Robin McCleary began our ninth grade science class by lighting a tea candle and blowing it out. She then proceeded to put the candle, wick and all, into her mouth, chewed and swallowed. And then she asked us to share observations and opinions about what she had just done.
Once our discussion came to a lull, she said, “Now, let me show you what I did before you came into the room.” At that point, she pulled out a banana, peeled it, and cut a half-inch chunk from it’s center. She opened a bottle of canola oil, opened it, and poured a few drops into a petri dish. And she opened a bag of slivered almonds, selected one, dipped it in the canola oil, and placed it in the center of the banana standing tall, appearing to be a wick. She then lit the “candle,” blew out the flame, and ate it. Robin saw the astonishment on our faces and said something like, “This class is about observing carefully and challenging your assumptions. Not everything you see is as it seems.”
From that moment on, I was hooked. I hadn’t been interested in science before, but suddenly it was my favorite class. And while I did quite well and came to better understand and appreciate science more in that year than in any before or after, the most important lessons I ultimately learned from Robin were not about science, but about life. At one point she talked about the significant relationships in her life and shared that in those that mattered most to her, in the ones that worked best, the math didn’t make sense.“You see,” she said, “One plus one does not equal two. It equals three. Because when I’m with that person and they’re with me, we’re each better than we would be on our own.”
On another day, something prompted her to share her belief that it’s important to relish simple pleasures. “Have something that will make you smile that is always within reach,” she advised. When I asked her what she meant, she said something along the lines of, “Well, teachers don’t make a lot of money, but you can learn to love great music, candles, heck, even brownie batter. It’s so much better raw than baked, she added.
I can no longer balance chemical equations (well, to be fair, I haven’t tried in 25 years), but the lessons I learned in Robin’s classroom are now deeply embedded in my own life. I question my assumptions. I seek out the relationships where one plus one equals three. And I relish simple pleasures. Watching the hand on the gas gage of my car move from empty to full is one. A nectarine in summer is another. And time with my family - well, that’s the best of all.