Sneaky Science | Teaching doesn’t have to be formal

Like many of you, when I was 8, Christmas was a time of presents, pure and simple. But one gift in particular has remained in my mind through the many years since, because it was so disappointing. This gift was from my step mother who always gave me wonderful presents. It came in the mail and it felt strange. Gifts that came by mail were especially fun and mysterious because they showed up from nowhere, magically. My brother also got the same gift or so it seemed. When we finally opened them I remember wondering what in the world she was thinking. I knew it was given with love so I knew she meant for us to enjoy them. But as I looked down at the gift I just sat and wondered. Rocks. ROCKS? Hmmm…

My brother and I looked at each other and knew we had the same thoughts on this. We set them aside for other gifts. Later, when we were gathering our spoils and looking them over we sat down with our rocks. They were nicely mounted little samples of about 20 rocks and 20 minerals with their names beneath each one. We looked at our cards with mounted rocks and minerals wondering why in the world she thought we would want this.

And it began.


We started laughing at the names of some of the rocks like Pyrite, (Pie, right?) and then started trying to pronounce the names of others, asking each other what they thought it was. Then came the “oohs and ahs” of “Look at this one, it sparkles,” and “Hey, this one looks like wax,” or “Cool, look at this, it looks like gold, what if it really is?” We spent a very long time that night looking at our rocks. I went to bed wondering why my step mother would give us such a stupid and boring present, but I did carefully stand it up on my dresser so I could see them from the bed.

Over the next few days, when my brother and I would get bored one of us would say, “Hey, let’s get the rocks!” Every time we did, we spent at least an hour talking about them and noticing something we didn’t see before. “Look, this one looks like coal,” “This one is silver and worth a million dollars!” I remember starting to feel like I had treasure, secrets, little nuggets of something special that, if people knew were here, they’d steal them for sure. As I rubbed my little fingers over the minerals and rocks and felt their textures, I could feel the love sent with the gifts. I saw my stepmother looking them over, deciding these were the perfect gifts, wrapping them, mailing them and I missed her. Slowly my minerals found their way to the more valuable hiding places like under the bed, the top dresser drawer, or hidden in the closet.

Then one day, bored again, my brother and I got out our rocks. We had been talking about how they were glued on the card and that we couldn’t “play” with them. So we decided to remove them. We worried that we wouldn’t know what they were called since the names were printed on the card, not the rocks. Oh well, it was just too much not being able to hold and play with them. This was a sacrifice worth making.

And so another joy began. I remember it like it was yesterday, the excitement of removing them, like opening presents all over again, getting to see what they looked like on the other side. We laughed as we “destroyed” our gifts, removing glue and slowly tearing up the cards. But when we finished, we had these piles of the coolest rocks. And we held them in our hands and talked at great length about how valuable our stones were and again and again, what they looked like and what they could be. Our imaginations soared.

My rocks were now valuable. I piled them in the corner of my top dresser drawer and when we moved I took great care to make sure they stayed together. But little by little, one stone at a time, they disappeared, fell out of sight or were “stolen” by a younger sibling. As my childhood gave way to adolescence I forgot about them. And time marched on.

In my early 20’s, in college, I took up science as my profession with biology, chemistry and physics my main interests. I really didn’t care much for earth science so I didn’t take any classes in that area. When I graduated and started my teaching career I taught what I loved. But at the start of my 5th year of teaching I walked into school on teacher prep day to find I had been assigned Earth Science. What? I thought, ‘This is going to be a rough year.’ If I had only known then what I know now…..Sometimes what seems like our worst burden, becomes our greatest gift. And so it went, teaching by day, learning at night. It was tough.

Then came the unit on rocks and minerals. ‘I know NOTHING about this stuff’ I thought to myself. I had some knowledge of weather and earthquakes, but rocks? Please! So off I headed to the science store room to see if there were any rock or mineral samples I could take home to create lessons. Boy did I find them, boxes and boxes of them. Hurriedly, I sat my coffee aside and pulled them off the shelves, dust flying and I sat down. I put the box in my lap, rushed, tired, frustrated with this burden and pulled the lid off quickly.

And this was one of those moments…frozen in time, like slow motion…that I’ll never forget.

There in front of me, large and beautiful, were these minerals, sparkling in the dim storeroom light. I felt dizzy. Instantly, like a flash, the image of tiny minerals, like an overlay on top of these, flooded my vision. Tiny minerals, huge chunks, tiny, huge alternating in my mind as it raced. Here they are, the real things, these huge chunks of gorgeous minerals. Mine were so tiny and “valuable” and now here are these awesome large pieces of my past I had completely forgotten. Images flashed in my mind, the dresser, my tiny hand full of tiny rocks, laughter and my brother.

‘Why are they so large? Who could afford such a thing? How did they get so large?’ my mind struggled to digest it. They looked exactly like mine. My heart pounded as I picked one up, ‘pyrite’ echoed in my head and I was startled, wondering where that came from. ‘Why do I know this, how do I know this?’ I wondered, trying hard to answer my question. Then it flashed in my mind like a photograph, the card, words under each mineral. I held my breath. ‘No way, I can’t possibly…’ I put it back, and picked up another, ‘apatite’, followed by my brother’s echoing laughter. I kept going, lifting minerals, then checking myself to see if I could possibly be right, that my 8 year old brain could have possibly kept this secret for so long. Mineral after mineral, as I lifted it out, its name moved to the foreground of my mind and I checked it against the key. I relished the joy that I could remember, that I had these amazing large minerals in my hand, that my step mother loved me, that she gave such a wonderful gift. I remembered the joy of holding them, the fascination that hadn’t left with my childhood, that still gripped me now, alone in this dusty store room these rocks and minerals in my hand. I was surrounded by them. And I sat, and looked and opened box after box.

Things changed that day, changes that would echo out for years to come affecting many people along my journey. I took my enthusiasm into the classroom and it was contagious. My students began to love them and begged to look at them after they finished their work. I took them home to show my daughter who was only 3 and she immediately told me the rocks talked to her. She wanted her own and that began the collection that we now have. We had many wonderful times; shopping sprees looking for rocks, trips to caves, to tourists destinations that would have rocks, panning and mining trips and trips to forests and nature.

Sneaky as it was, my stepmother gave us science for Christmas.

As our lives moved from school to homeschooling and I had my son, we were able to spend more time with our collection. I got into rock climbing and began to understand how rock behaves in different weather and how to climb it. I learned the subtle energy in how the mountains called to me and how walking on the rock barefooted stirred emotion and healed problems. I took the kids climbing and hiking and my son immediately went for the rocks. He wanted to bring them all home. Recently one evening, he gathered a handful of our smaller minerals and asked me what they were called. He said he couldn’t remember them all and asked what he could do. I suggested gluing them to something and then we’d write the names under them. For a moment I reflected, as a child I tore mine off the card, now my son and I glued them on. We named them and we talked past midnight about how beautiful they are and how one looked like gold. At bedtime he gathered some up and put them in a small box to carry with him to bed. When he woke up he headed straight for the card. And we spent more time that morning talking about how funny one looked and how one looked like cinnamon. “I really like this, I want to stand it up somewhere so I can see it,” he said.

And so, sneaky as it was, my step mother gave me science for Christmas. And it reminds me that teaching doesn’t have to be formal and it doesn’t have to be awesome. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes when my kids think they are just bored while they muse about a bubble or feel the bark of a tree, they are learning. They are forming memories and synapses, logging information and laying foundations. Maybe our little trips into the wild will become science lessons of the future, questions answered on a trail today, information for tomorrow. And maybe these burdens of family time that can’t compete with the Playstation, will be little treasures pulled up at some point in their adulthood when they most need a gift.

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