It’s happened again. I wasn’t chosen to receive the MacArthur Fellowship.
I didn’t get the call assuring me that I am an exceptionally creative person and that the MacArthur Foundation would fund my creativity over the next five years with a $625,000 grant. Sometimes it’s called the “genius grant.”
I remember the year a high school physics teacher was one of the recipients. I considered my years of teaching science to elementary students and thought, Hey, I’m creative! Perhaps the physics teacher's focus on robotics and building a new science building for his school edged him out over me.
I am jealous every year when these grants are announced, but the truth is, most of us are not geniuses. I’m like everybody else who isn’t getting that grant. I’m doing my best to keep things afloat, sometimes creatively and sometimes not.
I may not get the call saying I am a genius, but I feel elated when good news comes around. My son calls saying he got a new job, I find an unexpected $10 in my pocket, or maybe one of my students looks up at me during class and listens carefully as I describe how they will design their own investigations based on their own observations of the African dwarf frogs that are in small tanks all over the classroom.
Then I see that look in her eyes, the unmistakable sparkle that shows she wants what I have: that knowledge, that understanding and that passion for science. And when that happens, I’m not jealous of the MacArthur Fellows. In fact, I believe they should be jealous of me.
It’s a Tuesday morning, second period, and I’m teaching a small group of fourth-grade students who have severe special needs. We are sitting comfortably around a table looking at two of the students’ rock collections.
They actually have some nice specimens. My students bring in rocks all the time, but often they have a piece of tar from the street, a broken piece of concrete or even a chunk of brick.
“What kind of rock is this?”
“Well,” I’ll tell them, “it’s really a piece of concrete, but concrete is made from rocks. Good job!”
On this day, though, these two kids have nice collections. One set is from the beach, and the rocks are smooth and rounded from years of contact with a moving ocean.
“What kind of rock is this?” the boy asks.
He isn’t looking at me; instead he settles his gaze on the rock in his hand. I can see the top of his head with his close-cut, light brown hair. Bringing in the rocks and showing them to me is immense progress; this is a boy who wouldn’t talk to me directly for years but is finally opening up.
I tell him I think the rock is basalt and probably came from the ocean.
The other student hands me rock after rock from his collection, each time asking, “What’s this?”
Many of the pieces are granite, the grains of feldspar and quartz making it an obvious choice. He seems less concerned with the answer than with asking the question. That’s OK with me.
We spend the rest of class looking at minerals and testing individual samples for their properties. I have some great stuff: thin layered mica that pulls apart in plastic-like pieces, pyrite that looks like gold, lustrous quartz with sharp edges and black magnetite.
The students are focused on using tiles for testing whether their rocks leave a streak, magnets for whether they contain iron and copper wires for their hardness when one of the girls says to me, “We’re just like real scientists.”
Yes! That’s the idea: Create some muscle memory of being a scientist.
Here are some students who in many schools might never be exposed to the same richness of curriculum and experiences that other students are getting, but at our school they feel like real scientists. For a rare moment in my teaching career I think: This is how the system should work.
While we are cleaning up at the end of class, putting minerals and streak plates and small pieces of copper wire away, one of the girls explains that her classroom teacher didn’t know what those rocks were, and the teacher said they should ask me because I was the science expert.
“You know all about science — you’re a genius!” the girl informs me.
I guess the MacArthur Foundation missed this kid’s recommendation.
Usually when students tell me I know everything, I explain to them that I don’t, that nobody knows everything, that we are all learning all the time and isn’t it fun to find out new things. But on this day, I let myself bask in the glory of my own genius, granted to me by a group of 10-year-olds who feel like scientists.
Yes, if the MacArthur Foundation calls next year, I’ll accept the grant. Until then, I have my own creative work to do.
Judy McClure is a 25-year veteran of teaching in the Boston area, a Wipro Science Education Fellow through UMass-Boston and the author of two books for middle-school readers on notable women in science.