B+ for A Work – The Lesson

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GradesI received “A” grades on our mid-term and final exam, and an “A+” on my final paper, the only scores enumerated in the class. The professor gave me a “B+” for the course. I was in shock. After speaking with him, I learned a valuable lesson.

I’ve written a few stories about various incidents in my scholastic life, including memories of making my French teacher cry in high school, the trauma of first grade, and “The Punch” heard round the world. There are many more of these stories in a lifetime of schooling that some may think privileged, others think mundane, but to me feels like constant trauma. But in the one case I opened with, at least I learned something.

I took the class about a third of the way into my doctoral studies. The professor was renowned on campus, a septuagenarian emeritus still teaching the occasional course. He had been to over 130 countries in the world by this time, with more still to come. He was a legend (and still is, last I’ve heard). I enjoyed the class, and as noted, did very well on the tests and class paper. Then I got my grades.

Surely there must be some mistake, I thought. So I wrote a carefully worded email to the professor, something slightly more tactful than: “What the H…?”

He reminded me the syllabus for the course clearly specified that 20% of the grade was based on “class participation.” Over the years this has most often been interpreted as showing up for class and doing all the assignments. At least this has been true in my mind and in practice I’ve never lost a grade due to my hesitancy to speak up in class. [As an aside, this hesitancy became acute in high school during the “Let them eat cake” incident I’ve yet to write about.] But here the professor was being literal. I rarely spoke up in class. I would not get my grade increased. My “A” work resulted in a “B+” on my transcript and GPA.

Mind still boggled, I asked him why this speaking up in class was so critical. Since I was pursing the degree while working as a full time professional in my field with many years of experience, the young college bucks weren’t offering much insight with their often-mundane questions for me to learn much. Besides, speaking in class had always been the bane of my scholastic existence.

Because, said the staid and wise professor, those younger students can learn from YOU. Your work experience, your life experience, your views help them. They gain from your participation. They gain from your insights.

Okay, I admit the flattery was nice, but his comment struck home. While I could surely learn from them (despite my earlier pronouncement), I could also offer valuable insight from which they could learn. I could help others. I could help students see different viewpoints, myriads of which I had been exposed to during my working, not just academic, career. I could be useful.

That thought stayed with me. I could be useful.

A year later I eagerly took a second course with this professor. This time my “A” grades resulted in an “A+” for the course because I spoke up during class.

I’ve since become much more open discussing issues and offering my viewpoints. Some appreciate it; some wish I would keep my mouth shut. For the last several years I’ve been part of the Lincoln Book Study Group, a subset of the Lincoln Group of DC. We meet monthly to discuss whatever Lincoln book we are reading, parsing it chapter by chapter. Sometimes the discussions get passionate, but always we respect each others insights arising from our varied backgrounds bound by our interest in Lincoln. I’ve learned a lot from these amazing men and women, including that I’m sometimes wrong.

Now when I’m in a group I do try to listen better (still not my strongest point), but I’m also less hesitant to offer my own views. We all learn when we all participate.

And it all started with that one time I got a “B+” instead of an “A.”

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

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Last Confession

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confessionBless me father for I have sinned. It has been four weeks since my last confession.

I mean, post on this blog.

Isn’t the writing life funny? This morning, as I have every morning for the last few weeks, I’ve told myself I need to write on this Hot White Snow blog. I last posted on April 10th, a couple of days short of four weeks. Seriously, I’ve had nothing to write about for a month?

Just the opposite is true. I’ve been writing a lot lately, just not here. Besides my author’s website Science Traveler, I’ve been writing for the Lincoln Group of DC newsletter and other venues. I’ve also been focused more on my magnum opus in recent weeks, a book that I’ve been researching for way too long and putting down on paper way too little. A writer’s curse.

But I digress. As I was contemplating what to write this morning I thought about time. Time is precious. Time for writing is my precioussssss. But then I realized I’ve written about making time for writing before, as well as my proclivity to procrastinate, and my tendency to stretch myself so thin it feels overwhelming. To be honest, it all seems like a lot of whining in retrospect.

As these thoughts ran through my mind I had an epiphany. Since my last post was four weeks ago my mind took a leap of faith, as it were, a memory of going to confession as a young man confirmed in the Catholic Church (long before its more disturbing revelations). Like everything else Catholic, we recited the script rehearsed for these occasions, cued by the opening of the listening door in the confession booth.

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been four weeks since my last confession.”

This was the easy part, the mindless mantra one regurgitates without engaging a thought process. The actual enumeration of sins was tougher.

Not that I was without sin, mind you. But seriously, how much sin could a bookworm teenager get into? It was a struggle to concoct something to confess to (in retrospect, the act of concocting may have been my greatest sin). I was way too straight-laced for my age given what I’ve learned about my classmates in the uncountable years since we were in high school. They were, either individually or in groups I wasn’t invited, into a little bit of everything – drug use, drinking, carousing, pregnancies, abortions, partying with teachers after school. I was shocked to later find out the kinds of things an altar boy friend did at that time (and since). I don’t know if I was naïve, boring, or wise beyond my years, but apparently my weekly cataloguing of trivialities gave the priest a respite from my fellow parishioners more biblically in need of counseling and repentance.

These days my confessions are more public, for better or worse. I’m still introverted, prone to procrastination, and busy beyond all get out (this latter a favorite phrase of a college professor; the first time he said it I thought he was literally telling me to get out of his office), but writing allows me, and all of us, to bare our souls more openly than some of us should. Hot White Snow, perhaps ironically (or fittingly?) given its genesis, has occasionally given me a medium for confessing my lifetime of transgressions, however humdrum or inaccurate they may seem to others.

In any case, my little confessional has produced the first post in a month. So there is that.  😉

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Street Lights in Small Town Life

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Street-LightsThere really wasn’t much to do in my Dad’s home town. The town was small. Not small like a hundred people – all of them related – small. But small enough that everyone knew everyone else (which, needless to say, wasn’t always a good thing).

The town essentially had one intersection, whose four corners were the combined pharmacy/post office, the church, the abandoned building, and the corner of a vacant lot. Other than Perley’s one-pumper service station down the road there really wasn’t any other place to “hang out,” at least not anywhere that you could see anything move. Weeknights were pretty much for doing chores after school until you were dead tired. But weekends were another matter. Friday night was usually the football game at the high school, and Sunday night was usually booked doing the weekend homework we had avoided doing up to that point. Which left Saturday night as the only night for “excitement.”

By the end of the game people started thinking about the weekend, even though the weekend didn’t start until whatever point on Saturday afternoon you had finished feeding the farm animals or cut the four-foot high weeds out of what was supposed to be the family garden. But Saturday night was the night to party.

But party is such as relative concept, don’t you think. To some, party means music and dancing, or at least drinking and flirting with both of the girls not already spoken for by the invariably large members of the football team. To others, party meant a handful of kids hanging out and talking about stuff (this was before iPhones, iPods, or even Walkmen). The local constable and his deputies would herd any teenager out after dark into the center of town where they could keep an eye on them (and drag any “free thinkers” by the ear back to their parents for a whooping). Usually the gang would congregate while it was still light because the main event happened at dusk, that period of the day where natural light starts to fade as the sun dips below the horizon (or old man Johnson’s general store during certain times of year).

And that’s when the street lights come on.

Yes, the town had street lights. The state made the town fathers (no women allowed) install lights because the main road was a pass-through from the slightly bigger small towns on either side of this one. A line of street lights led into town up to the intersection, and another line led out of town going out the other side. The lead-in stretch was straight for a good ½ mile and the road going out was almost twice that. Thanks to the state edict, street lights lined the whole way. It was a beautiful sight.

For those of you who may have more interesting things to do on Saturday night, like go to the real movie theater, you may not have noticed that street lights don’t just come on all at once. These were fluorescent back in their unperfected days and thus seemed to have a mind of their own. They did have these cool photoelectric sensors that sensed ambient brightness and turned the light on when darkness reached some predetermined level. Because the sunlight was uneven (lights to the east received less sunlight than those closer to the west as the sun set), the lights would tend to come on in linear sequence. More or less. That’s not to say that the sensors were all calibrated to the same sensitivity, and other factors like cloudiness and the flashing neon light from Johnson’s store (“Open every day but Sunday”) could throw the sequence out of whack. So every budding scientist (or bored teenager) would take bets on which lights would come on out of order.

But the excitement didn’t stop there. When the sensor triggered the lighting sequence it didn’t just come on like flipping a switch on your overhead lights in the house. No, these lights would come on tentatively, like they were waking up from a long day’s sleep. Groggily opening their eyes to the night but blinded by the remaining flickers of the day, each individual light would awaken at its own pace. So as everyone watched, the street lights would blink.

Blink……..

Blink….

Blink..

Blink, Blink, Blink…….

Blink, Blink, Blink…….

Bzzzzzzzzzz.

That Bzzzzzz was the humming. Mostly the light would stop humming after it got up to full temperature, but some would hum all night. Unless, of course, someone was able to take one out with a well thrown rock.

Not that we ever did that.

I swear.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Researching Bermuda

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David at Sandy HookIn the glory days of college I spent a semester in Bermuda. Fifteen of us, along with our lead professor – with cameo appearances from two other professors – lived and studied in what was then the Bermuda Biological Station for Research [now the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences]. For two months, our routine was to spend the morning in the classroom or lab and the afternoon doing field research. The experience was amazing. I still have a book written by, and inscribed to me, by the Station’s Director, Dr. Wolfgang Sterrer.

Each of us chose a particular topic of research for our semester project. In addition to our normal course load we had to find time to do whatever field and lab work our project entailed. Our research ran the gamut of the Bermuda natural environment, from coral diversity to algae to mollusks to shrimp to damselfish. One of my fellow students did a study of the “fixed action patterns of Halichoeres bivittatus, the slippery dick” (a kind of fish called a wrasse).

My research focused on the epibiota of the submerged roots of red mangroves in Walsingham Pond. Red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) are best known for their aerial prop roots, which help suspend the main trunk and leaves of the tree above the water. Epibiota are those animals and plants that attach themselves to the roots, either permanently or temporarily.

Walsingham Pond is unique as it has no surface inlet from the sea. Water in the pond comes from subterreanean flow through the underlying rock, along with rain. Despite the lack of surface flow, the pond remains tidal, rising and falling approximately two feet on a one and a half hour lag from the nearby Bay. This means the water level covering the roots of red mangroves in the pond is variable, thus creating additional stress for any animals and plants that make the roots their home.

In my survey I identified thirty-four different species of attached flora (plants) and fauna (animals). Interestingly, the majority (19) were animals, with the remainder being plants. The most common were sea anemones, fire sponges, worms, and bryozoans. I also compared the pond species with the nearby open Walsingham Bay, and found the bay much less diverse.

My experience in Bermuda as an undergraduate inspired my early career as a marine biologist. Moving on from the Bermuda Biological Station, I soon found myself at my first real job in the field at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) laboratory in Oxford, Maryland [now known as the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory], followed by a few years at the NMFS Sandy Hook Laboratory in New Jersey.

The magic of social media has helped me get reacquainted with some of my colleagues from our days in Bermuda. It seems many of them migrated into non-marine biology fields after graduation, from chemists (and chemical sales) to office professionals to dentists. It strikes me that I may have been an outlier from our Bermuda group, someone who actually worked as a marine biologist. Now I’m intrigued by this question and want to know, so if you’re one of my classmates in Bermuda, please reconnect and catch up. Here are links to my website and Facebook author page, as well as LinkedIn.

Click and scroll for more stories of Bermuda.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

The Punch

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black eyeI stood there stunned. No crying, no scream of agony, no reaction whatsoever. My stare clearly scared him, the bully who had plagued me for years. Why didn’t I fall? Why didn’t I hit him back. It wasn’t that I was incapable of reacting; the punch wasn’t particularly debilitating. I was simply amazed he actually hit me.

It was a sucker punch. I was sitting, he was standing behind me, I started to rise and he struck me as hard as he could along the side of my eye socket as I was still only halfway up and turned toward him. It was a cowardly punch, but in retrospect something I would have expected of him. After all, he was the brawny (if not brainy) quarterback and I was the somewhat diminutive and scholarly introvert. Not a particularly fair fight even if he hadn’t been so gutless as to strike me from behind.

The first incident of his bullying me was in seventh grade. He would follow me around and knock the books out of my hand. One day he did it while I was crossing between buildings, the books flying into the newly cut grass. Making a mocking show of helping me pick them up, it was only when I opened my book in my next class that I found he had surreptitiously tossed in a few handfuls of grass clippings. During this time my brown bag lunch would mysteriously disappear from my hallway locker on a routine basis. Early in eighth grade my pre-algebra book was stolen. I could never prove it was him, but the school refused to replace it and I barely passed the course. Consequently, I was forced to retake the class during my freshman year, thus leaving me a year behind my fellow 10 percenters in math throughout high school. I did make advanced placement English, Biology, and History; those books hadn’t been stolen.

One day in high school I was pinballed down the hallway by a half dozen of his friends out to terrorize. As I walked down the middle of the aisle, one of them stepped out from his position along the wall and shoved me into the opposing wall, where his buddy shoved me back to the other side, only to be shoved back by a third bully. Repeat until after five or six of these careens I finally lost my footing and slammed headfirst into the concrete wall as I hit the floor. All this happened within a few seconds and I never knew if any of them got into trouble, although my concussed mind seems to remember a teacher rushing into the fray. I don’t recall if my obsessed bully was one of the group, but I do remember that at least the first one was his friend.

Then came the day of the sucker punch my sophomore year. We were in chemistry class together. As usual for this less than top student, he was goofing around with the Bunsen burners, setting various stray items afire to show off. As the teacher approached to monitor him, my bully rushed over to the desk I was sitting at along the side of the room in an effort to hide his complicity. Given our history, I was obviously not interested in covering for him, and when he pushed me and threatened me by placing his fist over my papers I told him to get away. I started to rise from my seat – one of those combined chair/desks that constrict movement (I think of Senator Charles Sumner trapped by his desk as a crazed Congressman beat him to near death with a cane in 1856). Before I got halfway up and turned he had punched me with all the force behind the extra 50 pounds he had on me in weight.

To this day I recall the fear in his eyes. Whether it was because he feared retribution from the school or from me I don’t know. After staring at him in disbelief for what seemed hours but was probably 10 seconds, I picked up my stuff and walked out of the room without saying a word. The loudspeaker blared my name and his – “Please come to the principal’s office immediately!” – as I crossed the soccer field in front of the school, not caring about the rest of the day’s classes. I kept walking. By the time I got home there was a phone call from the principal telling me to meet the next morning.

My bully was there too. My eye by this time, indeed the whole side of my face, had turned a ghastly palette of yellow and green before settling into the traditional black and blue for the next week. I said nothing but was made aware he had been dressed down the afternoon before. I don’t recall if my bully got suspended, but it was clear that I was off limits to this person forever. He didn’t become a model student – in fact, he apparently continued to be a less than stellar citizen throughout high school and into life – but he never came near me again.

As I look back on the incident I still marvel that he actually hit me. Others had tried to pick on me before – bullies like to go after the little guy because the big guys might beat them in a fight – but no one ever was able to strike me before or since. I learned early on about using a person’s balance and momentum against them. I was quick and flexible enough to avoid attempts to trap me or hit me. And no one ever succeeded. So when my bully connected so demonstrably his fist to my face, even considering I was half standing, half turned, and fully defenseless at the time, I was pained not so much by the actual punch but by the fact he had actually punched me.

No one ever did again.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Otter in the Pond

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North American River OtterThere is a small pond that I circle on my more or less daily walks near my home. Designed as a drainage pond for the townhouse communities that dominate the area, it has shown a remarkable resilience as habitat for a variety of wildlife. My more recent discovery is an otter.

Roughly 2.3 acres in size, you can easily see the entire margin of this narrow elongated pond (officially, a “lake”) from one end. And yet it seems to abound with life. Turtles are common (mostly eastern painted turtles). Geese swarm the place and, depending on the time of year, often have a passel of goslings trying to keep up as they wander from spot to spot. Ducks are less numerous but usually make an appearance, although I’ve never seen ducklings, just adults. Great blue herons fish around the edges occasionally, as does a pair of green herons. Song birds of various sorts, including a stray bluebird, join the cardinals and robins. We even had a beaver for a couple of years before the local game warden removed it to save the trees it was decimating.

But a few days ago I was shocked to see an animal I had never seen, and would never have hoped to see, in our little pond. After doing a bit of research (okay, I googled it), it turns out river otters (Lontra canadensis) are relatively common in my general area. Still, there isn’t anything that could remotely be labeled a river near me, and this pond isn’t so substantial that it could support otters. They eat mostly fish, which is what he likely was looking for as he repeatedly rolled into a dive, staying underwater for 20 seconds or so before popping up for a breath, then diving again. There are fish in the pond, the occasional presence of herons testifies to that, mostly sunfish, crappie, carp, and, at least in theory, catfish. Other than some small sunfish in the drainage creeks that feed the pond have I actually seen fish. In several years I’ve only seen one person fishing.

So whether the otter found his dinner I don’t know. I hope so. I would like to think he’ll be a regular visitor, but my guess he is a transient that I’ll never see him again. I did recently see several otters up close in a lake within Gardens of the Bay in Singapore, so that will have to do unless this local one comes back.

Either way, it was a thrill to see an otter in my little pond. Now I’m ready for spring and the return of the herons.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

[Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Zoo]