Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Teacher's Influence

I grew up in Vineland, NJ and just joined a Facebook group of the same name.  While I'm waiting to get added to the group, I want to write about one of the first posts I read.

Suzanne Piccone wrote that she had recently seen Gene Agrons a retired biology teacher from VHS. I was surprised and delighted to hear that he was still around, because our 50th reunion is coming up in October.  I guess he must have good genes. 

Bad pun aside, it does make an appropriate segue to this blog enty.  He was my biology teacher, but more than that, he was a role model. I went on to be a biology major in college.  I taught science, math, and computers and consulted with schools for for 35+ years.  My two years with Mr. A., freshman biology and senior advanced biology, helped set the foundation to my career.

Things that happened in that advanced class and as a result of that class, are as clear today as they were back in the 60's.  I want to tell you about three incidents that stand out in my memory.

Let's start with the fact that people say he was a tough teacher.  Well he was, but after 35 years of teaching, I can tell you that ALL good teachers are tough.  Sure he was tough, but he was good, he taught well, and demanded nothing less than your best.

It was during my freshman year in college that I realized just how tough and how good he was. I attended Temple U. and had biology as my freshman year science.  During the first half of the semester, I hardly ever opened a book, something that I have been known to do in the past.  It wasn't because I was lazy, even though I've never been accused of being a book hound. I was always a hands on kinda guy.  I didn't have to open the book because, everything was already familiar to me from my senior year in high school.

When the midterm exam came around, I aced it while almost 2/3 of the class failed it.  That's  how good Gene Agrons was. Oh, I forgot to mention, that I never even finished Advanced Biology.  I dropped it near the end of the second marking period, but two marking period with Mr. A. was all that was needed to get me through college biology and make a lasting impression on me. I didn't drop it because of anything that Mr. A. did.  You can chalk it up to the fact that it was and elective and studying during a grueling senior wrestling season was going to be too much.

Now let me tell you of two other incidents that speak to his character and teaching style. It was just before Xmas break and we were setting up term projects for advanced biology.  My project involved studying the genetics of fruit flies. Of course to do that, you need fruit flies.

After everyone had long since departed for places unknown, Mr. A., my lab partner and I stayed late to brew up the medium of Kero syrup and ripe bananas that would be the food on which the fruit flies would grow over the winter break.

We finished up as dark was approaching, putting the last fruit files into the dozens of bottles of medium, and carefully plugging each one with a cotton wad.  We turned out the lights and heading home.

When we returned to the lab, apparently I wasn't as careful with one of the cotton wads, because there were literally thousands of fruit flies all over the lab.  Unlike some teachers who might have gone ballistic, Mr. A. took it all in stride.  I had a LOT of fly catching duty, but it was a wonderful life lesson.

I wasn't a model student, but I wasn't a trouble maker. I can only remember being sent out of class twice.  Once was in 9th grade for shooting a rubber band, and the other was in Advanced Biology, because of the text book Mr. A. had chosen for the class.  Unlike other text books, I actually read this one, because the author had a sense of humor.  For example, once while reading a genetics chart that dealt with the color of feathers in chickens, I noticed that the percentages didn't add up to 100%, but then I noticed the asterisk, with the notation that said, "Numbers have been rounded off to avoid the absurdity of counting fractions of chickens."

It was shortly after reading that item that I got in trouble.  I started browsing the book and came across an interesting chart in one of the appendices. As I read it, I began to chuckle and then almost fell out of my seat, laughing uncontrollably. Mr. A. tried to settle me down a few time, but I just couldn't stop. He finally asked me to leave the room and not come back until I collected myself. 

About 10 minutes later, I walked back in and with as much control as I could muster, I showed him what had set me off.  The appendix was titled Maximum Speed of Land Mammals.  Of course it listed animals such as the horse and cheetah, two standards, but it was three other entries that set me off. 

Massai warrior in full war garb 20 mph
Rhinoceros   25 mph
Massai warrior in full war garb, being chased by a rhinoceros 26 mph

While not exactly politically correct in today's world, the entry none-th-less reflects something I learned in that class.  Just when we think we have reached our limit, along comes a rhino, or teachers like Mr. A., who pushes us to go a little farther.

Thanks, Mr. Agrons!