A retired English professor takes a botany class and discovers what life is like on the other side of the desk.
When I retired from teaching in January of this year, the first thing I did was sign up to take a college course in botany. Rather suddenly, I found myself sitting in a familiar environment but on the wrong side: curled inside a molded student desk, waiting nervously for a teacher I had never met.
I had been an English professor for 35 years, most of them at Northern Virginia Community College. But there was a time, going back to childhood, when I wanted to be a scientist, especially one who studies nature. We lived in the country in Massachusetts, and I played entomologist with a butterfly net and botanist by pressing flowers between two old windowpanes. By the time I got to high school, as so often happens, my focus had changed. My high school biology course was frankly awful, and in college I satisfied my science requirement by taking Astronomy for Poets.
Fortunately, some childish interests only slumber. Although I never had time for formal study between teaching and raising children, my husband and I bought a piece of old pasture in Fauquier County and watched in fascination as armies of plants moved in, native and non-native. I tried to learn to identify them; I became a gardener; and then I read books about plants, plant explorers, the parts of the flower, invasive species and climate change.
Now, with retirement, came the possibility of oodles of time for myself. I seized on a spring offering in the NVCC catalogue: botany. It seemed to offer an answer to mysteries that hadn't been answered in my casual reading: How does water get to the tops of trees? How can plants have purple leaves and still be photosynthetic? What exactly is a spore? Is pollen the same thing as sperm? I wanted a college course, and I wanted to take it for credit. I knew that if I simply audited, I wouldn't learn the details with the same discipline, and a little discipline was exactly what I was after.
Just before Christmas, I bought the textbook. It was wrapped in cellophane, so I couldn't peek inside until I got home, but my first scare was that it weighed about 15 pounds. Hadn't I seen students lugging these science textbooks around? But I'm 62, and small. Still, I tore off the wrapper expectantly. Yikes. The first chapters were all about chemistry, which I never took, either: carbohydrate molecules, hydrogen bonds, proteins and lipids, and then chloroplasts, mitochondria, peroxisomes and endoplasmic reticulum. The book had plenty of illustrations and diagrams, but they were more perplexing than the text. I could hardly remember students' names any more; how was I going to remember this gobbledygook? I began to hope for a syllabus that might skip over those chapters.
But I was about to have one of the great experiences that education offers, to learn that there is a world out there that I never wondered about because I never knew of its existence. Chemistry is so cool! There was no skipping over. The young woman on my right, who was simultaneously taking organic chem at George Mason University, sometimes smiled indulgently at me, but also kindly pointed out the obvious, when I was too embarrassed to ask the teacher. Periodic table of the elements? Negative charges in electrons? But I began to get it, the way the materials that we experience are shaped by an atomic level that we don't experience. And the incredible ways that, within a plant cell, water and carbon dioxide are transformed into glucose, the stuff of life.
There were more topics that surprised and delighted me as we went on. We studied algae and fungi, both amazing but with many confusing strategies for reproduction. Then came an "aha" moment, as we studied liverworts. Liverworts? I'd heard of them, but never seen one. The plants are about as big as a coin, said the professor, flat and green. They form on wet rocks, with two kinds of tiny structures growing out of them: tiny umbrellas and tiny palm trees. So, here's what happens. The little umbrellas produce sperm, which go tumbling down the sides of them, in the rain, and splash onto the palm trees. Then the little flagellated sperm cells go swimming up under the leaves of the palm trees, through a tunnel, where there are waiting, oh, of course, eggs! And the egg and the sperm form a thing called a zygote, which grows into a thing called a sporophyte, which hangs off the parent like a milk sac. Inside, spores are created; the spores blow away to find another nice wet rock on which to grow into green coins, to produce eggs and sperm, etc. Spores, eggs, sperm: I saw their relationship. The sporophyte produces spores; the spores produce gametophytes; the gametophytes produce eggs and sperm; fertilization produces a new sporophyte.
The really kinky part is that the sporophyte, that little milk sac, has a double set of chromosomes in every cell, just like we do. But the green coin, which looks to us like the whole plant, has only one set, like our egg and sperm cells do. Maybe you can learn sex from the birds and the bees, but don't try to learn from the plants! You will be seriously confused. Nor are seeds any simpler. Shall I tell you about the eight different nuclei in the ovule of a flower?
My husband, who has been retired for several years, had already taken one geology course and was starting on his second. This seemed like a lovely hobby, except when he insisted on telling me about it. Names of minerals and ancient seas would fly by me, untranslatable. Now the tables were turned. We worked out a truce: If he gets 20 minutes to talk geology jargon, then I get the same for botany. "You take courses on the same day?" my brother said in amazement. "Does he carry your books?"
My husband and I waited for each other in the library or the cafeteria, where I would often see my classmates. At first, they seemed to keep a wide berth, but soon I was able to chat in a way that had never been available to me as a teacher. "I saw you weren't in class last time" had become a friendly question, not a challenge. Still, I retained my status as mother figure. Shy people could talk to me, desperate people could ask me before the exam if I knew the answer to a study question. Although I was by far the oldest, there were a couple of other women well beyond 20. On the first day, we gravitated together as lab partners.
I loved the labs. When the teacher put a white coat over her sweater, I felt foolishly happy. At the first lab, we were introduced to the microscope and asked to compare tiny bacterial cells from our own cheeks with some more sophisticated and larger plant cells. I was having trouble even getting my eyes in position to look down there. I turned to a lab partner for some help. She had an undergraduate degree in biology and had returned to school to get credentialed for teaching. She was tactful. "Well, most people turn the microscope the other way around." Ah. Now not only could I see, but the algae cells in our sample began to warm up under the lights of the microscope, and their little green chloroplasts began to swarm in living streams. I felt like "some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken." But I restrained myself from quoting Keats aloud.
I thought sometimes about the older students I had taught in my own classes. They were usually anxious but nearly always outstanding students, and I used to ponder why. Because they worked harder? Because, like me now, they were taking one class, while the younger students were taking four and working, too? But time and effort aren't the whole reason. Maturity does good things for the brain. It's true that new words take longer to absorb, but oldsters have a wealth of previous vocabulary and information to which to attach the new. Faced with autopolyploidy, I can almost translate it on my own. More important, perhaps, is that old students have an inner freedom to pay attention. As I saw even more distinctly now, young students are distracted by their questions about life. Who am I, why am I doing this, should I be doing something else? They have trouble with boyfriends and girlfriends, parents, cars and mononucleosis. I might think I'm anxious about doing well, but not really, not compared to them. How they "do" seems to them to measure who they are, while who I am was settled a long time ago. They want to know if something's going to be on the exam. I wanted it all on the exam; I wanted the feast of it, the whole menu.
Exams, yeah. I was indeed a little uncertain, especially for the first one. These exams were mainly multiple choice, a form I never used in my English classroom. And the questions depended on knowing very specific information -- the phyla of the algae, the life cycle of the fern. There I sat, in my blue jeans, among the shiny-haired and lovely ones, filling in the little circles on the Scantron sheet. I always got some wrong. When you are old, you're not usually evaluated in such a straightforward way: You get carefully worded evaluation conferences; your idea of a scary exam is the glucose tolerance test. But I found I didn't mind being graded. It was refreshing.
The teacher asked the class to call her "Mrs. Williams," which I did, but then we ran into each other in the cafeteria and talked person to person, teacher to teacher. She, too, had gone back to school, somewhat later in life, because her first career didn't interest her enough. We agreed on all that is satisfying about teaching. I preserved her title in the classroom, though I came to like her too much for that to feel right. Still, she was my teacher, and she marked my answers wrong when they were.
After the multiple-choice tests, I couldn't help thinking about other differences between teaching science and teaching in the humanities. From the beginning, Mrs. Williams used a lot of PowerPoint, to which my first reaction was an inward groan. But I soon realized that it was a wonderful tool for the subject. If I show students a series of pictures of Thoreau's cabin and Emerson's craggy old face, this will enhance their understanding of transcendentalism not one bit. But my botany teacher could show picture after picture to illustrate her lessons in a context where seeing was a part of understanding. In English, we are continually having "class discussions." I wanted the students to articulate certain ideas, in order to "get" them. I wanted them to work at persuading one another, to think about the characteristics of a persuasive argument. But in introductory botany, the processes of knowing and the controversies were way beyond our level of understanding, and of course the teacher never asked us how we felt about the kingdom of the fungi. Though I could have answered that: I feel much more drawn to molds and mushrooms, in their strangeness, than I ever did before.
When I started, I wasn't sure whether I still had it in me to listen to a lecture after all these years of doing the talking, but I did. I didn't think I could draw, but I saw how the effort made me look at what was under the microscope. People ask me whether I learned useful tips for the garden; the answer is, not at all. I can get useful tips for the garden from any old gardening book. In botany, I learned awe for the garden. It thrills me, what I know. I want to take chemistry, and drawing and ecology. Maybe I'll even take geology, and think about how the mountains and seas began. "Are you going for another degree?" one of the students asked me. No, no, I have passed way beyond degrees, credentials, useful things. I am here for pleasure. It's a shame, in a way, that people go to college in their teens and early 20s, though I suppose it's necessary. I liked college pretty well the first time around, but, looking back, it seems as if I studied in a haze of fatigue, earnestness, anxiety to please and sexual jitters. Now, I only have arthritis and a bulging middle. Sometimes my husband and I go home after class and take a nice nap.
Susan Sharpe is a freelance writer who divides her time between Arlington and Hume, Va. She last wrote for the Magazine about online teaching. She can be reached at email@example.com.