At fourteen I began to realize that I knew some things that some adults did not. Most of those things involved secrets about logs that sheltered salamanders and ringsnakes, or the specific location of a patch of wild strawberries hidden in the woods near the swamp. But, there were other things as well—things I had believed to be of general knowledge.
What I did not know, but was about to learn, was that some adults are profoundly ignorant, even of the simplest things, and stubborn in their ignorance. They are ignorant by choice.
I also learned that being right and standing up for truth can get you in trouble. I learned that lesson very well.
The setting for this part of my education was my ninth grade Introduction to Science class. The instructor, a large and raw boned woman, was a PE teacher and girl’s basketball coach. She was good in both roles. For unclear reasons, in addition to her other duties, she had been drafted that year to teach one science class. My science class.
Miss Withers (not her real name), sadly, knew less about science than I did. In fact, I believe Miss Withers knew less about science than the average fifth grader. Nonetheless, she was the teacher, and I a lowly student. I don’t think she was stupid, just uninformed and not inclined to learn.
By the end of the first week of class, I was bored out of my mind. I had skimmed through the textbook and realized that I was already familiar with everything we’d be covering the entire year. I was embarrassed to be in the class, but had no way to transfer to something more challenging. I was stuck, and I wasn’t too happy about it.
Miss Withers always assigned as homework the review questions that appeared at the end of each textbook chapter. Recognizing this pattern, I spent most class periods tuning out Miss Withers while writing answers to the review questions. Well before Thanksgiving I had finished all of the prospective assignments, answered every review question in the book, and secured the answers in the back of my notebook. My science homework for the rest of the year had been completed. That’s when my problems started.
Perhaps Miss Withers had been teaching nonsense all along, and I had been so absorbed with the review questions that I had failed to hear what she said in class. Or, perhaps the fundamentals of electricity were just too esoteric for Miss Withers to explain. Either could have been true.
On the last day before Thanksgiving break, a student raised his hand in class, then asked Miss Withers a straightforward question about electricity. Was the electricity that powered the lights in the classroom, the electricity supplied by Georgia Power Company, alternating or direct current?
Upon hearing the question Miss Withers fell silent for a long time. She was trying to think how to respond, searching her mind for a clue. When she finally settled upon and delivered her answer, the answer was wrong. It was incorrect.
Miss Withers’ answer, in substance, was that the transformers on the power lines outside change alternating current to direct current just before the point at which the electricity enters our homes, businesses and schools. The current powering our overhead lights, she said, is direct current.
At this point, I made my first mistake. I was so surprised at this nugget of misinformation that I must have made a face, uttered some sound or made some distracting motion that caught Miss Withers’ eye and signaled to her that I was in disagreement.
Miss Withers asked me if I had something I wanted to say. I then made my second mistake. I answered, “Yes, I do.”
I explained that the function of the transformers on the power lines outside is to step down the voltage delivered to the buildings. The extremely high voltage of the transmission lines, I explained, must be reduced to lower voltage levels that can be handled by the wiring, connections and breaker systems inside homes and schools. The transformers do not, I continued, transform the power from alternating to direct current.
I had a pretty good understanding of electricity, I told her. My dad, who had considerable expertise in the subject, had explained it to me years earlier. Before I had a chance to add that a Georgia Power Company community educator had given talks on this subject to my seventh-grade science class as well, Miss Withers snorted and interrupted me.
Either my dad, Miss Withers grandly announced, had given me incorrect information or I had misunderstood him. She said that my belief and understanding in the matter could not possibly be true.
If the power delivered to our school was in the form of alternating current, Miss Withers pontificated, the electric lights would flicker on and off rather than burn in a steady, continuous glow as they so obviously did. She looked pleased with herself, but not pleased with me at all.
I was speechless. Dumbfounded. Didn’t all grown-ups understand about electricity? Was it possible that Miss Withers did not understand how incandescent light bulbs work? For heaven’s sake, she was a grown-up, not a kid!!!!!
I said nothing else in class that day, but the insult to my intelligence and my dad’s expertise was more than I was willing to take without a fight. As soon as the bell rang at the end of the hour I marched up to Miss Withers’ desk and made my third mistake of the day.
I tried to explain to her why the lights don’t flicker and why incandescent light bulbs continue to emit light, for a very short time, after the electricity is turned off. It was all quite simple, and I was clear.
She listened for only about two seconds, then proclaimed the following nonsense. Light bulbs only seem to emit light for a moment after the electricity has been turned off because the light beams continue to bounce around inside the glass before they are completely absorbed. BUT, she said, alternating current would make a light visibly flicker.
At that point, she said I should leave for my next class. If I stayed, she explained, I would be late, and she was disinclined to give me a hall pass.
For the rest of the day I stewed over the way she dismissed me and mangled elementary scientific facts. I wasn’t about to forget it. I was determined to prove my point.
Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I pulled out an old science fair project that languished on a closet shelf at home. Within a few hours, with only slight modifications, I had what I believed was a surefire, proof positive, clearly understandable working model of an a/c powered light bulb that didn’t flicker. I told my parents what the project was supposed to demonstrate, but not why.
I carefully placed my instrument of vindication in a box and took it with me to school the following Monday. As soon as I entered Miss Withers’ classroom I went straight to her desk and announced I had a device which would prove what I’d said about alternating current.
After a few moments of silence, she told me to leave the box on her desk and take my seat. We would talk after class.
At the end of the class period I approached her desk, eager to make my demonstration. Before I could begin Miss Withers asked me whether or not I wanted to get a passing grade in her class. Not taking her meaning, I answered that, of course, I wanted a passing grade. All my grades to that point in her class were 100s, and I anticipated that the rest of my grades would be the same.
Miss Withers looked at me sternly then told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never to contradict her again. Neither in class, nor after class. She was the teacher, I was the student, and whatever she might say should be regarded as the gospel.
She explained that she did not care what anyone else might have to say about anything. If she were to tell me that the moon was made of green cheese, then I had better give that as my answer in her class. Miss Withers could not explain electricity, but she explained her policy perfectly well.
Surprised, I said, “You can’t really mean that!” Her response was simple. “Just try me and see.”
I replied, “Yes ma’am,” and reached for my box.
Before I could pick up the box from her desk she placed her hand on the top of it and said that I was to leave it where it was until school was out. I could pick it up after school on my way to the bus, not before.
I’ve never made claim to genius. I find that I must struggle for answers to most of the questions that come up in my life, both practical and moral. I expect that others will disagree with most of the things I believe, and I view most disagreement as not at all disagreeable. If my ideas or opinions cannot withstand challenge, perhaps there is something to be learned from the challenger.
Experience, learning, growth and reason have compelled me to abandon many positions that I have taken in years past. There’s no shame in being wrong. The shame is in being deliberately wrong, ignorant by choice.
Pride and sloth. Miss Withers exemplified both. She was an ignorant woman who was too lazy to learn. Her pride prevented her from considering any challenge to her opinions, and she turned a deaf ear to all dissent.
Every night on the television news I see a lot of people who remind me of Miss Withers. Some are shouting down others at town hall meetings, some are spewing hatred and fear. Others are making false statements about simple matters of fact.
They repeat, over and over again, the simple and simple-minded slogans with which their leaders have equipped them. They subject nothing to the test of reason.
Like Miss Withers, they are prideful, and like Miss Withers they are mean.
Henry Ford once said something to the effect that thinking is the hardest work of all, which explains why so few people engage in it. Persuading deliberately ignorant people of even simple truths may be even harder. Still, I continue to try.
We need universal health care in the United States. Undocumented immigrants are human beings. Social justice is a good thing for everybody. There is alternating current in your wall socket. I promise.