[teach your children well]
Arthur Flannigan was one of those kids that always looked so goofy and so geeky that, if you didn’t know better, you’d think him intelligent. Every high school has at least one of these guys. (If they have two, you can get a good running start at a Dungeons & Dragons game.) Now high school kids can be a pretty vicious lot but Flannigan didn’t do himself any favors by wearing zippered cardigan sweaters just like Mr. Rogers. Or carrying his books like a girl, clutched to his chest. Or not bathing on a regular basis. (People seem to assume that B.O. is inversely proportional to IQ – the riper the smell, the brighter the brain. I think this rumor got started with Einstein but I might be confusing it with Ben Franklin’s theory of relativity: fish and visiting relatives smell after three days.)
It’s a funny thing about humans: we like to codify and organize. Once we decide we’ve placed something in its proper box, we rarely decide to move it.
Such was the case with Flannigan. He could have been a varsity letterman, having his way with any cheerleader (fall or winter squads), and driving around town in a Boxster, and everyone would still have given him a hard time. We had already placed him in his box years before and we had better things to do with our time than reevaluate the situation.
Flannigan’s trouble began in 8th grade science. I’m sure you remember this class. It was the last time you could still play as if you were a 19th century naturalist, when gentlemen (never ladies) did science for fun but not profit. Doing things like: making a paper maché model of the moon; looking at dirty pond water through a microscope and losing your appetite; drowning some baking soda with vinegar to make a “volcano;” removing the eyeballs from the frog you were supposed to be dissecting and bouncing them around the room; or hiking in the woods and pretending to look for Native American artifacts (or dinosaur fossils, take your pick), when what you were really doing was enjoying the chance to get out of the classroom.
We had just finished our module on single-celled creatures. We started our tour with cyanobacteria (though our out-of-date textbooks called them blue-green algae), and worked our way to the amorphous amoebae with their pseudopods, then to paramecia, and finally to euglenas.
This is the perfect subject to teach 8th graders because you can sit them in front of microscopes and make them memorize long lists of parts. Anyone remember vacuoles? Mitochondria? Chloroplasts? It was particularly fun to go home to your parents with these words and sound like little budding Louis Pasteurs by tossing around a lot of jargon. Our parents were pleased that their tax dollars were going to such a worthy cause – after all, we needed more scientists to make America great!
Mr. Cameron was in charge of this factory of academic science activity and perfectly understood the junior high school mind. He was cool, wicked, or sick depending on the local vernacular implying “hip.” He treated us like adults which primarily consisted of addressing us as Mr. or Ms. So-and-so rather than our first names.
First names? That was so 7th grade! We were grown ups now and deserved to be treated as such.
He also gave us oral exams. These are the type of exams which we could expect to get in college, he told us. Never mind prepping us for high school – Mr. Cameron was already getting us set for college! (Assuming, of course, that any of us were planning to apply to a British university with the idea of majoring in rhetoric or philosophy.) Needless to say, our parents were just as happy with this delusion. These were their tax dollars at work.
Mr. Cameron was tough, but fair. For example, he never judged you by your artistic ability to draw what you saw in the microscope when looking at some dirty pond water. In fact, we never had to record what we saw at all. It would have been too complicated for him to check and grade since everyone would see something different in each drop of water. Instead, he insisted on our ability to copy the diagrams of the one-celled critters from our textbook and label them carefully. If we couldn’t draw the critters, we were encouraged to trace them directly. Drawings were to occupy the left half of the page – and only the left half! – with block lettered labels occupying the right. (We were instructed to fold the sheet in half lengthwise and use the crease to ensure this rigid protocol.) Carefully ruled horizontal lines connected the various parts of the drawing – vacuoles, mitochondria, chloroplasts, what-have-you – with labels on the right. And God help you if your label lines crossed.
This was science, after all. Precision was everything.
We were also told not to copy the bit about blue-green algae but instead relabel the drawing as a cyanobacterium. “The textbook is wrong,” Mr. Cameron told us in a solemn, deep voice. We never found out why. We just relabeled our drawings.
All those drawings – correctly traced, shaded, and labeled with perfect block lettering and horizontal label lines – accounted for half our grade. Half! Far from teaching us the scientific method, Mr. Cameron was preparing us to become monks scribbling down bits of knowledge to preserve them for the next generation:
“Dad? What’s a vacuole?”
“Ummm… I remember! It’s part of an amoeba.”
The power of Mr. Cameron’s method could not be denied. We could speak of these things – these important scientific things – as if we understood what was going on. And most times that is what’s really important anyway, especially in a business setting. (We were talking cyanobacteria in the conference room just the other day. One supervisor from accounting was clueless about the topic – she apparently never got the word about blue-green algae. You just knew it was going to cost her on her next annual review.)
So it was on a late September day, when the last scents of summer were still barely discernible in the warm air, that we finished our module on single-celled creatures.
And it was examination time.
The way Mr. Cameron structured the oral exams was simple. He had a thick loose-leaf notebook of questions and, after licking his thumb, he’d rifle through that wad of paper to find a question. He’d read it aloud and give the class a few seconds to digest it. He would then pause for anyone to raise their hand if they thought they knew the answer. If no one volunteered, he’d look around the room and ask someone who inevitably would have a bead of sweat forming on their upper lip.
Now, it didn’t take very long to figure out that Mr. Cameron would hardly ever call on someone who had his or her hand raised. Why give away a perfectly good question to someone who had the answer when you can draw out the drama by asking someone who didn’t? So it all became a little game. You quickly learned to look perplexed when you knew the answer and hope that he’d call on you and, conversely, look confident when you didn’t have a clue. (Looking confident when clueless turned out to be an especially valuable skill later on in the workplace.) Even the inept students figured out this was basically academic poker. Keep Mr. Cameron guessing what information cards you held – or didn’t. So, no one, not a single student, not even the overachieving, underdeveloped Sarah Dawson – not even Sarah! – would ever raise his or her hand and instead hoped that Mr. Cameron threw them a softball question.
Except Arthur Flannigan.
I’m not sure why he did it. As I mentioned, he wasn’t particularly bright, but he wasn’t particularly stupid either. He knew to sit quietly during oral exams just as he knew to avoid the locker room whenever the football team was in there showering. I think Flannigan was worried how the term was already going for him, especially when he got caught with one of his carefully lettered labels leaking a mere one eighth of one inch into the left side of the page.
And a mistake like that affected half your grade! Half!
So there we were on that late September day. Mr. Cameron perched on his desk, surveying each of us like I imagined a college professor would. He licked his thumb, rifled those loose-leaf pages, and asked the question:
What is the whip-like object that comes out of a euglena and is used in the generation of locomotion?
Ha! Easy! I knew this one! The answer was “flagellum.” All I had to do was sit there with my poker face and hope to get called on. I tried some Jedi mind tricks to lure Mr. Cameron’s focus on me… and tried to work up some beads of sweat to make the performance more realistic.
Ah! Success! He’s turning to face my side of the classroom. Yes!
Okay: think “flagellum”. C’mon, Mr. Cameron. Over here. Flagellum, flagellum, flagellum! Turn a little more. Flagellum! C’mon… a little more… a little more… Flagellum! He’s looking right at me! He’s speaking to me! YES! FLAGELLUM!
“Mr. Blair –”
But I didn’t answer. Flannigan did.
“OOH! I know this one!”
Flannigan’s hand shot into the air and completely distracted me: I lost the mind lock. Mr. Cameron’s gaze was gone. Dammit, Flannigan! That was my question! That’s my flagellum!
“Yes, Mr. Flannigan? You think you know the answer?”
“Mr. Cameron, I am sure I know the answer.”
“Well, Mr. Flannigan, since you are the first to volunteer today, I’ll let you answer. What is the whip-like object that comes out of a euglena and is used in the generation of locomotion?”
I sunk in my seat. So much for my flagellum. Go ahead, Flannigan. Say it: Flagellum.
“Mr. Cameron,” – Flannigan’s chest practically bursting with boastful certainty – “Mr. Cameron, the whip-like object is called a… a… a fliggy.
No one, least of all Mr. Cameron, could believe their ears. The crash of laughter from 26 students thundered across the room. I had to act fast: Before anyone else could blurt out the word, I shouted with the righteousness of an old Hebrew prophet:
“Mr. Cameron, it’s not a fliggy! It’s a flagellum!”
“Yes, Mr. Blair. Flagellum is correct.” And then Mr. Cameron turned to Flannigan and sealed his fate. With a knitted brow and an expression of repugnance – a face that was far worse than when he pointed that out our label lines had crossed – Mr. Cameron stared at Flannigan for a long moment and said: “Fliggy???”
Well, that was it. All of Arthur’s eccentricities – the zippered cardigans, the funny walk, the stench, all of it – were now summed up in a single word:
And even with our 13 year old minds, we knew that something amazing had transpired before our eyes, such were the mysteries of science. Bitten by a radioactive euglena, the awkward boy Arthur Flannigan had been transformed into the hapless teenager Arthur Fliggy. By the time he reached senior year, even his first name had evaporated and he was known to both faculty and students alike as simply “Fliggy.”
I suppose I owe Fliggy a debt of gratitude. The incident is still so vivid to me that, to this day, I have been able to remember that it is the euglena’s whip-like flagellum which generates locomotion. This bit of scientific knowledge has proved quite useful to me in boardroom discussions on at least two separate occasions.
So here’s to you, Fliggy. I owe my last promotion to you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
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