Wednesday, September 14. 2005
I don't usually scan the obituaries, but I did today and found a familiar name: Willard I. Brooks, "77, retired Wichita Public school principal. Died Sept. 11, 2005." I had Brooks for 9th grade science at Hamilton Intermediate School in Wichita. He was one of the few teachers I had who clearly changed my life. Before I had him science was my primary interest, most likely my career path. After Brooks, I never took another science course. Many years later I read dozens of biographies of eminent scientists. I could see much in common with those scientists, but they had something I didn't have: support from family, teachers and mentors who steadied them and inspired them to pursue nature's secrets. Brooks was probably not the dumbest teacher I had, but he was a thug, a heavyset butch-flattop musclehead who would never try to convince you of something as long as he thought intimidation might work. I don't remember learning any science that year; just being bullied on assignments, which despite the friction resulted in straight A grades. Before 9th grade I was a straight-A student -- well, except for English, where I was graded down for lack of penmanship. Midway through 10th grade I was so disaffected with the school system that I dropped out. Brooks wasn't the sole problem I ran into in 9th grade. My history and English teachers were every bit as bad. (The only teacher I remember fondly was a Mrs. Robbins, who taught Latin.) And it's not like nobody has problems at age 14. But I never lost my interests in history or writing, like I lost all interest in science.
My brother was three years behind me. Brooks had been promoted to principal by then, which gave him all the more opportunity to throw his weight around. One chore we all had to do in 9th grade was to assemble a poetry notebook. After I dropped out of high school, all I did was read, which included a lot of poetry. I was embarrassed by the crap I had put in my poetry notebook, so I put my discoveries to work and assembled a huge notebook for my brother. I didn't have any mentors -- my parents were ex-farmer factory workers who had never graduated high school -- but my brother had me. The poems I came up with ranged widely but favored the beats: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Ed Sanders. When Brooks saw the notebook, he went ballistic. He expelled my brother for the rest of the year, and he insisted that my brother and I see a shrink -- who found the whole thing rather amusing.
The fundamentalist Christian war on teaching about evolution is big news in Kansas these days: a cause favored by the majority of the state's school board, an embarrassment to anyone who knows anything about the subject. The fundamentalists argue that we need to level the playing field, to give their theory a fair chance against the other guys' theory. That's an argument against teaching science at all: science isn't a theory or a bunch of theories -- it's a system for evaluating hypotheses (and mostly rejecting them). Anyone who actually teaches science can see at once that "intelligent design" isn't science at all. Which means what the fundamentalists really argue is that science shouldn't be taught at all. This is doubly dangerous: not only does it deny students vital insights into how the world works, it deprives them of any inspiration to pursue science further. I don't know whether Brooks was fundamentalist or not, though he certainly was a prude and an authoritarian -- bad signs. But he sure was one lousy science teacher.
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