Monday, February 23, 2009

Marking Time

The Felix Chronicles, #5

In which we consider the science of history—from a child (at heart)

A perfect spring morning—impossibly blue cloudless sky, crystalline air, enough of a chill to promise no sticky classroom this afternoon. As I head from the parking lot to the back door of the library, I see biology teacher Howie Waldman, like I often do in the morning, conversing with his daughter Hannah, 7, before he brings her over to the Lower school. Some days Howie and Hannah are hunched over a plant. Other days they’re looking up at a tree or a bird. (Decades from now, this child will be reliving these moments. I see a sad smile on the face of an aging woman.) Today, though, they appear to have wandered into the realm of geology: They’re standing near two large rectangular rocks that are about four feet wide and two feet deep. They’re stacked as part of a construction site. A landscaping crew, not yet on the job, is in the process of creating an outdoor classroom. These stones look like they’ll function as benches.

Howie beckons me over. “Look at this,” he says, pointing to the stone, which I can see has a chalky gray color and texture. I see the imprint of what appear to be elongated clam shells. I guess this is what you’d call a fossil.

“How old do you think this is?” Howie asks me, pointing to a specific shell. I can see the stone is mottled with them.

I look up at the administration building down a small hill and through some trees. It’s built in a Tudor style, though of course centuries later. This campus was erected in 1928. I’m guessing this was swampland before that if it was going to sustain this kind of life. “I dunno—a hundred years?”

“I’m thinking a hundred million years,” Howie replies. “It might be older. This species is extinct.” There’s no element of gotcha here; he’s not the faintest bit amused by how far off I am. His excitement, palpable as a child’s, is entirely devoted to observing this sign of life.

Here's a shout to Howie—and to my colleagues at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and to my fellow educators, who re-create life every day.