The Best Teacher I Ever Had



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            "MR. WHITSON taught Year Six Science. During the first of his classes, be gave us a lecture about a creature that he called the Cattywampuss, an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the last Ice Age. He passed around a skull as be talked. We all took notes, and later had a test.

            "When he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some mistake! I had put down exactly what Mr. Whitson had said. Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What had happened?

            "Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made up all that stuff about the Cattywampuss. There had never been any such animal. The information in our notes was, therefore, incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers?

            "Needless to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what kind of teacher?

            "We should have figured it out, Mr. Whitson said. After all, at the very moment he was passing around the Cattywampuss, skull (in truth, a cat's), hadn't he been telling us that no trace of the animal remained? He had described its amazing night vision, the color of its fur and any number of other facts he couldn't have known. He had given the animal a ridiculous name, and we still hadn't been suspicious. The zeros on our papers would be recorded in his grade book, he said. And they were.

            "Mr. Whitson said he hoped we would learn something from this experience. Teachers and textbooks are not infallible. In fact, no one is. He told us not to let our minds go to sleep, and to speak up if we ever thought he or the textbook was wrong.

            "Every class was an adventure with Mr. Whitson. I can still remember some science periods almost from beginning to end. One day he told us that his Volkswagen was a living organism. It took us two full days to put together a refutation that he would accept. He didn't let us off the hook until we had proved not only that we knew what an organism was but also that we had the fortitude to stand up for the truth.

            "We carried our brand new skepticism into all our classes. This caused problems for the other teachers, who weren't used to being challenged. Our history teacher would be lecturing about something, and then there would be clearings of the throat and someone would say "cattywampuss."

            "If I'm ever asked to propose a solution to the crisis in our schools, it will be Mr. Whitson. I've not made any great scientific discoveries, but his class gave me and my classmates something just as important: the courage to look people in the eye and tell them they are wrong. He also showed us that you can have fun doing it.

            "Not everyone sees the value in this. I once told a primary school teacher about Mr. Whitson. "He shouldn't have tricked you like that," the teacher said, appalled. I looked that teacher right in the eye and told him he was wrong."

            I came across this article in a magazine some time last year, and was so delighted with it that I wanted to print it in BECAUSE I CARE, but hesitated to do so without first contacting the author for his permission. I obtained an address in the U.S., but it seemed 'not quite right,' and I doubted if I would get a reply, but wrote anyway. There was no reply, and neither was my letter returned to me undelivered, but by that time it was too late to include it in that book.

Now, however, because it says so well and humorously what I am trying to say―believe nothing, no matter who says it, but check it out carefully―I have decided to risk any breach of copyright, and hope that the author really wishes to share something, like the teacher in his article, and that, therefore, he won't mind me using his words, and might even take it as a compliment. I am not using them for monetary gain, but to share something good with others. I would like to thank David Owen, the author, whoever and wherever he is, and ask his pardon for using his words without his permission; in exchange, he may use mine, if he likes.

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Last Updated on:  03/01/2001 04:09 AM