Several years ago, a popular bumper sticker proclaimed, “If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher!” While I believe this statement to be true and echo another bumper sticker saying that, “Reading is FUNdemental” – I also believe that there are other key aspects of learning that a teacher can impart to his or her students. High on my list would be developing in children a sense of wonder – encouraging them to ask and to investigate for themselves the how and why of events and occurrences around us, especially in the natural world.
While I have had many strong teachers over the years, my eighth-grade science teacher, Mr. Lerch was a master at sharing with us his own sense of wonder. From the sound of your pulse in your ear when you lay your head down on your pillow at night to how important our sense of smell is to our taste buds – Mr. Lerch never met a sight, sound, feel, taste or smell he could not dissect in an attempt to help himself better understand the how and why of its operation. By sharing his own personal stories with us, and then recreating certain aspects of them for us in class, he made an indelible impression on our young minds that lingers even today.
Among Mr. Lerch’s more unforgettable stories were the already mentioned pounding pulse in his ear. Each of us has, at one time or another, lay our head down on a pillow and heard the rush of our own pulse. In Mr. Lerch’s story and personal investigation at the age of seven, this seemingly mundane occurrence led to everything from an examination of his own mortality – “Does the fact that I can hear my own pulse mean my heart is rapidly expanding and I will die soon?” to the thought that some alien creature or perhaps worse, a blood-sucking ear worm had invaded his brain. We were so wrapped up in the story that time seemed to stand still, and to this day, I clearly remember that when one of our classmates sneezed, we all jumped.
As engaged in his stories as we were, Mr. Lerch’s point was that life – and not just science – is a journey of discovery and experimentation. To live life is not only to enjoy it but to constantly have a sense of wonder about it – all the while questioning and hopefully understanding what it is all about. To this day, I cannot eat an apple without remembering that while blindfolded and with a pinched nose, you cannot tell the difference in taste between an apple and an onion. Try it sometime! Also know that for about three years afterward, we used a subtle – and not so “tasteless” variation of this experiment on our unsuspecting friends and relatives. I believe I still have a cousin whose anger and perhaps tastebuds, simmer to this day . . .
Most importantly, Mr. Lerch taught us that wonder extends beyond questioning. He taught us that a true sense of wonder first awes or better yet, inspires us. His prime example of this in nature was the Grand Canyon. Though I have yet to see the canyon myself, I am prepared at a moment’s notice to be awed and even inspired by its sight – thanks to his helping me to fully understand the how and why of its creation. On a far less grand and personal level – and to perhaps illustrate the latent adolescent in me – I also have a sense of wonder each day when I take a hot shower and the steam builds up in the room. When the shower is over, the door opened, and the steam released – it never ceases to amaze me.
Perhaps it is a stretch to say that hot showers remind me of Mr. Lerch, but the sense of wonder he inspired in us, the encouragement to experiment and to question, and the fun that was often involved, are not only lifelong penchants for myself, they are also the goals of all good teachers. For these things and more, I am eternally grateful to my own teachers, like Mr. Lerch, and always hope to inspire my colleagues to be the same. Reading and writing are indeed, fundamental, but so are simply observing, investigating, and being inspired by the life in and around us each day.