Amazing Teacher #7
Confession: I discovered this amazing teacher #7 long after being his pupil. G. M. Garrett was my science teacher in high school. I was reminded of him on reading the News Feature on autism in Nature for 3 November 2011. The article emphasized that we teach the deaf and blind by accepting their disability and helping to overcome it, but we have tried to make the autistic children over in our own image without accepting their disability to be equally intractable as deafness and blindness. Does this confirm the correctness of the seemingly incorrect statement of some educationists that teachers merely have to be good teachers as if knowledge of subject matter was nearly irrelevant?
Mr. Garrett taught me more chemistry than he knew when I was a junior in high school. I asked how do we know that the textbook is correct when it states that elemental fluorine cannot be created chemically but only by electrolysis. His response was to give me access to the stockroom to let me attempt the impossible implying that I might even succeed and he was rooting for me. Needless to say, I learned a lot of chemistry that was not in the curriculum.
The next year in physics there was a problem at the end of a chapter which asked how fast would a two and three pound weight attached to each other by a weightless string over a frictionless pulley fall if the heavier weight was raised and released. It was absolutely obvious to me that it would fall at one fifth of the acceleration due to gravity because a one pound force would be accelerating five pounds. Mr. Garrett only remembered that the acceleration due to gravity was unchangeable. When I exercised my prerogative to access the stockroom and proved my point with weights and a stopwatch, he congratulated me as one scientist to another. This comes close to proving that a good teacher can teach a subject in the absence of detailed personal knowledge of it—the seemingly ridiculous dogma mentioned above.
In 1961 Science published an article showing that xenon, a noble gas and therefore chemically inert, reacted briskly with elemental fluorine. I remembered Mr. Garrett and thought that’s the sort of thing that my high school science teacher taught me to do. Within minutes, I thought oxygen is close to fluorine in reactivity and should certainly react with xenon when heated by lightning. This year I read, again in Science, that there had been a puzzling lack of xenon on earth compared to its quantities known to be in the sun and the rest of our solar system; and traces of xenon dioxide had been found in beach sand throughout the world. Again, I had kind thoughts for Mr. Garrett: my first science teacher.
More recently, I would like to ask my college chemistry teachers how they happened to give me toluene as an unknown to be identified and why weren’t they surprised when I made TNT to prove its identity (by far the most convenient way to do so)---I think they had a bet on among themselves as to whether I would make TNT, and one of them put his money on me without even knowing of my experiences with Mr. Garrett. *
John A. Frantz, class of 1940 (high school)
November 8, 2011
* TNT (trinitrotoluene) is so safe that it can be put in the warhead of a cannon shell to explode on impact with the target with no danger of exploding while in the cannon barrel. (I must have known this at the time).