When I climbed Masten Avenue’s hill to begin my first year at Buffalo’s Fosdick-Masten High School in 1947, I had everything planned out for my future: I would play shortstop for the New York Yankees, period. Four years later I had changed my mind, or, more accurately, it had been changed for me by two things: my sad lack of athletic ability and teachers who showed me the wonders of science.
Like many 13-year-old boys whose hormones were just awakening, I was very aware of 13-year-old girls, and one of them in Mr. Shaffer’s science class caught my rapt attention. But Mr. Shaffer was a Pied Piper of science and he did experiments that distracted me, if only occasionally, from the young lady’s budding charms.
I still recall watching as he demonstrated how heat flowed along a steel rod by using wax to attach small weights at about 3-inch intervals along the rod’s length and then heating the tip of one of its ends with a burner. As the heat flowed along the rod, the weights fell from it as the wax melted; first that closest to the end and then, in order, those successively farther away. Heat flow became visible and I was much impressed.
Another day Mr. Shaffer made air pressure visible. He boiled a small amount of water in a 5-gallon metal can, capped it quickly and poured cold water over it. As the steam inside the can condensed, a vacuum formed and the air’s pressure caused the can to collapse into a small, crumpled mass. As the can crushed, my interest in science grew.
My biology text spoke about microorganisms, but I was not very impressed with what I read. That changed when Mr. Summers, my biology teacher, had us use a microscope to study some water in which hay had been fermenting. We saw a fantastic world in which untold numbers of tiny organisms, invisible to the naked eye, swam. Reading about these creatures meant little to me, but seeing them in their abundance dazzled me.
In my chemistry class, Miss Swanee amazed me when she poured sulfuric acid over a half inch of sugar in the bottom of a tall beaker. The acid caused the sugar to swiftly morph into a soaring tower of charcoal that grew far too large for the beaker to hold. Choking sulfur gas vapors filled the room, but, in that simpler time, who cared? We had just witnessed chemical magic. In other classes she demonstrated color changes, made dyes from vegetables and had us sniff the chemicals that gave oranges, pineapples and apples their odors. To me, an incipient geek, this was wonderful stuff.
As I think back on those formative years, I realize now that what impressed me was what I saw, what those wonderful teachers chose to show me, not what I heard or read. The readings and lectures were, without doubt, important and necessary, but it was those great demonstrations that had an impact on me that lingers more than 60 years later.
Those science teachers and a wonderful English teacher, Miss O’Meara, who instilled a lifelong love of reading and writing in me, shaped my life. They grasped the amazing power that seeing science in action can have on young minds and took full advantage of it.
Thanks to them when I walked down Masten’s hill at the end of my senior year, my goals in life had changed – but I still wish I’d played shortstop for the Yankees.