Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Furry Syphilis In A Bag

When I stepped into Biology 101 for the first time more than twelve years ago, I did as I always did…ran to the back and staked my claim on the most innocuous, hidden seat I could find (and one that gave me easy access to the door if I had to escape). I think about these things. I routinely selected the back, at any rate, because I can’t in good conscience sleep in the front rows. It’s too obvious, I’d fall out of desk chair (I knew a guy who did this), and I really wanted a wall to lean against. And of course, I hate having people stare at me from behind. I’d much rather stare at them.

Before long an upper middle-aged man strolled in, hunched over, pushing an entire two-shelved cart full of papers, bags, doodads, and perhaps a great deal of trash. It was hard to tell. Maybe the top shelf was for important things and the bottom shelf was for garbage. Either way, it didn’t look organized. I caught myself wondering if the cart held object lessons for the entire school year. He certainly had enough crap stacked on it.

Mr. Sellers wrote his name on the board, looked around at his lot of disinterested, tired, young students (save for a few), and began quietly. We were forced to shut up just to hear him. With a jovial voice more befitting a doting grandfather than a biology professor, he spoke: “My name is Mister Sellers, and this is Biology 101. Is anybody here in the wrong class?” Nobody answered, but a couple grabbed their papers and made a quick departure. I caught a half smile on his face. We spent the next half hour learning what biology was – the study of living things.

Unless one possesses a natural curiosity about the world around them, plants and animals, biology can be brutal. Learning the nomenclature of a cell can be dreadful, or the metabolic processes of the kidneys can induce depression, or at least the strong desire to drop a course and change one’s major to something easier, like interdisciplinary studies. But Mr. Sellers’ teaching style was unique. We never learned facts. We learned stories.

We learned that the water molecule looks like Mickey Mouse ears, and a generation of Disney kids suddenly made a connection with science they would never forget. A few even referred to it as the Mickey Mouse molecule before catching themselves, hoping nobody had noticed, and correcting with the more accurate, H2O

One common story character, Missy Red Pumps, always over-dressed (or under-dressed, depending on your perspective), would frequently find herself in situations where she was forced to consider her own physiology and why certain atoms bonded and others did not. Invariably, her friends Muffy and Buffy would join her on misadventures into the stomach to look at its mucus lining or into the woods to study the morphology of hardwoods. And also invariably, her pumps would be the wrong footwear. If memory serves me correctly, she used them at least once to fend off some recalcitrant biflagellated alga attacking her and her hapless friends. Perhaps in those situations, at least, she was perfectly attired.

More entertaining than this was the grief the front row of class received. In addition to the stress of having to stay awake and the annoyance of people behind you sneezing onto your neck, Mr. Sellers subjected them to a plethora a brown paper bags with unknown items in them. He'd rummage on the cart, clutch a bag tightly, and insist, "Mr. Sellers isn't going to hurt you." The front row invariably withered.

“This one is a virus, but it's not dangerous. I’ve made sure of that.” The girl directly in front of him looked like she wanted to hide under a table.

“Is it alive still?” somebody would ask.

“Nope… well, let’s see.” He’d peer into his bag, look puzzled, and respond, “it doesn’t appear to be.” People were hesitant to stick their hands inside, but that was what he routinely asked.

And over the course of two semesters, those poor front row students, who never could find it in their hearts to change seats (or the rest of us flat out refused to move), crammed their hands into dozens of bags, pulled out all manners of dead insects, vegetation, toys, candy, chewing gum, or whatever odd bit of nature some former student had recently brought to Mr. Sellers. He collected such things.

When I first noticed a bioluminescent fungus, the first person I showed my sample to was Mr. Sellers. Over the years, as I and all three of my sisters have attended his course, we would find little natural knickknacks and give them to him. Christmas one year (for he is now a family friend) found us sending him furry, stuffed STDs that somebody with a horrible sense of humor had elected to market. If I had to guess, students now are subjected to a random handful of stuffed syphilis. We are pleased to have made that contribution.

One class, while passing the gigantic molecule consisting of a baseball-sized mess of glued BBs to a classmate, I managed to drop it and it exploded on impact. We spend the next ten minutes discussing nuclear fission. I’m hopeful another student savvy with a glue gun and BBs has since made him a replacement. That was the source of MOST of his object lessons: students.

For more than just a better understanding of the world in which we live, Mr. Sellers’ natural fascination and curiosity with biology has rubbed off on us. We’re more observant now, we see strange little things that we remember from class, and a few of us will always remember the dead bugs, twigs, and candy that he employed to startle the poor front row people. I didn’t sleep, because I was interested. ( And because the older guy next to me, always sick and always sucking on a fireball, would sneeze constantly, cuss, and blow fireball odor onto me.)

Even more, my entire family has gained a close friendship with a man who shares our curiosity about life, and nature, and bugs and plants and exploring earth. Years after stressing out over how to earn extra project points for class (and settling on making a dish for the Great Vegetarian Feast or pressing flowers and leaves), we simply enjoy his company. When I graduated and transferred to another university, Mr. Sellers’ would write me monthly and send me quarters for laundry. He did the same for my older sister, my younger sisters, and at least two other friends.

During my time overseas in the Marine Corps, through ALL THREE tours, Mr. Sellers was my most loyal correspondent, keeping me apprised of his students, his yard projects, his grandchildren, and the new house his son was building next door. Seven years later, I know how his “grounds” look, and I’ve never even been to his house. But weekly in Iraq, I learned how the redbuds were coming along, and how many new bushes were planted, and what flowers were blooming, and which had just been tragically picked by his grandchildren. Just as much as he offered his passion for nature to his students, he offered his friendship and candor to my family. Multiple times each year, in fact, he gathers students, sends them to our house, and we lead them on a nature walk around the property to earn some extra project points.

“Has Mr. Sellers ever done this walk?” Their feet start hurting after an hour.


“Well he should,” they’d grumble. If they came overdressed, we’d lead them through the mud. If they had fun, we’d stay out for hours. And the next time Mr. Sellers and his awesome (and patient) wife come over for dinner, we swap stories about which student said what about him, or he tells us what they said about us.

It’s been a few months since I stopped by the college to see him, and I really ought to. After knocking on a door always covered with dead bugs and various twigs and feathers and artwork, he’d swing it wide, invite me into the only seat in the office, and there, amid stacks of books, heaps of papers, and carts full of strange little pieces of nature given him by similarly enthusiastic students, we catch up, laugh about things, and eat candy from the class cart, a full ten years after completing (and acing) his class. In the same measured, quiet voice he uses in class, he’d tell me the latest about a student’s and antics and break into giggling as he recounts the student that asked in all sincerity if trees have feelings.

And my sisters still visit him, too. We didn’t just learn biology from him, we made a friend. I just hope he’s dutifully horrifying people with the furry, friendly, stuffed syphilis, because he’s weird like that, and so are we, too. Maybe I’ll swing by tomorrow and say hello. I have a 2-inch shark’s tooth for him, and during our last nature walk we found some beaver teeth. I’m sure he’d like those.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. First of all... Did you drop the BB's on purpose? Just to see what would happen?
    And second of all... This story very much intrigued me, very good writing. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I'd like to give him a big hug.

    Good writing, tks.

  3. I wish Mr. Sellers was really my grandfather.

  4. I hope you sent this story to Mr Sellers. What a wonderful tribute to a teacher who has made a lifelong impact on you and many other students.
    Mr Sellers, can I audit your class?

  5. I believe it was my first semester with him that I was somehow offered and accepted to eat the 10 year old cracker.

  6. Eww...I was always amazed people ate the tootsie rolls he handed out in class. (oh wait...I think I ate them too! Oops) :)

  7. He sounds like the sort of soul this world needs more of.

    I would highly recommend reading the story of another such involved teacher, Dr. William Lane. The book is called The Walk, by author and musician Michael Card.

  8. When I tried to make Mr. Sellers cookies halfway through the semester, the oven broke (literally), little screws fell from the ceiling of the oven into my peanut butter cookie batter, and they were all singed to a crisp. I put them in a ziploc bag and wrote "clear evidence of carbon bonded to carbon." I hope he didn't try to make anyone eat those.

    He had a huge garden trowel collection. What were the garden trowels intended to teach? I can't remember.

    What I liked best was when Mr. Sellers would stroll into class with his little cart, thumb through a stack of blank index cards, and say, "Now, we're going to see how things are going. You can write on one side, or two sides, of the index card, about how things are going."

    "Mr. Sellers?" someone would inevitably ask. "How things are going in this class?"

    "The answer is, how things are going." He would smile. "If you have any things going on outside of class, you can tell me how those things are going. If not, you can write about how things are going in this class."

    Once I furiously wrote out a frustrated love epic of which I was in the midst at the time, and the next time I happened to see Mr. Sellers in the hallway he patiently told me what he thought about it.

    Yeah, he's a wonderful man, Mr. Sellers.