Science Friday: Teachers stand & be counted … 3 … 2 … 1!

I remember the exact day when my teachers underwent a magical transformation. Christmas 1968, most of my family was dozing in the wee hours as we sped along a lonely Texas highway to a distant holiday rendezvous. My tiny body was easily stretched out on the rear console of a Ford sedan, gazing through an old-fashioned slanted rear windshield at a crystal clear night scape poured thick with winter stars. In a moment of pure synchronicity my father tuned into a recently arrived static filled season’s greetings sent a quarter million miles on the gossamer wings of invisible light. At the tender age of six years-old it would forever alter the trajectory of my entire life:

NASA Archive — “We are now approaching lunar sunrise … For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you”. … In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth …”

On this website we might wince at the religious reference, but at age six it was the farthest thing from my mind. I listened, captivated, knowing in a vague way this was mankind’s first message from another world, and quickly asked my father about those points of light burning cold in the night. “What are stars, how far away are they?” As an engineer he was well equipped by temperament and education to explain to me quietly, patiently, using analogies of distance a child could understand. And as he spoke the spell was spun: it hit me.

Through an elixir of childhood imagination and a no doubt extraordinary brew of neurotransmitters I was whisked through the windshield and thrown off the planet, reeling, head over heels into the heavens. For long timeless minutes the universe consumed me whole, like Jonah swallowed by a cosmic whale. It was at first terrifying but soon turned glorious. When I found myself back in that long gone Ford, I was changed forever. One sip of cosmic infinity was all it took, I was hooked, a newly minted wonder junkie. Like any other junkie all I could think about when that transcendental ride ended was I want some more.

On that obscure night in that lonely place, teachers would never be the same. They were transformed from glorified baby sitters into what they really are: an invaluable resource, the precious and at that time my only conduit to a sanctuary stuffed with the wisdom of the ages, a guide through a beckoning universe full of wonder. A burning, insatiable thirst for raw knowledge had been lit that lasts to this day. Librarians, teachers, administrators and the space-race at the height of the cold war all combined like cognitive napalm to fuel that fire. I devoured books like a starving grizzly and tore into the fundamentals of science like a human chainsaw. In the space of one or two years a gift of immeasurable value was handed over freely and with it a tremendous scholastic advantage took hold. The alphabet, fun with Dick and Jane, the basics of science, all fell before me, vanquished. Me a few like-minded students simply pulled away from the pack of our fellow K-12 classmates and never looked back.

My teachers enjoyed robust government support during the early day of the US Space Program and were buoyed by a measure of dignity and respect they had earned over many years. My how things have changed! In some circles today, teachers are seen by short-sighted politicians as little more than red ink cells on a spreadsheet. Worst of all, instead of recognizing and praising these professionals, too often teachers have come under assault. State by state, they are now systematically demonized and scapegoated by a vocal component of a hyper partisan electorate.

Last week my sister, a special ed teacher whose degree cost many times what she makes in an entire year, was kicked and punched black and blue and nearly crippled for life protecting other children from a confused student suffering from mental illness. She will require extensive treatment, probably orthopedic surgery. But she did not hire a lawyer, nor did she seek workers comp before reporting back to work, she was there the next day with crutches under her arms and a smile on her face, ready like any other day to take care of “her kids,” including the one who caused her injuries!

She explained her injuries were nothing compared to the teachers who shielded small children with their soon to be bullet ridden bodies as a disturbed killer methodically gunned down the innocent. But mass murder or the less violent incident that touched my family, they all occur day in and day out in schools all across the nation. Teachers at Sandy Hook and elsewhere sacrificed their lives in great tragedy, but teachers one and all have pledged a lifetime of dedication. Their payoff? A virtual vow of poverty.

They say those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it? If so, take away history teachers and we are in a world of shit! Teachers are not just the generational glue that binds us into civilization, they are the spine on which our entire global economy hangs. Show me a customer buying a product online or a developer creating the website, and I will show you a former student who was taught reading, writing, and ‘rithemetic.

Maybe it’s Sandy Hook, maybe it’s my sister, but something in me sort of snapped. I will simply no longer stand idly by while these teachers are bullied and scorned by know-nothings led by shameless pandering politicians

I’m just a science writer, my options for helping are limited, but we all have to start somewhere. One way I decided to start is to assist a non-profit project called Teachers in Space created by the Space Frontier Foundation. The Foundation believes firing up a single teacher will pay massive dividends for our nation and our species. And they are going to fire up a hell of a lot more than one.

Teachers in Space will seek critical corporate seed money in the month of March so that dozens of teachers can experience first hand the freedom of microgravity aboard free flying aircraft, a smaller number will be chosen to fly in high altitude balloons and view the earth as a blue-green carpet far below. A handful will blast above the atmosphere in next generation suborbital spacecraft, surpassing the Karmen-line, and earn their official astronaut wings. But they do not need seek reader donations to accomplish this, if you have money to donate, give it to your local PTA or the K-12 program of your choice.

Rather it is that Foundation’s belief that the so-called one percent, the growing ranks of CEOs and high-ranking officers in technology, media, and aerospace firms among others, have a vested interest in fostering a highly trained customer base and workforce. The Foundation believes those with CEOs et al with vision will choose to serve their own interests with a relatively small gift to allow the project to bring this lofty gift down to earth. We can only hope this effort will inspire teachers and children today like the moon shot once did for those of us who can remember when one small step for man stirred us as profoundly in their own way as “I have a dream,” or “We hold these truth to be self evident …” move us in other ways.

I ask readers for two things only: 1) if you are a STEM teacher (Science Technology Engineering or Math), and wish to register as a candidate at no cost, the link to do that is here (I’m checking but it turns out it may be open to any high school teacher), and 2) if you are a successful progressive or a staunch believer in teachers and a self-made CEO or Chairmen of the Board, help us spread the word. A Foundation representative may indeed contact you or someone you know, and I want that to be a warm and friendly call, not a cold one.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”


  1. says

    This is really beautiful Steve. Unfortunately not rich enough to be a donor for your program, but wish you every success. Just thinking about the scientific progress in our lifetime is amazing. It is really sad that a group of legislators pandering to social and religious cranks is determined that our society will consume the seed corn and impoverish ourselves. Education, and science education, in particular, is the key to a prosperous future for our children (and in my case grandchildren.)

  2. magistramarla says

    Thank you, Stephen.
    Like you, I grew up during those wonderful times for education and I was inspired by some wonderful teachers.
    I’m a retired teacher, and I’ve watched with dismay as my profession went from being venerated by this country to being denigrated.
    I am so proud that I was able to teach and to have an influence on some of the young people that I loved so much. I feel so sorry for those young teachers who are dealing with this right now, and are probably being discouraged from continuing their careers.
    I hope that this program is successful and inspires many STEM teachers.
    I also hope that your sister recovers quickly. I witnessed several cases of teachers, custodians and security guards being physically assaulted when I was teaching in a large Texas high school.

  3. says

    John — not an issue, we know who is rich enough and believe me, we have them in our sights :)

    Thanks all, I am posting this on Sunday on Daily Kos, it’s going to get a lot of eyeballs, and I hope a lot of thanks yous and compliments to teachers. If anyone would like to ID yourself as teachers and receive some long over due thanks and/or provide input, I would love to have you there. Please go here, register a screen name, and be sure and log IN and OUT with that new s/n. It takes 24 hours after logging in and out before you can comment. I hope to see you all there.

  4. Robert B. says

    The form asks for a school district – do you have to be a public school teacher? I’m a full time math instructor, grades 2-12, but I don’t have a classroom – it’s a for-profit learning center.

  5. nothere says

    Have you told that road trip story before? I’m sure I remember it. Reminds me of lying on a front porch in the country, watching the Telstar satellite pass overhead.

  6. cope says

    As a public school high school science teacher in my 23rd year of teaching after 10 years as an oilfield geologist, I can assure you that your kind words and friendly pat on the back go a long way to lifting our beleaguered souls.

    The trajectory of my life sounds like it paralleled yours in terms of early appreciation of all things science though my liftoff date was several years ahead of yours.

    For the sake of others who may be interested in more details, your application link goes to an application for a “Teachers in Space: Flight Experiment” workshop in Palmdale, California July 15-21. Though it sounds like something I have been wanting to learn more about doing (the launch and recovery of weather balloon packages), the travel costs from Florida seem a bit prohibitive. However, from the main page of “Teachers in Space”, there is also a link to an application for the “Teachers in Space: Space Medicine and Human Factors” workshop to be held in my backyard of Daytona Beach June 24-28. I will definitely investigate that one further.

    This program may have common ancestry with a summer institute that I did attend at Embry-Riddle in Daytona several summers ago called “Teach Space”. That too was a 5 day workshop with the lodging provided in Embry-Riddle dorm rooms. As a matter of fact, toward the end of March (after spring break) I will have my students in earth/space science and astronomy classes making their own comet nucleii following a lesson plan learned at that workshop. Recipe available on request.

    Beyond this particular post, I follow and appreciate your noble efforts both here and at Daily Kos where I am already registered by the same moniker I use here.

    Thanks again.

  7. cope says

    Small oops…I am “copedog” at Daily Kos, a name given me by several students a few years ago. Mercifully, they have graduated and moved on and nobody at school throws that name around anymore. Apparently, I registered at DK using that nickname when I discovered that “cope” was already taken.

  8. Woof says

    Well, I was 12 years old during Apollo 8, and I certainly winced at the “religious reference”.

    Of course, I couldn’t say or do anything about it at the time.

  9. mobius says

    I am a few years older than you, but I had a similar experience at age 6, with similar results.

    My first grade teacher brought a small black and white “portable” TV to class one day and we watched the launch of John Glenn on the first US manned orbital flight. I had been only slightly aware of the space program before this. But the sight of this rocket lifting a man into space caught my imagination, and it has never let go.

  10. stever says

    I remember some of my teachers fondly, but I also remember the routineers, time-servers and bullies-with-licenses. Even the good ones didn’t spot the learning disability that blighted my life. But that was so long ago that there were only two generally recognized learning disabilities, laziness and stupidity. One was treated with punishment, and one with endless repetition. I was well into high school before I realized that the reason that the other kids could copy a whole chalkboard full of “notes” (you turned in your “Notebook” at the end of the grading period, and got graded on how pretty a copy you’d made) was not that they tolerated pain better than I did, but because for most people, writing more than a few lines at a stretch doesn’t hurt. Is “dysgraphia” an Official Diagnosis yet? DSM-IV lists a “Disorder of Written Expression”, but that’s about organizing one’s thoughts, and what kept me out of college has more to do with actually grinding my words into the paper. If someone had given me a typewriter in the first grade (and if I’d been permitted to use it), I would probably have a professional degree.


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