Wednesday, December 16, 2009
My first scientific interest as a child was astronomy, after a flirtation with geology. Not surprisingly, a favorite Christmas gift of mine was a telescope. Both interests were kindled by children's books I'd received as holiday gifts. (The interest in rocks started with a copy of the very book pictured at right, which arrived one year in an Easter basket.) The astronomy book of the same Golden series soon followed. Not long after, my parents bought a set of World Book encyclopedias, which I would devour.
I recalled this today when I got a call from my youngest brother for advice on selecting a telescope for his older son for Christmas. That conversation brought back various formative memories, some pleasant like the ones above and others not so pleasant, but no less formative. All the experiences shaped my intellectual development.
No less important than the excitement of learning about the world was discovering the limitations of those in authority over me. Two products of my voracious reading were that I knew lots of things that many adults did not, and that I had a reputation as someone who did. Both led me early on to develop a highly skeptical view of anyone holding himself out as an authority, benevolent or not.
In sixth grade, our teacher posed us the question of how many moons Jupiter had. Some time between the poor girl's college education and my entering her care, several additional moons had been discovered. I gave the correct number -- at least according to the available knowledge at the time -- and was told that I was wrong. I stuck to my guns anyway, to the point that she looked it up. To her credit, she admitted I was right. From then on, I was acutely aware that a teacher can be mistaken about his material.
Around the same time, our parish priest, obviously trying to be friendly, unintentionally embarrassed me in front of my classmates by referring to me as someone who liked "astrology" -- which I thought even then to be silly. I now suspect that the man simply didn't know the difference between astronomy and astrology, but back then, I assumed that he did. I corrected him, but was perplexed by the fact that the correction seemed to make no difference one way or the other to him. Once again, an authority figure believed something I knew to be false. But it would take me a long time to realize that some adults did not care that they were wrong. That wouldn't come until high school.
During high school my other brother and I ran a paper route for spending money, and one of the more annoying duties was to collect unpaid monthly subscription fees door to door. Mostly, people had simply forgotten and would pay right away, but one time, a guy got several months behind. The possibility didn't occur to me at the time, but he was probably hammered when I showed up to collect. (It was my turn to do the rounds that month.)
The man gave me a hostile rant about all kinds of absurd deficiencies in our service. He rode a bicycle, but we lazily drove cars. He rolled the papers up, but we lazily folded them. Et cetera, et cetera. He refused to pay and eventually became so belligerent that I seized on the first opportunity to leave.
I ended his subscription without notice the next day, and thought that was the end of it until my supervisor mildly scolded me about a complaint from the man's address about a week's worth of "misses." I informed him of my decision and learned that it wasn't mine to make. The man was reinstated as a customer of the paper and I had to resume deliveries at his address, although at least my supervisor would collect from him from now on.
My father, probably because I did not adequately convey how rude and abusive this person was (or because the customer successfully made me look like a jerk), told me that I had been rude and that adults deserved respect. That was the first time I ever found myself disagreeing with my father about a matter of opinion. I kept it to myself, though, because I knew my father to be someone who was conscientious about learning whet he needed to know and forming his opinions. I differed with him, but still respected him -- but I still felt no respect for the deadbeat subscriber. I decided then that respect, or at least my respect, was something that had to be earned. (To be fair, I also suspect my father would agree with such a sentiment.)
And yet, I was hardly a rebellious kid. This was in large part due to the fact that my parents were a foil of honesty against which many other adults of my acquaintance came up short. But it was also due to the fact that I never allowed someone's say-so to override my knowledge, which I always noticed came from various sources, rather than from on high. I consider myself very privileged to have grown up in the kind of stable environment that allowed my mind to develop a normal relationship with reality, rather than atrophy from a constant barrage of such mental abuse as, "Do as I say!" or "What do you know, kid?" or "Who are you to judge?"
I am very grateful to both of them.