On the seventh day, Anna Harvey raised her hand.
High school biology teacher Stan Roth was just wrapping up his evolution unit. Students were gathering up their books. Harvey--a well-liked student athlete who had never before received any grade but an A--was sitting in the front row.
"Mr. Roth?" she piped up. "When are we going to learn about creationism?"
By now there are several different versions of what happened next. Roth says he became exasperated by the baiting from the "snot-nosed twit" and told the girl that "nonscientific crap" had no place in his classroom. Anna Harvey says her bearded, eccentric instructor snapped. His eyes flashed.
"He went off on me," Harvey says. "He told me, 'When are you going to stop believing that crap your parents teach you?' "
Ultimately, Roth's outburst proved to be the triggering event that would lead, five months later, to his permanent removal from the classroom--possibly making him the first casualty of the creationist uprising. It was an ignominious end, his supporters say, to a brilliant and iconoclastic teaching career that spanned four decades.
Three months after Roth was forced to retire, the Kansas State Board of Education, spurred on by conservative Christians, voted 6 to 4 on new science standards that deemphasized the teaching of evolution in the public schools, a decision that sparked national debate about science and religion and was dubbed "an embarrassment" by the state's own governor.
The timing of the two events was no coincidence, Roth's supporters say. They say Roth, an elder at his Presbyterian church, was a victim of the religious fervor sweeping this conservative Midwestern state.
"He was a controversial teacher, and in his last years before retirement, [administrators] decided to make an example of him to appease the religious right," said Pamela McElwee, a Roth student turned Rhodes scholar who is now studying for a PhD at Yale.
But Roth's detractors, even the pro-evolutionists among them, say that this debate has nothing to do with politics and that Roth was merely a victim of his autocratic teaching style and outsize ego.
Lawrence Free State High School Principal Joseph Snyder says Roth was transferred out of the classroom because of his treatment of students. "It has absolutely nothing to do with creationism," Snyder, who personally supports teaching evolution, said.
Still, it is clear the State Board of Education's decision is reverberating. Since August, a textbook company marketing a history of Kansas recently removed an early chapter about the state's geologic formations, fearing it would be offensive to creationists. At Kansas State University, the biology department has been struggling to fill its teaching slots because potential candidates are leery of the political climate.
Nowhere in the state have these developments caused more hand-wringing than in Roth's home town of Lawrence, the low-key college town that fancies itself the Berkeley of the Midwest, where letters to the local newspaper are running 10 to 1 in favor of Roth.
"It's surprising to the point of embarrassing what's happening in this town," Roth said quietly about the outpouring of support he has received since he went public with his forced retirement in late September.
Roth, 64, had been teaching in Lawrence Unified School District 497 since 1959. By all accounts, he was an extraordinarily dedicated teacher. He routinely worked nights and weekends. He maintained a wide menagerie of animals in his ground-floor classroom: a python, a tank of rattlesnakes, frogs and lizards. He took his students on field trips to the high plains of western Kansas, to local wetlands for Friday night "Swamp Stomps," to the woods for "Owl Prowls" and into the depths of nearby bat caves. On spring break he and his wife organized trips for oceanography study to Florida and Hawaii.
"He is a legend in the state," said Steve Mechels, a Roth supporter and Emporia High School biology teacher. "To see the way he worked with kids, it was amazing. . . . Parents fought to get their students in his class."
But, Mechels adds, "just as many parents fought to keep their students out of his class."
He was a formidable presence in the classroom. Stern. Grouchy. "An equal-opportunity SOB," Roth said with a laugh. "I've been equal and fair and honestly gruff and candid my whole career."
Around Lawrence, Roth stories are legion: Roth threw chalkboard erasers at students who fell asleep in his class, or blasted them with a fire extinguisher. He gave his own daughter her first C. He was not shy about using ridicule or profanity in the classroom--or the "G-d" word," as one Christian delicately described it.
David Reber--a former Roth student who is now a biology teacher just up the hall from Roth's former classroom--says Roth's shtick was all an effort to get students learning.
Parents did complain, but Roth's dedicated and unorthodox methods of teaching got results for 40 years. Many of his students went on to become successful PhDs, doctors and research scientists.
"His students are almost bizarrely successful," said Eric Shulenberger, an oceanographer who directs the multidisciplinary research program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Shulenberger says that while he was a student at the elite Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego in 1971, he was surprised to find that two of his classmates were also Roth products.
"This guy has put out hundreds of PhDs and MDs and they all attribute their interest in science to Stan Roth," Shulenberger said. "Without him I would not be where I am today."
In 1997, Roth was transferred from Lawrence High School, where he had spent the bulk of his career, to the new Lawrence Free State High School across town, to add his weighty anchor to its fledgling science department. He was not happy about having to move 38 years' worth of mammal skulls and other specimens, but he went.
Then, in 1998, sophomore Anna Harvey appeared in his class.
Harvey, who is now 16, is a blond cross-country runner with a strong personality of her own. She once ate a worm on a dare. Her father, Joseph Harvey, an oral surgeon, calls her the "most charismatic" of his nine children.
The conflict began early. Roth said that Harvey's work, particularly in her classroom notebook, was sloppy. She said he was foul-mouthed, rude to his students and unhappy to be at the new high school. No one in the Harvey family could understand how Anna--who had never received any grade lower than an A before Roth's class and has not received one since--could be doing C-level work. "When I saw a C on her report card, at first I couldn't think what it was. I thought maybe she had an incomplete or something. Then my wife said, 'No, that's a C," Harvey said.
Both Joseph and Anna Harvey said it was Anna's idea to approach Roth in class about creationism, that she was not put up to it by anyone from her conservative Christian church, as has been suggested. Anna Harvey had seen a creationist film that detailed alleged flaws in evolutionary theory at a Bible study class and wanted to ask her teacher about it, she said.
However, Anna popped the question last December, at a time when some of her fellow students were carrying Bibles to class to silently protest the teaching of evolution. When Roth responded harshly, she complained to her parents.
It was February before Joseph Harvey had time to officially protest and launch his letter-writing campaign.
About the same time, in February and March, the state board of education held a series of public forums on science standards, where audiences included an abundance of conservative Christians who protested the teaching of evolution. In Lawrence, concerned creationist parents formed a group called POSH (Parents for Objective Science and History) to campaign for local school board candidates and put pressure on the local school board to delete evolution sections of the sophomore biology textbook used by Roth and others.
Harvey says he is not a member of an organized creationist group. His letter-writing campaign, in part responsible for Roth's downfall, was nothing more than a defense of his child's right to freedom of religion, he said.
He wrote his first letter to the administration outlining Roth's treatment of his daughter in February. ("[Roth] stated, 'It's time to quit believing what you were taught as little kids. Grow up and learn the truth.' In addition he used the words 'crap' to describe the Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," Harvey wrote.)
The semester wore on. On April 15, Roth received notice from the local school district that he had been approved for rehire.
Meanwhile, Roth said Anna Harvey's work did not improve. He threw Joseph Harvey out of a parent-teacher conference. Harvey wrote another letter. A conference with Roth, the Harveys and Principal Snyder did not end in an apology to Anna, as Harvey had hoped. He wrote again.
Snyder said he cannot discuss Roth's case, citing privacy concerns and personnel issues. After Roth's reassignment, he said, he and his wife viewed the complaints against him that Snyder had collected, which included the letters from the Harvey family, letters from two students with whom he had clashed over the down payment for a spring break field trip, and one from a student who alleged he had looked down her blouse. All were dated the spring of this year, according to Roth, well after the incident with Anna Harvey.
Roth was summoned to Snyder's office on May 13 and told he would be transferred to a non-teaching position maintaining the district's science equipment.
"I was so shocked," he said. "The moment he said it I felt bodily fluids emanating from all my pores. Saliva, perspiration, and yes, tears." Roth begged to be given another chance, another year to teach. Next year, he would be 65, the customary age for retirement.
Snyder was unmoved. In despair, Roth felt he had no choice and decided to retire rather than continue to work at the school outside his beloved classroom.
The University of Washington's Shulenberger calls Roth's removal "obscene."
"Taking him out of teaching in his very last year as one of the most successful teachers ever . . . was an amateurish, childish and stupid thing to do," he says.
Joseph Harvey thinks otherwise: "The man," he said, "was unfit to teach."
Roth has no plans to contest his removal. He is trying to adjust to life in retirement like any scientist, he says, with stoicism and curiosity. He'll be spending more time with his wife, Janet, and volunteering at a local nature center, serving as adjunct naturalist with the state biological survey and finishing up his research on the great blue herons and cave bats in the Red Hills of southwest Kansas.
"Those are both projects I designed as an excuse to get kids out in the field," he noted with irony.
He said he's been monitoring his psyche for melancholy; so far, the subject has not exhibited any.
CAPTION: Supporters of Kansas teacher Stan Roth believe he ran afoul of the state's creationism movement.
CAPTION: Anna Harvey's creationism question sparked the reaction that led to teacher Stan Roth's removal.