The aging lady lay flat in her bed in the nursing home. She could not get up or even move significantly without triggering dangerous bleeding. She had only a short time to live. I went to express long felt gratitude for her attempt to influence me and to apologize to her for not giving her much chance. This was going to be difficult, what with the lump in my throat and cotton in my mouth.
The last time I had seen Miss Reva Breckenridge was my last day in her Zoology class 40 years earlier. I and my pals at the community college knew her to be a strict, no nonsense teacher of, for many, the most difficult of courses; the natural sciences. The fact that she had a serious demeanor and thus was rarely seen smiling at students probably fed the assumption that she would as soon chew you up and spit your juice on the floor as to say good morning.
Of course all was cool with the brainy guys and all the girls (who are always smart) because they entered Zoology class fearless and with that confidence that “A” students had and I didn't. And they adored her. But for the lesser qualified like me, she was dreaded. In short I was scared of her.
But a most interesting thing began in her class and blossomed on the way to the rest of my life.
I took Zoology so I could transfer my credits to the university where they required the course before they would give me a diploma that would qualify me to be a skilled cowboy, my ambition at the time. Miss Breckenridge tried to teach me the names of lizards and birds and skunks and bugs. Are you kidding me?
Why on this earth would anyone want to know, much less need to know, that a common honey bee was actually named Apis mellifera? Or that Orthropoda Hexapoda Orthroptera Locustidae Melanoplus differentialis was the Latin name of a widely distributed grasshopper? I’ll tell you why. Because even though at the time such stuff was laughable, I would later spend my entire career in the field of entomology after learning that cowboys worked 24/7 for less than minimum wage. And I would learn almost every known scientific fact about Apis mellifera, including "killer bees" and the "differential" grasshopper and a bunch of his relatives because I became the national coordinator for these two insect programs in Washington for the federal government.
Astonishingly as well, I would eventually teach this “stuff” to college graduates, some with master’s degrees. Yes, this student who ignored Miss Breckenridge’s efforts to enlighten me ended up in the very field I had dreaded and, moreover, enjoyed it and excelled.
My apology began with thanking her for so generously giving me a C in the course which the university accepted, with reluctance, and counted toward graduation. I told her she had planted the seed that eventually led to my making a living from that “stuff” that I had detested in her lessons.
My apology didn’t get very far because Miss Breckenridge would have none of it. She was no longer the statuesque lady who stared at me with indicting eyes that melted me into a puddle of guilt. She understood me, and even my bragging that was supposed to prove to her what she already knew, that one small lesson among dozens, an admonition, even a look, can influence for the good even the most disinterested student.
This fateful career saw me work in distant mountains and deserts and grasslands and prairies and other places in my beloved outdoors that stirred my spirit and became the esteemed arena for my career.
I visited this fine teacher another time or two before she died. I took her a foot-long rubber grasshopper that she had me place on a table close to her weak eyes. She was always lying there on her back. But she smiled a lot now and made me feel that the grasshopper meant a lot to her. Still, she wouldn’t let me convince her that I was her worst student. I suppose she refused to believe back then that the quiet kid on the back row with the blank look was unsalvageable. That is the thing about teachers.
I could now see in her eyes that she was genuinely happy that I had done okay in my career. This had trumped her classroom disappointment that I had been more interested in rabbit hunting than in frog intestines and cat brains. I wish I could go back in time that is now gone forever and have another chance in her class. I would work hard this time. And I would try not to think about hunting. I think Miss Reva Breckenridge believed that too.
Note: An earlier version of this story appeared on this page in 2007.