Friday, December 4, 2009

In memory of a favorite teacher.

I learned today that my high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Gass, who was one of the most amazing teachers I've ever had, passed away in October. He was an incredibly engaging teacher with a very sharp and wry sense of humor, an extremely memorable way of speaking (that included a crisply articulated "don't you know" at the end of many phrases), a completely secret (and therefore quite mysterious and interesting) personal life, a gleeful interest in horrifying hereditary diseases, and an impish smirk.

On the very first day of class, Mr. Gass, a small, slight, well-dressed man of indeterminate age with spiky hair and wire rimmed glasses, explained that he was extremely particular that we should staple reports and papers at a 45 degree angle and not parallel to the top of the page. He stapled a few pages together--the wrong way--and then demonstrated, alarmingly, that if your staple runs parallel to the top of the paper, the report will be ripped apart. He dramatically turned the pages of the example report, and in doing so ripped them apart, and let the separated pages fly in the air and fall to the floor. After this crazy display, he said very calmly, "And if you do not staple your report correctly, I won't be able to read it. You will get an F, and then... you will cry." I don't think he really would have given us an F for the wrong staple angle, but he gave us a hell of a first impression.

The AP Biology class in my school ran for two sessions, so we got to know our strange and beloved teacher well. His mannerisms became our obsession--we could often be heard quoting Mr. Gass, who would say things like, "If you are not careful with your scalpel, the cartilage in your shark's brain will spring forward, don't you know, and a jettison of fluid will shoot into your eye. And you will go blind." When he said things like this, it was with a straight-faced, blasé manner and with his particularly strange articulation.

One day during our histology project, in which we painstakingly illustrated cells and their mutations (if we got too creative or messy, he'd write "STYLIZED" in scratchy red letters on the drawing), he casually mentioned, while sitting at his desk, that we should be on our best behavior because it was his birthday. I summoned all of my courage and asked him, as sweetly and respectfully as I could, "How old are you today?" He gave me a sharp look and said, "Half of a century, don't you know." And then he gave me a funny little smirk and returned to his grading. This was in 1996, I think, so he must have been 63 this year.

I think his singular personality was perfect for teaching. I looked forward to his class every day because he was so much fun, and he made the material so exciting. I wanted to do well in the class both because I was totally engaged, and because I wanted Mr. Gass to like me.

As a testament to the fact that my memories of his class are precious, I kept my notes for 10 years. The notes were one of a small handful of high school artifacts left in my childhood home (including a letter from an old friend who became a rock star, and a drawing called "Shy Jesus" that was done by a fellow artist that I've lost touch with). My notes included labeled xeroxes and pages and pages of handwriting about such subjects as cell structure, photosynthesis, genetic diseases (I still shudder at the memory of Mr. Gass’ description of Cri du Chat Syndrome), drosophila breeding, musculature and dissection. They also included numerous little quotes from Mr. Gass and cartoons that I drew of him peppered throughout the academic work. I finally parted with these last high school reminders a few years ago so that my parents didn't have to sift through all of my clutter as they turned my old bedroom into a study. In retrospect, I should have taken them with me to New York.

This year I had been thinking of writing Mr. Gass a letter to tell him how meaningful and memorable his class was, and how I feel that it was an important stepping stone toward what I am doing now. I had learned from a high school friend that he had retired and moved west, and I had a feeling I might be able to track down his address from someone. I didn't hurry, though--and I put off writing the letter and getting it to him. Now I regret, with all of my heart, that I didn't do it sooner.


  1. Having a great teacher can make such a difference. He sounds like he was a bit of a "stylized" fellow to begin with! I also had a biology teacher who made a profound impression on me. I still cherish a field guide to the Birds of Europe that Mr. Pope gave me when my family (my dad was in the Army) moved away from Germany. When I get down, I can still read his dedication to me at the front of the book and feel instantly better. All of a sudden, everything becomes filled with potential. Glad to hear you will be coming to Kentucky! Look forward to meeting you in person. I would be happy to show you around or make suggestions on what not to miss while you are here.

  2. did you send a family member this blog?

  3. even though it's not him, someone will care

  4. I was considering doing so, but now I definitely will. Thanks for your thoughts.