In terms of human history, mandatory education is a very recent social obligation and one that does not suit all students equally. In addition to the Biodesign Class, my yearly schedule of classes included one section of entry-level, life science students. Each class typically included students with varying learning difficulties, language limitations and attention deficit issues. There were always a few who thought that school was a prison or at best, a boring waste of time. Meeting the needs of these kids was often challenging and stretched my creative/adaptive skills (and patience) to the limit.
One day, we were discussing the variety of cells in the human body and I mentioned that, in order to survive, every cell needed a continuous supply of the gas called oxygen. I pointed out that red-blood cells in the circulatory system pick up a load of oxygen in the lungs and transport it to all 100 trillion cells. I was trying to get them to appreciate the wonder of life and the privilege that it was to be alive.
One of the boys was listlessly slouched in his desk, not particularly impressed with my enthusiasm. It irked me and I decided I needed to prod him a little. He was a spindly kid and my hands easily fit around his throat. I didn’t know it, but we both were about to experience an event that would never be forgotten.
In an exaggerated, dramatic voice I roared, “Mr. Parchim, do you not realize that you are never more than one breath away from death?” Just as if the scene were scripted, his head drooped off to one side. I was impressed with how quickly he understood the little drama and agreed to cooperate with the ruse. However, when I let go of his throat and his head remained dropped over, a horrifying thought flashed through my mind; “Maybe this wasn’t such a bright idea.” At that moment, a student in the back of the room shrieked, “You killed him Mr. Young and now you are in big trouble!”
Over the 37 years that I taught high school biology, I experienced many diversely profound moments, however, none can compare with the horror I was enduring. The next few seconds remain a blur now, but I remember Parchim slowly regaining consciousness. He shook the cob-webs out of his head and said, “Wow! That was cool. How’d you do that?” The students were not quite sure how to process the dramatic disaster; however, all of them, including Parchim, suddenly had a keener interest in the subject matter that we were studying.
As soon as the school day was over, I grabbed a phone and called his mother. After explaining my grossly inappropriate actions, shockingly, she laughed and said that she felt that way dozens of times and that he probably deserved it. I protested that he did not and that it would never happen again.
Ironically, a couple of years later, Parchim’s father died of a rare (untreatable) disease of the circulatory system that involved irregular blood flow. I was saddened by the news, but profoundly shaken that one of my students might have died by my hands.
Somehow, I think Robin Williams would have found great irony and humor in this story.