Monday, April 13, 2009

The Algae Guy

There are a probably a number of teaching methods for hammering ideas and nomenclature into the heads of young people, from rapping knuckles with rulers to discussing how a number feels about being divided by seventeen, but none were so memorable to me as a professor using himself as an object lesson. To say the least, it was unexpected.

To quickly dispel any concerns of prurience, the object lesson pertained to flower parts, not human anatomy, which is why my first week of Plant Biology found me sitting in a class in front of a man-sized flower – or better put, a man dressed all in green, complete with green stocking shoved over his face, a necklace of sepals, and a “crown” of petals, anthers, ovaries and stamens atop his head. Half the class was truly alarmed. We, the better half, attempted to check our laughter.

Dr. Porter’s arrivals were always somewhat strange, since one vacillated between intense curiosity over what he’d do next and concern that he’d fall and hurt himself. His cane seemed to be more hindrance than help, at least when he negotiated doors and stairs. It would catch in the swinging doors, or he’d drop it, or he’d crash it into something, all the while holding a terribly large stack of papers or objects to distribute through the class. We prayed he wouldn’t fall.

How he was assigned to teach an undergraduate plant biology course was beyond me, since his area of expertise was actually the study of algae, officially termed algology or phycology. After over thirty years of dangling over the bows of ships in every ocean of the world, “kelp hunting” and sampling, diving and retrieving, such a lowly course must have bored him. Perhaps he was returning to simpler teaching, since at 72 years old, he was only a year away from retirement. Regardless of the motive or explanation, he taught botany quite well. He illustrated the importance of identifying plants with the story of a time in the Boy Scouts that found him and a friend sitting in a bed of poison ivy, eating it with much merriment. He remained merry, but his friend did not (and remained hospitalized for quite some time). It was important to know plants, he insisted.

Knock-kneed and wobbly without his cane, he would nevertheless park it at the podium and stump repeatedly back and forth, hobbling over to write on the blackboard, fight with light switches, or pass out assignments. On the particular morning he struggled through the door wearing his flower parts, he rapped his head repeatedly with the cane to point out the sex parts of the flower. I hardly remember their names now, but I do remember that particular class.

Nor did he ever stop talking, either, in a voice that reminded me of a cross between Jim Purdue (the chicken guy) and Tom Bodett (the Motel 6 guy). I can’t think of another way to describe it besides friendly and enthusiastic. Since we never knew what he’d say next, we’d always listen. After years at sea, he’d collected more tales than our young minds could possibly imagine. A few pictures in his office showed a shirtless young guy holding up a giant kelp the way a fisherman might display his catch of blue marlin or dolphin. It all left you curious.

A year later, I found myself sitting in his writing-intensive, graduate-level algology course wondering if I’d made a big mistake. With thirteen students, I couldn’t miss a class. I’d be easily noticed. We had weekly reports due on little phycological processes, like reproductive cycles, drawing things, or full-length papers elaborating about how algae was important to everybody and everything. It was only his enthusiasm for the subject that kept our heads above the water (no pun intended).

One would think that a man restricted to use of a cane would be uninterested in outdoor activities, which left us all the more bewildered and surprised when he announced we had a field trip one week which entailed driving around to a number of local ponds and streams to poke about in the muck for a sample of something he could indentify from the car but we had to examine under a microscope. We always walked closely in case he fell and needed assistance. If memory serves me correctly, WE were the ones that fell. He moved quickly. Perhaps his cane emboldened him.

But this was a man who did more than teach students. He invited us into his home, ate and visited with us, and introduced his wife, who much like Mr. Sellers’ wife seemed to tolerate his silliness quite amiably. It was the enthusiasm of a previous class of graduate students that led to an ambitious lot of them sneaking ethanol into a Va Tech football game, hidden in test tubes in their socks. Sometime later, Dr. Porter’s students politely led a hollering and disagreeable older man with the cane out of the stadium – whereupon he began to beat the governor’s limousine with the same cane. They were forced to lead him still further. He remains proud of his adventure, but more wary of the effects of ethanol.

Much like Mr. Sellers, Dr. Porter’s attempts to foster in us an innate curiosity on a subject met with only limited success. What they taught, and for the sake of their course, they taught quite well. But a decade later, what we all remember is the character that conveyed the information. The man with slight tremors and a cane who spent more time pointing and poking at things with it than using it to support his movements. The day he scared the faculty by dressing as a flower, and the students that politely hauled him away when he’d had enough of his “test tubes.” The man who enjoyed eating algae, perhaps a holdover from his days of munching on poison ivy in the Boy Scouts. If nothing else, however, we all wish to remember two things: First, the teacher who made us laugh and enjoy an otherwise obscure, difficult subject, and second, what pond scum NOT to eat when we next find ourselves outside.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

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