My Misdirected Youth

In the seventh grade (1962-63), at Dale J. Ickes Junior High, my science teacher was Mr. Hughes, one of those teachers that it is impossible to ascribe enough praise. He opened the door to the wonders of biology and the world around us beyond what anyone could expect of a seventh grade class or of 12 year old students. The projects we took on in the after school science club were beyond what most high school students have ever done.

The classroom project I remember most clearly was when we went outside, crossed the fence into a field behind the school where we each staked out a 12” square piece of land. Our project was to identify the life in that square. We collected plants, mostly grasses, we captured bugs, when it rained and there were puddles we collected water samples in petri dishes and studied the microorganisms under a microscope. Back then that was called “ecology”, the word had not yet been attached to political movements; to this day I am fascinated by flora and fauna.

BUT the science club work I remember the most, that was so far beyond the seventh grade, involved doing lab-prep work on a variety of species. I am sure in this protective culture of today he never would have gained approval for the things us 12 year olds accomplished. 

Mr. Hughs had a connection with the Portland Zoo. If an animal died naturally at the zoo he was often able to get the carcass; I have no idea how, but it was amazing. Then a group of us, about five or six as I remember, would skin the animal and tan its hide. We would clean the skull as a lab or museum would do – we were seldom bothered by anyone, especially the principal, as the aroma of a monkey’s skull boiling to soften the tissue so we could then spend hours cleaning the skull drove most folks away. We cleaned skeletons, did measurements, and journaled. I worked on: a monkey, an African lion, a bobcat, and a small bear. When I moved on to high school a lifetime in science was all I wanted. (Mr Hughes contacted me and one other friend of mine asking if we would come back to help him with a project: sadly a young elephant had died at the zoo, he had the opportunity to have it, but after we had left the school few interested or experienced budding biologists filled our place. Sadly I had to say no.)

All it took was one year of a 5 hour, 105 Biology for Biology Majors class at Portland State University to stifle that enthusiasm. Most of the class was chemistry, some dissection of dead things (I must admit the feral pig was interesting), yet there was nothing about studying actual plants and animals, the one thing I dreamt of, so I moved on.

It was all good though, I spent 25 years traveling the world, seeing cities, people, and nature that I never dreamed of. Along the way I became a sketcher. What I understand now is that my interest was in being a naturalist not a biologist – John Muir should have been my idol. I wish I had know the difference then.

At my age there is no room for “I should haves.” But there is also nothing that keeps me from my naturalist pursuits today. As theTravelsketcher the destinations that interest me the most are natural sights not iconic tourist traps. Small villages with an environment of their own, mountains, oceans, and lakes all make a trip worth while. Even our passion for eating locally is a form of learning about the environment we are visiting. I have spent many evenings in hotels and B&B’s sketching a leaf or flower I picked up during the day.

So in these late years of my life I find I have returned to that long smoldering ember that Mr Hughes lit, now, with the time of retirement, it burns a bit brighter.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. A great New Year’s Day reflection.


    1. Thank you, the timing was mostly coincidence, yet thinking about new year probably planted the seed.


  2. Shirley says:

    A consummate artist AND writer, too. This beautifully written reflection brought tears to my eyes….(but not because of the memory of MY 7th grade science teacher who took us to a gravel pit for our field trip. Not quite the same experience, but yours was perfection. As a former teacher myself, it makes me smile that this teacher had such a giant impact on your life. Happy New Year!


    1. It was one of vest years of school


  3. Dion says:

    What a beautiful, moving account of your youth. Thank you so much fir the journey which sparked memories of my own (albeit not quite the same).


  4. Veronica says:

    Thanks for sharing this lovely memory with us. Never stop exploring. Happy new year.


    1. Yes! Never stop traveling and exploring


  5. elissbaker says:

    What a wonderful story! To have the opportunity to study those zoo animals is a life-long gift from your teacher. And I had forgotten the word “ecology”!


    1. It was a great time. Thanks.


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