Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Mr. Rickleffs dissected the eggs

My sixth grade science teacher was named Mr. Rickleffs, and even though he was old, I had a crush on him. Partly it was the shirts he wore. They had bicolored thread so that looked at from one direction the shirt gleamed red, while from another direction it glimmered in green. I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

Mr. Rickleffs was dedicated to teaching science. Once he brought in an incubator and populated it with fertilized chicken eggs. Three times a week, we all gathered around while, carefully, with his glasses pushed up on his forehead, he removed flakes of shell and let us glimpse the pulsating life within the egg membrane.

At first we tolerated this well enough, standing on chairs and peering down at a cluster of cells. But as the embryos developed winding blood vessels and giant staring eyes, we decided en masse that the whole project was gross. The girls especially took delight in squealing, covering our eyes, and saying, “Ew!!” And then one day Mr. Rickleffs lost his temper.

He turned around slowly, looking each of us in the eye. He told us in a terrible voice to stop being babyish. This was the miracle of life he was showing us. We were privileged to witness it.

I don’t know about the other kids, but the quiet passion of that rebuke knocked the foolishness right out of me. I stood up, shut up, leaned in, and paid attention. And years later, when I was in medical school dissecting a cadaver, I kept that thought close to me. I was privileged to be exploring the mysteries of life, and nothing about that privilege could ever be disgusting.

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