Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dr. Grell

When I was in third grade, we took a field trip to the local high school for a science lecture by the famous Dr. Einar Grell, a high school teacher so popular that there was, we were told, a waiting list to get into his class.

Years later, when I finally made it to high school, I made a beeline for Dr. Grell's AP biology class, and was puzzled at how easy it was to find a spot. I seemed to be the only one excited to be there.

Grell was what they used to call "a real character". His teaching style involved constant digression and non-sequitor; while covering genetics or asexual reproduction, Doc slipped in so much information on fishing, diving, and his countless other fascinations/obsessions that the more unimaginative students (wonks with pens feverishly poised) quickly became exasperated. After a week in Doc's class, they stopped asking their perennial question of "will this be on the test?" and were left completely flummoxed by what seemed like mad ravings from this sad excuse for a teacher.

Meanwhile, I hardly ever took a note. I simply drank in all the fascinating information, and the eager, curious, passionate perspective. Doc showed us slide shows of his diving trips to the Caribbean, expertly describing the fish and wildlife and ecosystems and such, punctuated occasionally by shots of stout native girls dressed in shorts and ill-fitting second-hand brassieres. He was a hoot, vastly more energetic, intelligent and funny than any of the school's other ploddish teachers. He was so quick, and so bright, that both students and his fellow teachers could barely perceive him. He talked circles around everyone. What was a brilliant Columbia PhD doing teaching in our sleepy suburban school district?

It was close to where he liked to fish, that's all. I only later learned that Grell held (and holds still) a number of fishing world records. It goes without saying that he had all sorts of unique and clever techniques. A fellow fisherman (chiming in at that last link) memorialized him thus:
He would study fishing habits and knew more what the fish liked to eat then the fish themselves. He was deadly with the ugly stik and used a repetoire of tricks that would baffle most fishing buddies by his side. We spent countless hours chasing [weakfish] in the back drains of the Great South Bay,
Unsurprisingly, Grell's colleagues and supervisors viewed him with enormous condescension and annoyance. The era when wild, wooly, wonderful teachers were considered a boon was over. Grell wouldn't focus on the state's Regents exam (the first incarnation of the current teach-to-the-test climate). He was off-script, off-message, and pretty much the entire school community would have been much happier swapping in some robotic coffee-breathed dweeb in his place. He was, in fact, precisely the thing he took the greatest pains to educate us about: a vanishing species.

Society doesn't value characters any more. We've become far more conformist, and off-script types terrify us. But you know what? I learned a ton about biology from Dr. Grell. My attention was ratcheted through every class, and he made me glad to come to school. He certainly "got it done" (I aced the Regents exam), while also brimming with, yes, totally superfluous humor, propositions, and raving theatrics. I thought then, as I do now, that he stuck out not because he was a madman, but because he, alone, was doing it right. But I was in the minority. Everyone else patronized him from below. He was, they'd say with a sardonic grin, an eccentric.

If you hold world's records, you are not an "eccentric" fisherman; you've simply found a better way. The best teacher in his district is not an "eccentric" teacher. Doing stuff much better requires doing stuff differently. Eccentrics, by contrast, are self-indulgers who do stuff differently merely for difference's sake. Why would we be so stupid as to lump resourceful innovators in with them?

I once wrote about eccentricity:
"Eccentric" means "odd and wrong". "Eccentric" people build perpetual motion machines, or believe they've found a way to communicate with the dead. They're absorbed in cranky, flaky quests which will never amount to much, but at least they're entertaining. It's a term of condescension; this is how we condescend to non-conformists. But is that an appropriate way to describe bona fide miracle workers?

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