To mark Steve Silberman’s winning of the 2015 Samuel Johnson book prize, UK’s top prize for non-fiction and the first science book to be so honored, we’re reposting Silberman’s 2011 NeuroTribes blog post honoring educators. In this post, he asks some leading science writers to recount the most important thing each learned from a teacher.
Five mornings a week, Keith gets up before dawn, puts on one of his geekiest bow ties (think Space Invaders, DNA helices, and daVinci’s Vitruvian Man), and drives half an hour down the freeway to teach teenagers about the wonders of science and the rigors of the scientific method at a local high school.
It’s a demanding life with little downtime. Keith’s evenings and weekends are often consumed by lesson planning and other school-related activities, but he’s perpetually stressed out about whether he’s doing enough for his kids. With his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Berkeley — one of the top five such programs in the country — he could triple his schoolteacher’s salary by taking a job as a bench scientist at DuPont or Exxon-Mobil, as many of his fellow Berkeley grads have done.
But Keith has a passion for teaching. He lives for those moments when he can help a student make sense of the world through science. (He’s also my husband.)
People who make the career choices that Keith did don’t get a lot of respect these days. In endless discussions of “the crisis in education,” teachers are routinely described as burned out, bumbling, underqualified, and unfit — particularly if they belong to a union. In his new book Class Warfare, aspiring education reformer Steven Brill calls school districts “the most lavishly funded and entrenched bureaucracies in America… supported by an interest group — the teachers’ unions — which [have] money and playbooks every bit as effective in thwarting the public interest as Big Oil, the NRA, or Big Tobacco.”
It’s as if we’ve collectively decided that anyone who devotes his life to standing at the head of a classroom, when salaries are so low and school budgets are being slashed, can’t be that smart after all — an insidious legacy of the era when teaching was one of the few acceptable occupations for women.
Conversely, teachers who are clearly effective are portrayed as exceptional: self-sacrificing superheroes who single-handedly boost their students’ scores on standardized tests with little regard for such mundane concerns as a living wage, job security, health benefits, and adequate class resources. Meanwhile, billionaire venture capitalists like PayPal founder Peter Thiel advise young entrepreneurs to drop out of college altogether as a “bad investment” and get down to the serious business of raising capital in their teens — as if a wide-ranging education was just another expendable item on a spreadsheet.
While reading this moving NPR story about a neurosurgeon who phoned his high-school science teacher to express his gratitude after performing a tricky operation, it struck me how rarely we hear from accomplished people about the debt they owe to their teachers. The words of a true teacher stay with us a long time, offering wise counsel in a confusing world and a potent inoculation against foolishness. Yet we rarely get to thank them explicitly. Perhaps only in mid-life, we realize that the career path we chose was set, at least in part, by the recognition, praise, or clarifying criticism of a respected teacher when we were young.
In that spirit, I’ve asked some of the brightest folks I know in science and media to answer this simple question: What’s the most important lesson you learned from a teacher?
I’m delighted to report that a wide range of writers and thinkers were eager to share their stories. Among those who pay tribute to their most influential teachers here are two bestselling authors, Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Blum; the brilliant culture critic Mark Dery; award-winning science journalists David Dobbs, Amy Harmon, and Hillary Rosner; cognitive psychologist Uta Frith, the pioneer of autism research who translated Hans Asperger’s original paper; and several of the most perceptive and prolific bloggers around, including Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, and Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science. It turns out that by asking people that simple question, you open floodgates of memory and understanding.
If you feel inspired after reading these marvelous, charming, and occasionally terrifying tales from the classroom, please consider Googling up a memorable teacher and sending them an email to tell them what you’re up to now and express your appreciation. I guarantee that doing so will improve your day and profoundly touch the heart of someone who helped guide you into the world. Life is brief.
One of my favorite stories about a teacher’s enduring impact comes from Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, the real-life model for the hero of Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, and one of the first American students to study Zen in Japan. Snyder’s teacher there was a tough old monk who delivered his lengthy discourses on Buddhadharma in such a soft voice that his students strained to hear them, struggling to stay awake on their meditation cushions.
Years later, Snyder ran into one of his fellow students from his days in Kyoto, who was by then a senior monk himself. The monk told the poet, “Remember those talks rōshi gave that no one could hear? I’m beginning to hear them now.”
Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and a writer for Popular Science magazine.
As people who’ve read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks know, I first learned about Henrietta and her amazing HeLa cells in a basic biology class when I was 16 years old. My teacher, Mr. Defler, wrote Henrietta’s name on the chalk board and told us she was a black woman. That was it, and class was over. I followed him to his office saying, “Who was she? Did she have any kids? What do they think about those cells?” He told me no one knew anything else about her. “But if you’re curious,” he told me, “go do some research, write up a little paper about what you find and I’ll give you some extra credit.” At that point I was planning to be a veterinarian — something I’d been determined to do since I was a small child. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I looked for information about Henrietta but didn’t find anything, so I didn’t write that extra credit paper. But I never forgot about her — in fact, I was a bit obsessed by her.
More than a decade later, while working my way through an undergraduate degree in biology so I could apply for vet school, I took my first creative writing class as an elective. (Amazingly, the school I went to counted creative writing toward its required foreign language requirement, so I signed up for creative writing thinking it would be less work than the alternative… but that’s another story). At the start of that class, the teacher gave us this writing prompt: “Write for 15 minutes about something someone forgot.” I scribbled, “Henrietta Lacks” at the top of my page and began writing an essay about how the whole world seemed to have forgotten about Henrietta, but I was weirdly obsessed with her. I fell in love with writing in that class but still had no intention of becoming a professional writer. I had what I now refer to as Veterinary Tunnel Vision.
Then one day, when I was getting ready to submit my applications for vet school, my writing teacher, the amazing John Calderazzo at Colorado State University, pulled me aside and said, Do you realize you’re a writer? And do you know there’s such a thing as a science writer? I didn’t. He told me he thought the world needed more people who understood science and could convey it to the public. You know, he said, you don’thave to go to vet school just because that’s what you always planned to do — you could get an MFA in writing instead. I told him I’d never even heard of an MFA and had never for a moment thought of giving up on my dream of becoming a vet. Then he said these essential words: Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place. That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the best things you ever do in life. The next day I started researching MFA programs in creative nonfiction writing. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1988 when my biology teacher told me to see if I could find any information about Henrietta, neither one of us could have imagined that more than twenty years later, I’d publish a book about her having spent most of my adult life looking to answer a question he inspired in that classroom. Before my book came out, I tracked down that biology teacher, now long retired, and sent him a note: “Dear Mr. Defler, here’s my extra credit project. It’s 22 years late, but I have a good excuse: No one knew anything about her.” He was shocked. I was just one of thousands of students he’d taught in countless huge auditoriums, most of us (myself included) looking disaffected and half asleep. He didn’t remember that moment in class when he first told me about Henrietta, but I did. Which is an amazing thing about classrooms: You never know what random sentence from a teacher will change a student’s life.
Ferris Jabr is a reporter for New Scientist.
Sometimes you can feel a hidden cog in your brain lurch into motion—and sometimes you know exactly who got it going. I was sitting in Carol Gontang’s biology class at Mountain View High School in California. We were discussing Archaeopteryx. My teenage brain got the gist of it: birds evolved from dinosaurs. But I couldn’t visualize the process. I spouted my question as I raised my hand: “So dinosaurs just, like, randomly started growing feathers?”
Mrs. Gontang’s eyes settled on me, then drifted toward the ceiling as she touched her crown of poufy hair, all honey and lemon meringue. “A feather is not so different from a scale,” she explained. “Remember, they’re both made of keratin. It’s not hard to imagine a mutation that would produce feathery scales.”
The eggshell cracked. A claw emerged, a beaky snout, a hint of plumage. I could see it: something like a baby velociraptor, slick with yolk, covered here and there in patches of fuzzy down. I had begun to understand.
Amy Harmon is a correspondent for the New York Times.
The point of high school, so far as I could tell, was to prove how much you knew. That was why you crammed for tests, tried to come up with clever comments in class, stayed up late writing papers. You were graded on it, of course. You were rewarded for it. Maybe you even enjoyed it for its own sake, this accumulation of knowledge. I did. I liked the sense of authority that came with being able to reel off the real (economic!) causes of the Civil War, the workings of the digestive system, Wordsworth’s recurring themes. And I liked the pats on the back I got for being a Good Student from the teachers at my New York City private school.
So it came as something of a shock, in the second semester of my senior year, to encounter a pair of teachers who told us that recognizing how little you knew was what really mattered in life. Their names were Frank Moretti and Jack Salzman, and they co-taught a strange blend of history and philosophy and literature. They backed up the claim with Socrates and Salinger, and over the course of the term, with some reluctance, my classmates and I began to grasp what they meant. It’s a lesson I have had to re-learn again and again, in the dark moments of writing, when I inevitably realize that what I really need to do is more reporting. But I can’t imagine a better one for a journalist, especially one like me, trying to write about science with no background in the field. It’s humbling, after weeks or months of research, to say, “I still don’t understand.” But it’s also liberating. And often at those moments, I flash back to the glass-enclosed classroom, up the stairs off the library, where I first considered not acting like such a know-it-all.
Geoff Manaugh is the writer and editor of BLDGBLOG.
In the break between 7th and 8th grade, my mom hired my middle school Latin teacher — an amateur poet in his free time — to give me writing lessons during the summer months. The basic idea was that I would learn to read and write poetry, something I was already trying my hand at, but also that I would thus also stay out of trouble over the summer, as my family had just fallen apart in a divorce and I was feeling more and more betrayed and alienated by everyday life.
The resulting experience was both life-changing and extraordinary, and I still think about it two decades later: my Latin teacher assigned me both The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn to read as key texts over the summer, and we would meet up in the local state park, walking around amidst deer, train tracks, and untended Pennsylvania forests, discussing how to travel, how to document the allure of new destinations, and how to turn notes, impressions, loose thoughts, sketches, and other mental ephemera into poetry. We’d challenge each other with new themes to turn into poems each week, sometimes even right there on the spot, writing down lines in a rush within mere minutes, and we’d always return to walking around that park, which, to this day, makes me think of The Odyssey.
The next few years were often extraordinarily dark for me, and it was poetry — the great valve of energy and release that poetry offered — that got me through it all in one piece, a gift that can be traced directly back to a Latin teacher, Dwight Peterson, in suburban Pennsylvania, something I’ve never really thanked him for but will never forget.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She’s also the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about how our electric system works today, why it got that way, and how it will have to change to meet the needs of the 21st century. It will be published in April 2012 by Wiley and Sons.
I had the same teacher for 4th and 5th grades, Shirley Johannsen. She started teaching at State Street Elementary in Topeka, Kansas in 1963, so by the time I got there in the late 1980s, this woman was already educating the children of her first students. She taught both grades, simultaneously, in the same classroom. And there were more than 20 of us in each grade. Forty-plus students, one room, one well-loved Apple IIE, and Ms. Johannsen.
That sounds like a recipe for a failing school, but Shirley Johannsen was one of the best teachers I have ever had. There are two things this woman did that completely changed my life.
First, Ms. Johannsen made me a writer. It was in her classroom that I first made the connection between my obsessive love of reading, and the fact that I could write books, too. And she encouraged me to write, not just for school assignments, but for fun and for practice. She was the first person who told me that writing was something I was good at. She was my first editor.
Second, Ms. Johannsen made me love science. In my memories, it’s like I woke up one day, in her classroom, with a 9-volt battery and an electric switch in my hand. Before her, science was dinosaurs and trips to the museum with my parents. After, it was something to look forward to every school year—new discoveries, surprising knowledge, a better understanding of how the world around me worked.
Today, I’m a science journalist. I love my job. And I owe that to the teacher who saw my gifts and inspired my curiosity.
Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com and a co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—And Endangered with Dr. Bruce Perry, and the author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.
“Those who do not articulate their rights have none,” was the statement that Mr. MacTamaney wrote on the blackboard on the first day of school at Monroe-Woodbury High in New York state. That thought — and the way he engaged my high school English class with humor and humanity — had a profound influence on me.
My most important journalism can be summed up in that sentence. It has involved attempting to help the voices of vulnerable people — teenagers, drug users — be heard and to have their rights respected.
While that may not sound like traditional science journalism, it has only been by understanding and presenting research data that I have been able to uncover and fight specific injustices.
For example, if research showed that humiliation, abuse and attack therapy cured addiction and helped troubled teens, my exposés of those programs would not have made sense; if the science didn’t support the idea that overdose prevention and needle exchange programs save lives, I would not have continued to write op-eds explaining the data and the need for such interventions.
I come from a family of teachers: my mother taught high school social studies and my grandfather was a professor of business at Baruch College. The power of a good teacher is to me, therefore, so obvious that it’s actually hard to articulate. But I do think we need to speak up for teachers and make sure their contributions to the careers and success of every one of us are known — and they deserve to be respected and better compensated.
The source of the spark that awakens a child’s mind is hard to pinpoint, but the research is clear that early learning experiences have great impact, for both good and ill. One kind word, a small bit of encouragement can start a virtuous cycle that leads ultimately to the expression of talent and success. We need to support our teachers so they can illuminate all of us.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.
In the year that I started 8th grade, we moved from Louisiana to Georgia. Terrible timing for any child in middle school and for me — a shy girl whose major hobby was reading books, a full-fledged geek wearing horn-rimmed glasses (yes, even then!) — completely traumatic. I went to school, did my work, kept my head down. But here’s what changed things. My 8th grade English teacher, Lois Player, liked the way I wrote. And she was too smart to praise me in front of the class, too savvy to further brand me as a full-fledged geek. She called me aside and told me she thought I had talent and she bullied a rather reluctant school administration into putting me into a brand new class, one in which students created a newspaper for the school.
It was the first time I realized that writing could be community — not a bad lesson at the age of 13. And the bigger lesson — that kindness literally can shape a life — I learned that too. How can you not admire a teacher who, besieged by hordes of adolescents, takes the time to help a lost child? There are so many teachers today who do the same and I know that from stories my sons tell me. But one more point about Mrs. Player. She still lives in Athens, Georgia and last year I went there to give a book talk. She was in the audience and she came up after to tell me how proud she was. I felt lucky all over again.
Ed Yong is an award-winning British science writer. His work has appeared in New Scientist, the Times, Wired, the Guardian, and Nature. He is the author of Not Exactly Rocket Science.
My science teacher, Keith Davies, used to teach me extra stuff in the interstitial moments of class practicals. Though I was still in primary school, I was learning secondary-level science because he never blanched at the prospect of a precocious student asking lots of questions. Mr. Davies taught me that curiosity would be rewarded with knowledge. What better preparation for a scientific life could there be?
As a gangly Polish kid in an Irish Catholic high school, I was a perennial target for physical humiliation. Being good in school didn’t help matters. But I had two science teachers whose kindness and support stay with me 30 years later.
Thomas Hannan was a tall, handsome baseball coach who was also our 10th grade biology teacher. I good-naturedly taunted him by scoring a 100 on any test he could throw at us. After class one day, he offered to formalize the challenge: every time I got a 100 thereafter, he would buy a Pepsi and award it to me in class. If I didn’t, I owed him a Pepsi. I thought this was madness. I didn’t need another reason to be pushed around by the jocks. But as the baseball coach, Hannan’s endorsement became an inoculation against the thrashings that typically befell a smart kid. Good biology grades became an “in” thing.
My chemistry and physics teacher, Neil Bender, was the opposite of Hannan in physical appearance — disheveled, mismatched clothes — and had a penchant for diverging into his other passion during class: movie reviews. After our first submission of chemistry lab reports, he commended us on our work but announced that one student’s work stood head and shoulders above the rest. He refused to say who until all of the cool kids badgered him for the student’s identity. As I sat in the back at the lab bench for the other outcasts, I was shocked when he revealed that I was the one with the propensity for chemistry.
I was not the only one singled out by either of these teachers. They often did the same for others in their own thoughtful, personalized ways. Mr. Hannan and Mr. Bender demonstrated that public recognition of student performance and quiet understanding of high school challenges can reach across the decades to inspire you as a teacher — to pay forward the power of encouragement.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic, freelance journalist, and the author of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
In my mental pantheon of Professors Who Changed My Life, one looms largest: an English teacher I encountered in my senior year in high school, Mrs. C. (We’ll pseudonymize her for reasons of privacy.)
Loftily titled “Humanities,” her course for the few, the proud, the college bound was thrillingly elite: anyone with the right GPA and an interest in literature was welcome to submit an essay for consideration, but few were chosen. The few who were chosen, me happily among them, learned on Day One that our careers as self-satisfied bullshit artists were over. Peering imperiously over her no-nonsense glasses, smartly turned out in a gray twinset and skirt color-coordinated with her salt-and-pepper hair, Mrs. C. regarded us with a flinty stare and the mocking ghost of a smile. In that instant, we knew that she was well familiar with our apple-polishing sycophancy, half-assed “classroom participation,” and slapdash, semicoherent papers, and knew them for the laughable fraud they were.
From the moment we crossed the threshold of her classroom, she informed, we would be treated as if we were in college. We would read serious novels such as The Scarlet Letterand Moby Dick and, because Mrs. C. was a devout Jungian, philosophical investigations such as Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. We would participate in class — frequently, vigorously, and intelligently, arguing our interpretations of the week’s readings with specific evidence mined from the text. Those who wanted to excel were advised to buy Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, a skeleton key to the collective unconscious. (I promptly rushed out and bought a copy; it sits on my shelf to this day, a beloved artifact of that pre-Derridean world when a symbol had a fixed, finite number of meanings.)
San Diego, in the 1970s, was a dreamy limbo of Navy retirees and Goldwater Republicans and bible-belt troglodytes and stoners and surfers and Malibu Barbies, reflexively hostile to intellectualism. In Mrs. C’s mirrorworld, intellectuals were celebrated and sharp-elbowed debate was the only sport that mattered. She threw wide the doors of adolescent minds whose previous idea of deep thought had been M.C. Escher posters and Yes lyrics, exposing us to the mysteries of symbolism and subtext.
Of course, only one reading of the text was permissible — hers — and my later encounters with Barthes and his postmodern progeny would make Mrs. C.’s by-the-numbers Jungianism look autocratic and antiquated. Even so, the endorphin buzz of hitting the interpretive bull’s-eye, making Mrs. C.’s eyes light up with that you-got-it! glow of approval, struck sparks in my teenage mind. My year with Mrs. C. inspired a major in English, a career in cultural criticism, and a lifetime habit of overthinking everything, a gift that keeps on giving.
Sarah Fallon is a story editor at Wired magazine.
I took AP Chemistry my senior year in high school. It was a small class, just me and three other women, and it was taught by a guy named Garcia Stone. We suspected that Garcia was not his real name, and the rumor around school was that he had been a chemist for the Hells Angels before he started teaching high school. On the weekends, he ran a motorcycle repair shop.
On the first day of class, Garcia asked us if we wanted him to teach to the AP test so we all got 4s and 5s — or if we just wanted to learn fun stuff and do cool experiments. We said screw the test, let’s just do a fun year. And that’s what we did. I did a project on esters (take an acid and an alcohol, mix them up, and the result is usually something smelly) that left my car reeking of old bananas for months. We made thermite (used in WWI bombs) and nitrogen triiodide (a contact explosive). We asked him to let us make fireworks. (He said no.) We asked about making LSD too. (He said that the ingredients required to make it safely were too closely monitored by the government.) It was wonderful. And we all got 4s and 5s on the test.
Tim DeChant is the author of Per Square Mile.
Within weeks of beginning my freshman year in high school, Mrs. Wondergem, my English teacher, assigned a five paragraph essay on Lord of the Flies. I worked diligently on the paper. I turned it in on time. And I received a C-. I was devastated. I was a good student, and the low grade felt like a slap of cold water in the face. But all hope wasn’t lost — since the entire class had done so poorly, Mrs. Wondergem said she would give us the chance to revise the paper. Relieved, I worked hard, running edits past my mother. My grade improved, but more importantly, my writing improved — however incrementally — because I had revised.
In retrospect, the bad-grade-followed-by-chance-for-redemption bit feels a tad canned. From the start, Mrs. Wondergem had probably planned the whole thing as a sort of lesson. “You’re in the big leagues now,” she seemed to be implying, and, “Your first draft may not be good enough, but you can always revise.” That bad grade wasn’t just an introduction to the hard knocks of high school, it was an early lesson in persistence.
I can’t say that at that moment I decided to be a writer — I was too annoyed with having received the initial bad grade — but it was a pivotal moment in my academic career. I didn’t love writing that year, or necessarily the next. It took years to learn to embrace the process, and years more before I decided to become a writer. But I got there eventually. Mrs. Wondergem was the first editor of many, but she was pitch perfect in that role — demanding and vexing yet ultimately forgiving and encouraging.
A few weeks ago, I received a letter in the mail from Mrs. Wondergem. She had recently spoken to my parents, who told her I was now a writer. She was thrilled.
Nicola Twilley is the writer and editor of Edible Geography.
My favorite teacher story involves my Phys. Ed. instructor telling me, aged 14, that, if I only believed in myself, I could do a somersault. It ends with four of my front teeth hanging out of my mouth by their roots. But perhaps that’s not what you’re looking for.
My school teachers were extremely competent and not particularly inspiring, and my poor undergraduate professors had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t really interested in doing any more academic work after the treadmill intensity of my A-levels. The real eye-opening happened late in the day, during my post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago, in a course called “Art and Medicine” taught by Barbara Maria Stafford.
Call me slow, but it was the first time that I’d been introduced to the incredibly fertile, idea-rich, and under-explored territory created by crossing disciplines. I ended up writing about wedding dresses adorned with sequins of foil-wrapped contraceptive pills, silver-coated Valium charms on bracelets, the placebo effect, the boundaries between surface and interior, and all sorts of other things that, although expressed in somewhat pretentious art-history academese, were incredibly exciting, at least to me. I’ve since made the space where food meets everything else my intellectual home, and I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to find it (if ever) without Barbara Stafford’s inspiring introduction to the delights of cross-disciplinary exploration.
Hillary Rosner has written about science and the environment for The New York Times, Popular Science, High Country News, Mother Jones, Audubon, and many other publications.
My senior year of high school, a young teacher named Mr. Willey offered a postmodern literature seminar. I’d always loved reading, but to be freed from the stuffy confines of the canon was incredible. We read Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Gloria Naylor, Walker Percy — and in writing assignments we mimicked each author’s style. The books we read felt so relevant, in a way that nothing before had, that it really solidified my desire to become a writer. To be 17 in the late 1980s and reading White Noise… It was so powerful, like listening to a transformative record. Mr. Willey made me aware, in a way I hadn’t been before, how many different ways there were to use language to tell a story or convey a message.
Later, when he read a draft of my college admissions essay, I was crushed when he said it was trite and needed work. Writing had always come easily to me, and I’d learned to get by with minimal effort. Mr. Willey taught me that having a natural aptitude for something means you have to work even harder at it — because otherwise what’s the point?
Bonnie Bassler is an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology.
From my postdoctoral advisor, Michael Silverman, I learned that science is an adventure and the only limitation is one’s imagination.
Joe Kloc is a freelance writer and illustrator who lives in San Francisco.
My last semester of college, I took a class on Paradise Lost in which the professor defined Milton’s notion of grace as “the ability to change.” Raised in Catholic school, I was surprised I had never heard this — or any — concrete definition of the word. I didn’t think much of the lesson at the time, because I had long ago taken up the habit of dismissing any word born of religion.
But then some weeks later, the professor brought up Milton’s grace again, this time to explain how he had gotten sober after decades of drinking. As I watched this old man stand before a class of 25 cynical kids and use his own alcoholism to make an appeal for grace and dignity in our lives, it occurred to me that whether it was from god or family or friends — I won’t do him the disservice of speculating which — he had indeed been given grace. I could no longer dismiss this word; there was no other to replace it.
I left that class with the understanding that words — their religious, historical or scientific baggage aside — are ultimately human inventions, created to articulate our experiences. In dismissing words too quickly, we run the risk of losing the language that affords us the ability to comprehend ourselves. I came to see why “Amazing Grace” is still a song worth singing through a secular life.
Uta Frith is a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.
I had many excellent teachers, but today my memory spotlight landed on one distinct if distant image: Frl. Dr. Lunkenheimer, teacher of the Sexta, about 40 eleven-year-olds in their first year of high school. Picture provincial Germany in 1952; picture a suit-clad woman, prim and spinsterish, with hair that looked as if it couldn’t wait to turn grey, drawn back into a plain knot, perhaps still in her thirties. She taught us how to write essays, and how to parse sentences, and she knew her stuff. After all, she had a PhD. My parents told me it would be more respectful to address her as Frau Doktor Lunkenheimer, and not Fräulein. Interestingly, in this they anticipated modern usage, where the Fräulein has been thoroughly replaced by Frau. Frau Dr L. belonged definitely to the strict and distant type of teacher rather than the popular and chummy type. I liked her a lot and always looked forward to her lessons. Once she deeply hurt my feelings in front of the whole class and from this stemmed also perhaps her greatest gift to me.
As every pupil of a Gymnasium knows you have to learn poems. I knew many of them by heart already because my mother was a great fan of poetry. Almost every Sunday she would read poetry to me and my sister from her favourite volumes. In lessons with Frau Dr. L. we read and discussed a famous poem, by Goethe, entitled “Johanna Sebus.” The subtitle tells all: “In memory of the virtuous and beautiful seventeen-year-old girl from the village of Brienen who on 13th January 1809, during the freezing of the Rhine and great collapse of the dam at Cleve, died while bringing help.” Thus, a real life story was the subject of this very dramatic ballad, which starts with the foreboding and onomatopoeic lines, imprinted in the brain of legions of German schoolchildren:
Der Damm zerreißt, das Feld erbraus’t,
die Fluten spülen, die Fläche saus’t.
“Ich trage dich, Mutter, durch die Flut;
noch reicht sie nicht hoch, ich wate gut.”
(You can find a translation here.)
The story of the heroic girl is told by Goethe in tightly condensed form: she saves first her mother, carrying her on her back, then goes back to save a woman and her children (who also asked her to save a goat), but she fails. The heart wrench of the poem is that all want to be saved by her but nobody is there to save the heroine.
At this point in the poem a strange anomaly occurs: Goethe refers to the heroine as “Susie,” (“schoen Sus-chen”): Susie who still stands straight and good; Susie who stands like a star; Susie whose image floats above the flood.
Why on earth does Goethe call her Susie and not by her real name, Johanna? Somebody in the class asked this obvious question, and Frau Dr. L. said “I really don’t know.” I raised an eager hand indicating that I knew why: “Goethe didn’t like the name Johanna and he rather liked the name Susie.” Frau Dr. L. looked at me in surprise: “How do you know this?” “My mother told me,” I replied proudly. Inevitably, Frau Dr. L. dismissed this explanation with scorn, telling the whole class that this information could certainly not be trusted. I was shocked and mortified. Surely, my poetry-obsessed mother would not make up this story. Not to trust her word was simply unprecedented, and yet in this lesson I started to think. It occurred to me that you must always have precise sources for what you believe to be true — and be able to quote them at the right moment. The word of a trusted authority, even the greatest authority, is subject to scrutiny. The reverberating memory of the shock that I felt at the time made me think that this was a crucial lesson for me. Remarkably, much later in life I found this lesson to be encapsulated in the motto of the Royal Society, Nulla in verbis, which means, roughly, “Don’t believe in the words of authority.”
I still thank Frau Dr. L. for having so subtly started my conversion from childish believer to adolescent doubter. Ironically, Goethe’s ballad praises a young girl’s love for her mother. Yet, my story is about finding out that mothers are not infallible. And there is yet another twist. I still believe that my mother had a credible source for Goethe’s reasons for the name change. Searching the web today, I found mention of two possible reasons: First, Goethe did not know the name of the girl when hearing the story which inspired him to write the ballad; his information was clearly scanty as he had the age wrong with Johanna Sebus being only 16 at the time and not 17. The second possible reason is that he disliked the real name of the heroine – my mother’s explanation! Here is at last a proper source.
The letter of a young painter, Luise Seidler (1986-1866) is cited. She wrote in June 1809, a month after Goethe wrote the poem, that he replaced the real name of Johanna because it had too much pathos because of its connection with the Maid of Orleans.
David Dobbs writes on culture and science for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Neuron Culture, and other places. He’s working on his fifth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion.
I started studying the violin in my 30s, working with a warm, intense teacher named Malone. After 5 years he put Bach’s D minor partita in front of me. “We’ll start with the Allemande,” he said. He put the music on the stand and talked me through the first movement, pencilling in bowings and fingerings, occasionally demonstrating how to get through some rhythmic puzzle, and sent me home. I practiced hard all week and came in ready to play about half the first page.
He stopped me on the second note. “Please put down the violin,” he said. I did.
“You’re skipping through that first D. I know it’s just a fucking little sixteenth note, but you have to play the whole thing. I don’t even mean the time. You’re actually giving it enough time. But you’re playing over it instead of through it. You have to play right through the center of it. It’s a leading note, but it’s not just a step into the room. It is the room, and you have to put us there. Play it. Play through every single note in the piece.”
I started to reach for the violin. He held up a hand.
“Wait,” he said. “This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.
“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.”
He took a deep breath, let it out slow, and gave me the tiniest hint of a smile. “Okay,” he said, and nodded at my violin. “Play.”