“I Ain’t From ‘Round These Parts.”

gun-totin-hoosier

I have a confession. I’m scared of Indiana. We’ve lived here for close to 5 years now and the only times we leave the Indianapolis-metro area and trek into the great unknown parts of the state are when enroute to somewhere safe, like Chicago or Philadelphia.

I’ve met a few people from the unknown parts and they are wonderful people but I am sure they are an anomaly – those who made it out alive.

My fear isn’t a simple unease. No. It’s a full-on, scardey cat, wussy-wuss, don’t make me go there, terror. In my mind, everything outside of the metro-Indianapolis area is filled with 7 feet-tall, (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Hoosiers as a people are HUGE.) camo clad Hoosiers toting multiple automatic weapons, ready to take out a city slicker with no explanation. I’m certain that if I stopped at a rural farmstand because I wanted to make zoodles for dinner and accidently dropped the word “zoodle” a hostile Hoosier will gun me down with the zucchini still in my hand.

Is it crazy and irrational? Of course it is! But you cannot expect rational thought to suddenly step in and take over my life when it’s never been invited to visit before. And the news is no help. Every night the local news is filled with stories of rural Hoosiers perpetrating crimes so bizarre that they often make the national news. Trust me readers, crazy-ass stuff happens in rural Indiana.

Many people in my life, especially native Hoosiers, find it hilarious that a woman who spent a chunk of her life in a major Turkish city (and let’s be honest, Turkey has never been known as a utopia of safety) can be fearful of the backwoods of a Great Plains state. But the fear is real I tell you.

Over the summer I registered for a workshop to fulfill professional development credits for work. Immediately after hitting “send” I saw the error in my plan. The workshop was in rural Indiana, a little too close to Kentucky. (Don’t judge, everybody is scared of Kentucky.) As the date approached I thought about ways to get out of it- faking a lung transplant. Claiming I was urgently needed in Turkey for family business. Blaming a hostile 4 year-old for losing my registration. I’ve got a good stock of viable excuses.

The workshop was to qualify me as a testing leader for Hoosier Stream Watch, an organization that relies on citizen science to monitor and report on the health of waterways statewide. (Yes, even in the Deliverance Zone.) It’s an amazing organization and I wanted to be involved, if I could find a way to get over my fear of death in the boondocks.

When I signed up, I assumed I’d be standing on the bank of a babbling brook, filling test tubes and maybe swirling a pH strip. That was it.

That was not it. The day before the workshop I got an email with a first line reading, “Don’t forget your waders.” Waders? Hubba-whaaaaa? The term “waders” suggests I’ll be wading and a city girl thigh deep in stream water, deep in the heart of rebel country makes her nothing more than a water-logged, easy to shoot, target.

When I broke the news of what I was about to undertake my husband, The Turk, was not a fan.

“I don’t think you can go.” The Turk proclaimed, the night before my workshop. (His crazy is not as extreme as mine, but he’s not heading to rural Indiana for fun either.)

“Why?”

“Why you stand deep in stream? What if you drown?”

“What??? Drowning? Why did you bring that up? Shot by a redneck yes, but I didn’t even think of drowning!”

“I am water engineer more than 20 years. I see things. One time, back in Turkey…”

“NO! Stop right there. Every time you start a story with “one time, back in Turkey,” someone meets an untimely demise in a horrific manner. Keep your death stories to yourself.” For reals, those stories are the stuff nightmares are made of. The only thing worse are his stories that begin, “When I was in Turkish army…”

“Ok. You go. Don’t say I did not warn you.”

Early the next morning I headed out to meet my doom. If I survived my foray into the backcountry and managed not to get shot, then chances were solid I would drown like a hairy Turk in a wastewater cesspool. Damn professional development.

I immediately learned most of my workshop comrades were homeschooling mothers from local farms, striving to keep their numerous young’uns safe from the heathenistic horrors of public education while giving them a biblical understanding of science…(Oh reader, I only wish I’d made that up.) Thankfully, none of them appeared to have firearms tucked into their mom-jeans.

As we hit the stream I was grateful I’d chosen this workshop during a month-long drought. The stream we were tasked with testing wasn’t so much a babbling brook, but more like a belching stream. I wasn’t going to drown today. But then our instructor sent us around the bend.

From her spot safe and dry on the bank, she instructed, “Next you’ll need to test the velocity of the stream from that spot right in the middle.” The lone dude in the group volunteered to go but he needed a partner and since I only have two children where the rest of the homeschoolers had between 8 and 9 children each (again, totally true.) I was sent to the middle of the stream.

If you’ve never tested the velocity of a stream, (And why would you?) it involves an apple, a stopwatch and math. As my extremely tall Hoosier partner headed into the stream, I timidly waded in. Thanks to my stump-like legs, the mid-calf boots I’d ordered hit me about mid-knee so I thought I was safe and I was, until the apple didn’t move. (Note to self- next time someone says bring waders…bring waders…)

We stood in the stream, stopwatches poised, waiting for the apple to pass the finish line. Thanks to a still day and low tributaries, we waited and we waited and while we waited the sludge beneath my boots began to open-up and suck me in. Like a 70’s superhero, I’d fallen victim to quicksand. (Or not, but quicksand seemed so much more dramatic in the moment.) My boots started taking on water. I was going down.

Then, the apple passed my timing arm and we were safe to head to dry land…safe, were I not butt-cheek deep in stanky swamp water.

After sharing a few new words with my homeschool moms, words they’d likely never heard before and words that likely burned their righteous ears, my man-partner helped me free my boots. While we fought with the sludge, I’m pretty sure the mothers on the banks sent thoughts and prayers into the ether for my nearly orphaned children and their potty-mouthed upbringing. Within moments I was safe on a muddy bank, soaking wet and smelling of stank water.

After another three hours identifying macro invertebrates and learning more about mayflies than I knew possible, I was sprung. I’d almost made it out alive when my joy turned to panic on the interstate ramp. As I was sprinting towards the safety of a northbound interstate lane, I was nearly side-swiped by a large pick-up truck sporting a window decal filling his entire back window. Half of the window displayed a massive gun while the other half read, “Careful, both driver and cab are fully armed.”

An overwhelming sense of justice swept across me. My fear was vindicated. The Hoosiers of the backwoods were just as I’d suspected. My crazy was validated. I could do nothing more than chuckle as I floored it back to the safety of suburbia all the while vowing never to leave again.

 

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Ya’ll Need Some Science Up In Here

science

In my 15 years  plus year of teaching, I’ve taught art, theatre, English, ESL, writing and a few other related subjects administrators threw my way. But now this ol’ grammar gal is teaching science. And while it has required pulling up some knowledge from the deepest recesses of my frontal lobe that I have not accessed since college in the early 90’s and provided my hippocampus with some marathon-caliber workouts (not to mention teaching me all these fancy new words) I absolutely love it. Somewhere between explaining cellular respiration to a room of stinky, middle schoolers and prepping microscope slides on my kitchen table, I realized I should’ve been a science teacher all along.

In my classes we grow things, we build things and we take things apart and make them into something new. We make huge messes, shoot things from catapults and blow things up. We have class in the woods and stomp through streams. We form questions, sometimes strange and ridiculous questions, and then we test for the answer. It’s freakin’ awesome! All those years I sat perched on a desk discussing character motivations and surmising the story after the story, I had no idea there was so much fun happening in science class. Had I known there was a job that condoned using warning labels as mere suggestion, I’d have been on it from day one.

So why did it take me 15 years in the ed biz to figure this out? Do I really have that little self-awareness? Perhaps. But I think the real blame goes to the teachers that shaped me back in the day.

27 years ago, my high school in rural Iowa boasted a whopping 99 in its graduating class, (That total is not inclusive of those classmates who were knocked up at graduation and there was more than one…). I’m quite certain the majority of the school’s educators thought pedagogy was a either dessert from Poland or a something from page 432 of the Kama Sutra. If you didn’t stand out as a stellar scholar bound for one of the three state schools by 8th grade, you were lumped into Category 2 – a direct ticket to community college or trade school at best. Even though I was a kid with learning issues, I loved science and had big dreams of life in a lab until I met Algebra. After repeatedly coming up empty-handed in my search for X, I was awarded the Category 2 badge. While being a card-carrying member of Category 2 kept the academic expectations low resulting in far more time for my excessive extra-circulars, it took a lot more fight to get out.

Though I had the label, I didn’t see myself as a Category 2er, so even though it wasn’t sanctioned, I started the college process on my own. When I proclaimed my ardent desire to get the hell out of Iowa and head to the East Coast where I would fulfill my destiny of greatness, the school’s lone guidance counselor replied, “Oh honey, you’re not smart enough for college.”

That guidance counselor had also provided guidance for my parents 20 years prior where they too had been put into Category 2 along with numerous aunts and uncles as well as my older brother. We were a long line of Category 2s. When she regained her composure and stopped laughing, she provided me with a brochure from the nearby community college and suggested I look into their Ag Management program. “You’ve a perfect candidate for the 6 week program in Hog Confinement Management.”

From beneath my sky-high bangs and through a foggy haze of residual Aqua-net my mouth dropped open. I fancied myself to be a Midwestern Molly Ringwald, and hoped to meet up with the rest of the Brat Pack as soon as I got to the East Coast for college.

“Hog Confinement Management? Are you kidding? Do I look like I do hogs?”  I probably brushed back a strand of crispy, permed hair to punctuate my point.

“Oh dear, you’ve got so much to learn.”

On that point she was right. I did have a lot to learn and once I started learning, I never wanted to stop. I did get into college and I went on to get more than a couple degrees. However, none of them were in science because though I’d proven myself to be above a Category 2, the label was still there reminding me I wasn’t smart enough for a career in science.

But with time and especially with old age, things change and sometimes people see something in you you never saw in yourself- like a science teacher where an English teacher had always been. When I started refreshing my brain and revisiting ideas like phototropism and cell division, my passion for science was reignited and by the time I had a classroom of kids searching for cell walls under microscopes and using my nerdy rhymes to differentiate the xylem from the phloem, I realized I was more than capable. Who knew I had the potential to be a chubbier, cooler Bill Nye for the modern age?

Ironically, I teach science to kids that would easily be labeled Category 2. Many of my students are on the Autism spectrum and others are figuring out how to learn with executive function issues, dyslexia and ADHD. Some struggle to understand the material while others understand perfectly but struggle to get their thoughts out of their brain. Regardless of their diagnoses, I think they are all amazing. Never in a million years would I label one of these awesome kids and let them think they were not smart enough to follow their passions. That’s not my job. That is not any teacher’s job. My job is to give them a love of learning, ignite in them a passion for science and most of all, help them believe in themselves. 

Coming back into the scientific realm I’ve seen a lot of changes. Unlike 30 years ago, while science knows more, society trusts less and it’s a dangerous combination. Science education has never been more important that it is right now and I’m so crazy jazzed to be a part of this. The world we’re living in right now needs more scientists and science needs more people that see the world differently. (And man, I’ve got classes full of those!)

Maybe one of my hyper focused autistic kids holds the key to stopping climate change or perhaps I’m turning a kid on to plants that will become a botanist on the first Martian colony (seriously, I think I have that guy in 3rd period). What if the kid that struggles with writing sentences has the potential to master gene splicing to end a deadly disease? But instead of someone helping him, they labeled him as Category 2 and he gave up. Not on my watch. I’m pretty sure that in this era Category 2s will be the ones who will save the day. Watch out world, here we come. (Just as soon as we figure out where in the hell to find X in an algebraic equation….)

 

*In the next episode I’ll tell you all about trying to look cool at the Science Teacher’s Convention and rallying the troops for the upcoming March For Science. I’m all in baby!