Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Billions and Billions

I was fortunate enough to recently stumble across a video clip of Carl Sagan, the famed scientist with the famed measured diction. It may surprise you, but I have a long and sentimental history with Mr. Sagan. It started in sixth grade.

In the sixth grade we had a fun little teaching-tool where every Friday we would mix up the schedule by integrating and mixing up the three different sixth grade classes. Therefore, I got to hang out with my buddies in other classes for a couple of hours in an otherwise strictly segregated week.

Each teacher, with their respective mixed population classes, would sponsor an activity centered around watching an educational video. That was like giving out educational candy for a short attention spanned sixth grader. We loved it. Except Mr. Stowe's group. Everybody hated it.

Stowe was taken right out of some warped alternate reality TV show. He had a cartoonish bald head, black rim glasses, and was as rigid as a lamppost, and just as funny as one. Obviously having some sort of military background (I only figured this out later), Stowe walked rigidly, spoke measuredly, and sat erect at his immaculate desk fingering his stress balls. Right.

On an amusing side-note, Stowe's preferred method of punishing his delinquent students was pretty creative: He made us hand copy, word for word, National Geographic article pages. He obviously took pleasure in assigning "NGS"s to us. For those who were frequent losers, he would just say something like "Chris. 5." And that meant that Chris (and actual person who's last name I won't reveal) would have to copy five pages of an NGS article into a notebook.

Imagine this punishment: The transgressor (probably wearing a puffy Starter jacket) would sit at a chipped multi-layered wooden desk, Number 2 pencil in hand, and a yellow-covered NGS on one side of the desk and a notebook on the other. Then, through a Herculean effort, they would write down every word in the article (not making any mistakes, lest they re-do the entire thing). It was physical punishment (torture), as your hand cramped up badly, yet it was educational too as the copier inevitably learned something of relative importance. Stowe, you crafty sonofabitch. I wonder if you censored the NGS collection to remove the Papua New Guinea saggy boobs or over-the-shoulder-penis-holster articles.

(Disclosure- I never was punished with an NGS [or anything else for that matter], so the pain from hand cramping is only hear-say. But, I think I would have hated it even more because we were required to write the article in pencil. To this day, I hate writing in pencil. In fact, I can't remember the last time I wrote with one. Perhaps what bugs me the most is the gray residue it leaves on my finger pads. That chalky feeling is infuriating. I can smell that feeling right now. Oh, and fuck sharpening pencils too! And splinters. And octagonal shapes. And missing or depleted erasers. Damn you Ticonderoga! The academic ink stain is far superior to the Neanderassholic smudgings of a pencil in all respects.)

As previously mentioned, each teacher showed educational videos to the class. The point of the class was to learn how to take notes. So, as the video rolled, you were expected to take copious notes because the following week, the teacher would assign an essay topic about something mentioned in the video. We then went back to our notes and wrote the essay based on them.

Stowe chose to show Cosmos, created and narrated by Carl Sagan. Our class sat there, bored to tears, writings furiously every single word the helmet haired man said. It was akin to group NGS torture-- without even the slightest possibility of seeing some boobs. Instead, we watched "billions and billions" of suns dance across the screen. At the time, I would rather have given up pizza Friday instead of go to this class. But in retrospect, it was a great exercise and gave me an appreciation for the genius and humanity of Mr. Sagan. Listening to him speak reminds me how small and insignificant life on this planet is, in a cosmic sense. It's a joke. An infinitesimal blip on the galactic radar. But I'm sure Mr. Sagan would agree, that's what makes it so special. Rest in Peace. Watch the video.


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