out of the water, dried it over a light bulb and passed the algae wafer into the mice’s cage. They went wild. You would have thought it was ice cream.

The design called for a small tube to carry a continuous airstream from above the algae water to strike the inside center of the upper dome, bringing the mice fresh air and carrying away waste as it returned. There a larger tube would carry the waste to the bottom of the algae tank.

To get water to the mice under weightlessness, the design called for the airstream from the algae tank to first pass through a Hilsch vortex tube, which split the airstream into hot and cold halves. The cold half was to pass between two thin metal plates. The warm (and moist) half of the air was to play onto the outside of these plates, leading to condensation and a continuous source of water for the mice to drink.

So why am I telling you this? Because this was the first step toward my future.

I didn’t know that at the time. I just did it because it was a challenge and more fun than I had ever had, but it led to a Fleming Fellowship, and that changed my life. more tomorrow.

312. Popular Science

full-futurecars-4When I was twelve or thirteen, my great grandfather said to me, “I used to read Popular Mechanics. You should, too.” And he handed me a quarter. It was the best piece of advice any relative ever gave me.

I bought my first popular science magazine, and I was hooked. I was soon buying three a month every month, and occasionally a fourth. Science and Mechanics, no longer published, was the best. Popular Science came next, then Popular Mechanics. Mechanix Illustrated was a lame imitation, but I always looked and occasionally bought, if there was a particularly interesting article.

In school, I usually devoured my science textbooks by the end of the first month of the school year. They provided an important, basic, bare bones understanding. But the popular science magazines put exciting flesh and blood on those bones. I learned more science from those three popular science magazines than I ever learned from a textbook.

Those were the days when GEMs were new. Ground effect machines, that is. There were articles that explained how they worked (what shape plenum chamber do you prefer?) but better still, there were articles that showed guys who had built their own out of plywood and a lawn mower engine, flying down the street of their suburban neighborhoods, six inches off the ground.

When I sent ten scientists to explore Cyan, they used skimmers, which were clearly ground effect machines.

There were always articles on how to take care of your car, and there was the new car issue every fall. You didn’t have to be a science nut to like cars.

There were always stories about the newest, hottest jet plane, including a story about a new safety device that gave pre-recorded error messages into the earphones of a pilot. The Air Force had discovered that the pilot never missed the message if the recording was a sultry female voice. Any thirteen year old boy in America could have told them that. The illustration of that article was a realistic drawing of a helmeted pilot with a tiny, bikini-clad femme whispering into his ear the words that would save him.

These guys knew their target audience.

Not everything between those covers would be politically correct today. I remember the pistol crossbow, a powerful hand-held weapon that shot sharpened six-inch pieces of quarter inch rod. Try making that in your seventh grade shop class. Maybe you could get a merit badge in Boy Scouts?

Probably not.

There were always articles on how to build something in your shop, about the latest tools, or about how to build the tools you couldn’t afford. I was hooked on that, too. My father was a farmer, not a craftsman. If a nail in a board would do the job, he was satisfied, and moved on to the next of an unending set of chores. I wanted more. I wanted to be a craftsman. Today I am, and these are the magazines that got me started on that path.

Eventually, I stopped reading popular science magazines. You can only read so many thousand articles at that level until you have absorbed enough. I moved on, but I didn’t forget how powerfully they ignite young imaginations.

When I became a teacher in a small middle school, all the other teachers were happy to load science onto me, and I was glad to accept. I taught all subjects the first year, but after that it was “science-and”. Every year I taught more science and less “and”.

The first year I subscribed to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (Science and Mechanics was long dead), and soon I added Smithsonian Air and Space. I bought a magazine rack at a garage sale and put it up in my room. I never threw a magazine away until it was too tattered to read, and after a few years there were a hundred magazines in the rack.

Occasionally, at the end of an hour, there would be a few minutes to spare and I would say, “You can either do homework for another class, or read one of the science magazines.” It was the best advice I ever gave them.

And nobody chose homework.

275. Christmas for Lupe

Today is Thursday, December 22, 2016. Christmas will be Sunday, and this is my last post until then.

I’m going to tell you a story about a little girl I know. This is how she will spend her time today, as you enjoy preparing for Christmas.

*          *          *

Ramon came in, stamping the snow from his feet, and shook the snow from his jacket before closing the door. The sun was low in the eastern sky behind him as Lupe moved up and hugged his leg. He smelled of sweat and manure and soured milk, but she didn’t mind. She had hugged him this way every morning for as long as she could remember, and he always smelled the same. For Lupe, the smell was as familiar and welcome as his cold fingers on the top of her head.

Every morning Ramon rose before the sun was up, and left the house. His daughter greeted him when he returned hours later, and saw him off again in the afternoon. She was usually asleep when he came home at night.

It is hard work milking cattle twice a day, and the pay is low. The cattle march in from the muddy lots to take their turns in the stalls, where fast moving men attach the milking machines. The cattle resent the process and the workers have to move quickly to avoid having their hands caught against he stanchions. It goes on for hours, in heat or cold, beginning every morning before daylight, and continuing again every evening until long after dark.

Lupe stepped aside to make room for her mother. Today she seemed worried; her voice was unusually sharp as she asked, “What did he say?”

Ramon said, “I didn’t tell him.”

I translate, of course. Every word was in Spanish.

“You got your money for the week?”

Lupe’s father nodded, “I told him I needed it today, to buy things for Christmas. I was afraid to tell him the truth. He is a good man, but it seemed best that he should not know.”

Lupe’s sister came out of the single bedroom with a cardboard box in her arms, tied up with twine. Lupe looked up with interest. It was not wrapped in paper, but any box is interesting so close to Christmas. Carmella put the box down on the floor and returned a moment later with blankets and bedding, also rolled up and also tied up with twine. Lupe asked what she was doing, but Carmella ignored her.

Her father carried the box and roll outside. Her mother came out of kitchen with a box of food, and that began a procession of boxes, coming from various parts of the house and out to the car. Lupe’s mother and sister had gathered their possessions during the pre-dawn, while Lupe slept.

Now Lupe dragged at her mothers leg asking questions, but she was ignored until Carmella pulled her aside and said, “We are going away.”


“I wish I knew Lupita. I wish I knew.”

“But why?”

“It’s only a month until he becomes President. Everyone here knows who we are. We have to go away, somewhere where people don’t know us.”

“But why? I was born here. This is home.”

“So was I, Lupe, but mother and father were not.”

When they pulled out an hour later, Lupe stared back at the little house where she had spent her whole, short life, until it disappeared around a bend. Then she looked out the windshield, past her mother and father’s silent heads. It was a long road, wet with melted snow. Her father would not leave the house tonight before the sun went down and go to the cows. There would be no more money, no more warmth, no more little house. It would be again as it had been, before the job at the cows, before she was born. Lupe knew what that was like from hearing her parents talk. Now it would be like that again.

*          *          *

Is Lupe real? She was born from the hundreds of little Mexican-American girls I taught over twenty-seven years. How many were undocumented? I never knew. I never asked. I didn’t need to know.

Is she real? She is as real as heartache. She is as real as fear. She is as real as dislocation, cold, hunger, and injustice.

223. Arrogance

When famous writers speak of writing, other writers take notice. It doesn’t hurt if they have a Nobel prize to their credit.

Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

Interesting. I was much impressed by his observation when I first read it during the seventies, as I was just starting to write. Decades later, it still seems sound.

Harlan Ellison said that the thing a writer needs most is arrogance.

Maybe, if well mixed with competence, but even then I have some doubts. Ellison had plenty of arrogance, and he was about the best short story writer ever. But if you drop in at wikiquotes and read what he has to say there, you might wonder if arrogance and competence alone are enough. Decide that one for yourself.

Regarding ego – and a strong ego is first cousin to arrogance – take a look at the words Rex Stout put into the mouth of his fictional character Archie Goodwin.

“If your ego is in good shape you will pretend you’re surprised if a National Chairman calls to tell you his party wants to nominate you for President of the United States, but you’re not really surprised.  (Champagne for One, p. 5.)

That sounds like something Donald Trump might enjoy reading.

What Hemingway, Ellison and Stout have in common is the unstated understanding that they are talking about success on a national or international level. Ego approaching arrogance and an unfailing shit detector are necessary.

They are not enough.

One of the great American lies is that hard work will bring you success. Every time an Olympic gold medal winner is interviewed, they say with mock humility, “I wasn’t particularly talented, but I worked hard for my success.”

Whereupon my Hemingway-brand shit detector goes off like a fire alarm.

Take a thousand swimmers. Let them each work equally hard. One will win the medal and nine hundred ninety nine will fail. Fail! Yes, I said the F— word. Fail. Only the N— word is more feared.

I hear the kindergarten teachers shouting, “We are all winners!” No, we aren’t. Telling impressionable children lies like that is child abuse.

I hear middle school teachers saying, “The only difference between winners and losers is how hard you work.” There goes my shit detector again.

“If you don’t work hard, you won’t succeed.” That might be closer to the truth, although I’ve known some successful incompetents. Just go look at some of the novels sitting on book store shelves. “If you work hard you will succeed,” is simply a lie.

So, writers (who else would be reading this?), listen to your shit detector, have the ego to believe you have something to say, and the arrogance to believe that it’s their own damned fault if the rest of the world doesn’t listen. Work hard. Don’t give up.

And get a good day job.