Lessons learned from a frog in a jar
When I was 10, I got a science kit for Christmas. It was another in the list of things my father bought on a whim in the hopes that some hidden genius-level talent would reveal itself. The kit was full of all kinds of semidangerous chemicals, a microscope, a vial of brine shrimp (Sea Monkeys for you unscientific types) and the piece de la resistance: a frog in a vial of formaldehyde.
As I breathlessly said I was going to do one of the experiments right now, he ever so thoughtfully said, “Not without supervision, and I’m too busy to help you today. Maybe tomorrow.” Tomorrow became tomorrow became tomorrow… you get the picture. As an adult, I understand how time slips so quickly away, but then, when days were everlong and yawned in front of me, I didn’t understand at all. I pestered him about it for a while but eventually I gave up and moved on to entertaining myself elsewhere. The science kit found a home next to the unicycle, the stilts, the juggling clubs, and the ceramics wheel, each covered in its own layer of sad dust.
I spent a lot of time goofing off in Mrs. Kelly’s science class the following year, laughing at the bad boys cutting up in the back of the room. I should’ve felt more sympathetic towards her but I didn’t because, as her class was constantly disrupted by our pubescent hijinks, she spent a good deal of time humiliating us in front of our peers. What’s more, being the know-it-all child of an aerospace engineer and a nurse anesthetist placed me perpetually on her bad side. However, a casual comment about the frog dissection we’d likely do in high school brought my shenanigans to an abrupt halt, prompting a series of questions about how one would go about doing such a thing. Looking back, I’m sure she assumed I was either a budding serial killer or thought I was just trying to divert her from the lesson, because she ended her answer with something along the lines of “but we don’t have anything to dissect, so it’s pointless to discuss.” I mentioned the frog and that I’d bring it in tomorrow; she noncommittally said that would be fine.
The next day I sacrificed my frog in his evermore cloudy vial and waited. And waited. And waited. I thought she’d forgotten so I reminded her; she told me she’d not forgotten and would I please sit down and be quiet. I slunk into my chair and brooded over adults and their conflicting messages about science and trying to better oneself. Whatever that meant.
One day shortly after that as classes were changing, Mrs. Kelly pulled me aside. She said that if I was still interested, we could dissect the frog during recess. I asked her if I could bring a few friends who were also interested; she agreed. I still remember that recess as one of the best times of my young academic life—right next to the time in kindergarten when a classmate’s neurosurgeon father came to show and tell with a brain in a bucket. Mrs. Kelly took her time, pointing out each thing as she encountered it, and when we ran out of time at recess, she said we could come back in the following day to finish it up. The next day I was back, but with fewer friends. We finished up that frog, and while my feelings about her were no softer than they were before, I had a bit of respect for the old gal. I think she had some for me as well, and encouraged me to follow my dream to become a veterinarian.
It wasn’t until recently that I considered what happened next and, for the very first time, saw it for what it was.
A few months later, Mrs. Kelly asked me if I’d be interested in coming in that very day to dissect a pig heart. The following year it was lungs, followed by a kidney. In eighth grade it was eyeballs, a pancreas, and some intestines. I feel a little sheepish for not seeing it at the time, but she was encouraging me in ways that my parents didn’t have time for and fostering a life-long fascination with the sciences. She might not have been the smartest teacher I ever had, but she was definitely one of the best because she took the lesson outside of the classroom in a way that engaged my special interests. I continued to repay her at the time with the casual cruelty so popular with the young, but if I saw her now I’d definitely give her a big hug for giving me such a wonderful gift.