Ah, Fall. Season of new beginnings, of pristine notebooks and sharpened pencils. I know we’re supposed to feel freshly reborn in Spring, but for me, it’s Fall: seventeen years of new outfits, new supplies, and new classrooms has oriented me so that I’m at my most optimistic when the leaves start changing.
I loved school, and I loved the start of each school year: finding my new classroom and meeting the teacher, arranging things just-so in my new desk, looking over the pile of books assigned. There’s something deeply enticing about a pile of fresh textbooks, an implicit promise and demand: “Here is what we will be teaching you; here is what we will expect you to learn. There will be a test later.” I like having clear expectations and defined goals; I like progress reports and performance metrics and pushing myself to learn the most, to get the highest score, to be the best.
Our recent spate of star-gazing got me reminiscing about how and when I got interested in astronomy, and I can pin it to a specific incident, and an excellent teacher: Mrs. Hunsicker, from third grade. When I was 8, it was my fondest wish to grow up and be just like Mrs. Hunsicker, I loved her that much. When I reminisce about the idylls of back-to-school time, the room I picture myself in is that third-grade classroom. Something felicitous happened that year, a burgeoning mind met with a talented, nurturing teacher.
It was early in the school year, one afternoon when our class was just back from library time. Mrs. H. announced a new unit studying the solar system. She wanted volunteers to prepare a report on each of the planets to present to the class. “So, who would like to study Mercury?” she asked. I, being such the Hermione, shot my hand into the air; she picked another kid. “Venus?” Again, I volunteered, and was overlooked. Even at that young age, I was not accustomed to being overlooked by teachers. When Earth came and went and I wasn’t picked, Mrs. H. could see I was getting annoyed. “Kari, I’m not going to give you one of the planets,” she said. “I saw the book you got in the library today, and I have a special assignment for you.” The class looked around at me, and I blushed, but was pleased by the attention. Rather than ignoring me, Mrs. H. was singling me out for a special assignment. That was more like it!
The book I’d checked out that day was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and the special assignment was to report on the meanings of the planets’ names. With that little bit of teacher-magic, tying my interest in one topic to another, Mrs. H. cemented for me a lifelong interest in both subjects. She made it personal for me, gave me an ownership interest in the whole solar system. Later that year, we would take a field trip to the Planetarium and watch as Carl Sagan spelled out the mathematical formula that made it next to certain there was other life out there in the vast reaches of space. I recall this as the first instance of a new idea blowing my mind; I was dizzy at the thought of it. The universe was so much more enormous than I had ever thought! I remember Dr. Sagan with great fondness, as the first person to ever make me think about the possibilities of Out There. In this one school year, my horizons expanded from the environs of home and school, to the orbit of cold Pluto, and then to the ends of the Universe. What a priceless gift!