Small Talk

Nipping future Nobel laureates in the bud

Jean Gillette strained her writing hand offering champagne toasts. This is a throw-back column from early motherhood. Enjoy.

I know about Shakespeare and the Wyf of Bathe. I know about children’s books and authors. I can spell pretty well. I can pronounce and use big words and can even get around (signs, menus and such) in German  I spent a full college span learning about language, literature, poetry, plot and pentameter. I then spent 15 years as a journalist. So then, I volunteered to help in my children’s classrooms, and what was I asked to do? Teach science.

It could be worse. It could be math, but the feeling of extreme ineptness that swept over me is something I would just as soon skip. Besides, it is rubbing salt in old wounds. (Did I just mix a metaphor?) My older brother was the science whiz. He kept tarantulas, piranhas, iguanas and bugs on pins in his room. He became a marine biologist and knew his phylum like the back of his hand. I would get the same biology teachers, being one year younger. Their eyes would light up when they first saw my name on their roll sheet. That light snuffed right out once they graded my first test. I was interested, but lacked that scientist’s curiosity and precision.

I was one of those winsome artists who was content that the sun simply comes up every morning. I never needed to know why. Things just happen and it is all magic and wonderful, and that was enough for me. I prefer to describe them with metaphor and analogy rather than dissect and categorize them.

In the past few months, I have been asked to make pretend rocks out of sand, flour and aquarium gravel. I am supposed to help third- and fourth-graders understand how to tell a mineral from a rock. I will help them spot paramecium, volvox and rotifers in pond water. Then I am supposed to teach them why water runs downhill and why surface tension keeps water stuck on a penny until you add soap. I was supposed to know all this already, for starters, which I mostly didn’t.

I watched the video. I read the teachers manual. We did the experiments. I think it made sense to them. Am I discouraged? Well, heck yes, but the water module has three more segments. Tomorrow I will go in toting a thermos of hot water, a bag of ice, thermometers and one tray full of blue-dyed ice cubes. We will figure out what water does when it gets hot and when it gets cold – and why.

I’ll do my best, but I think the real learning about hot and cold liquids will come to them as it did to me. It will happen when they accidentally stick a can of cola in the freezer and forget about it, or when they take a gulp of cocoa from the insulated mug. They’ll learn about boiling when making their first batch of deviled eggs but forget about the pan on the stove. I learned about steam when I went to my first drive-in movie.

So here I go, desperately hoping I am not nipping any future Nobel laureates in the bud with my wacky presentations of scientific fact.

The good news is I’m not being graded this time.

Jean Hart Gillette is a freelance writer who admits reluctantly that she is never too old to learn. Contact her at