Still Life Sunday: The Staring Contest

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30 The Staring Contest

“It is told that Archimedes was taking a bath when he realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured”, I tell to the backs of the students sitting in the classroom.

Then I prepare myself to sprint from the back of the classroom to the front, saying – – “And this made him leap out of his bath tub and run naked through the streets of Syracuse yelling Eureka! Eureka!” – – the last two words come out as a yell which makes some of the sleepier students jerk back in their chairs in surprise.

As I halt into a stop right before hitting the blackboard, I get a surprised laugh from my audience of 8th graders. I chuckle. The Eureka sprint works every time, and every time I feel a small sense of pride of the fact that I’m able to make someone as dull as Archimedes of Syracuse into a memorable, impressive character.

The same love that I feel for natural sciences can rarely be seen on the faces of these acne-colored, insecure faces of teenagers who sit here simply because they have no other alternative. Many of these kids couldn’t care less about Archimedes, Einstein or even Hawking – but they have to because the state and the school curriculum dictate so.

Therefore, the best thing I can do for these youngsters is to make these classes on electrons and neurons and what-else into something fun and memorable.

“This discovery helped Archimedes friend Hiero detect a goldsmith’s fraud. The bastard was supposed to make a crown out of pure gold but had replaced some of it with silver. Thanks to Archimedes and his method, the poor goldsmith probably lost his life.”

Once again, I’m able to trigger some smiles and even laughter. But I can feel how I’m already losing my crowd: the wandering or glazed gaze, the restless hands already starting to close books and putting away pencil cases, prepared to escape the room the second the clock rings. There’s only five minutes left of this class, so I’d say it’s understandable.

However, in this group, there are two girls whose gaze never leave me during the class. They never pack their bags before the class actually ends. Even now, with only a few minutes left of the class, they sit still and observe me.

They might not be the brightest future physicians of the group but they are the only ones who actually focus on what I try to teach. Their gaze is only lost when they scribble long notes to each other – probably boy trouble, the desperate search for Prince Charming, and when he is found, the constant questions about what this and that means. Although they shouldn’t, I let it happen. They are teenagers, after all.

Especially the other girl, the slightly less talented of the two, has an especially intense gaze I’m not able to look away from once I get caught. Her eyes follow mine as I walk around the classroom and mine follows hers when she gets distracted. And then, when I stand in front of the class and she’s paying attention, we lock eyes again and don’t let go.

I’m aware that our eye contact can be interpreted in many different ways, some of them less fortunate. But her gaze is truly active compared with all the other kids in this class, and I’m drawn to those eyes because of that. I’m searching for an active listener, and she pays attention; is actively present here in this class room. For me, that’s exactly what I need to keep on going with my goofy interpretations of Archimedes and other famous people.

I am not making up these entertaining scenes for her, for sure, although her smile brightens up her whole appearance. But kids like her make me feel like I’m not doing it all for nothing. Kids like her make me feel as if I’m making a difference; I’m making learning difficult things fun.

“So, from now on, if you hear someone yelling ‘Eureka!’, you can tell them to take their clothes off to make the discovery even more authentic.”

Then the bell rings, the classroom fills with movement and the rustling sound of paper as if I had pressed a magic button that defrosted them all. Many of the students wave goodbye and leave – the last joke hasn’t made its way through their brain because of the ticking clock on the wall. But I get a smile, from whom else but the most attentive student in the class.

“See you on Thursday!” she says, the smile still bright. I wave, smile and then focus my gaze to my notes on the table. I’m finally able to draw a breath and recover from that intense staring contest of the past 45 minutes. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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