"What's the color of life?" Tara Lynette Wynn was waving her hand, trying to get the attention of the tenth grade substitute teacher, one Ms. Louise Bowden of Macon, Georgia.
Ms. Bowden, from Macon, still sounded like it, even after living twenty-three years in what she used to refer to as "that California". Though at an age when hormones reduced good judgment to something only an electron microscope might reveal, few students were bold enough to make fun of her southern accent. Theirs was a school not much different than any other in the better districts of the golden state. Following Tara's question, there was an agonized groan from tenth-grade classmates.
"What kind of stupid question is that?" Cassidy Blake, the student with whom Ms. Bowden had been speaking, gave Tara a stink-eye glance. "Besides, she was talking to ME."
Cassidy Morgan Blake was the most popular girl in school. Tara Lynette Wynn tried not to be jealous but would have given up a year of allowances to spend just one day in Cassidy's always-followed-by-admirers expensive shoes.
"That's an interesting question," Ms. Bowden said, recognizing the personality conflict but trying hard to get and keep control of a not terribly unruly class, "and if you'll put your hand down and stop waving I'll address that in a moment. Now, Ms. Blake...the correct answer to the question would have been lepidopteron, the Greek word for the Order of butterflies. Nymphs are more correctly defined as sexually immature insects - differing from imago, or sexually adult insects in a winged state... ."
"I thought she said she was a nymphomaniac!"
A faceless changing-due-to-pesky-hormones male voice was followed by another.
"She can't be. Cassidy's definitely not sexually immature!"
Hoots and intended-to-be-demeaning laughter wrapped themselves around Cassidy's usually smug demeanor and squeezed hard. Ms. Bowden frowned and gave the classroom a disparaging glance to a diminishing wave of teenage giggles.
"Let's try to be more adult. You sound like grammar school students."
The undertow of giggles quickly faded, leaving Cassidy Morgan Blake up to her cute little ears in a sea of embarrassment.
"Now," Ms. Bowden said, brows raised in what must have seemed curiosity, "who asked the question about the color of life?"
"I did," Tara Lynette said, uneasy now that the entire class seemed waiting for an opportunity to drown her along with Cassidy.
"As I said," Ms. Bowden continued, finger on the seating diagram in her folder, "Ms. Wynn, that was a very intriguing question. Let me attempt to give it the answer it deserves."
"Tara's green with envy!" Cassidy Blake said, face still flushed from loss of usual cool.
Another rolling wave of mixed laughter.
Ms. Bowden cast a deadly-grim glance on the class, a silence that flattened waves.
"Those of you who have been doing your homework and paying attention have learned that color is an experience of sight resulting from light stimulation. I'm going to talk about reflected rather than generated light. Because of the chemical and molecular make-up of things, light striking objects is reflected to our eyes and interpreted in our brain as color. I'm sure you've learned about that, along with the physiology and psychology of color."
Students waited in breathless silence for a chance to take another shot at any double entendre taking flight. Tara squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. Behind her, the boy who'd made the remark about Cassidy's sexual activity was using a pencil eraser to trace bra-straps under her blouse. Trying to ignore him in self-protection, Tara endeavored to maintain interested eye contact with the substitute teacher.
"Life is an irrepressible condition, and surprisingly exists almost everywhere on earth," Ms. Bowden continued, large dark eyes moving over blank faces. "We find life in the most unexpected places."
"Like, in the girl's restroom!"
This time, Ms. Bowden walked between desks and stopped beside the enlightened lad, class roster in hand.
"What's your name, young man?"
The just-reached-puberty face watched Ms. Bowden check names on the list. Nervous laughter oozed from classmates. If defensiveness had an odor...it filled the air around the boy's head.
"Well, Greg...I'm always looking for students with your talent. Please write a two hundred word paper on what you find to be the most unusual life form on the planet and turn it in to me tomorrow."
This insight from behind Ms. Bowden's back.
She turned and walked back to the source of the humor.
"You may be right, but I'd feel better about it after reading the two hundred fifty word paper you'll turn in tomorrow on the subject. Both of you...and one more attempt at stand-up comedy and you'll both be standing up in the Principal's office all day. Understand me?"
There were two, "Yes mam." No humor left.
"As to life in unusual places... ." she paused but wasn't interrupted. "Who can name a few of the places we've only recently discovered life? How about you, Tara?"
"At the bottom of the sea? And in hot water?"
"Very good. There have been numerous recent articles in popular publications regarding new life discoveries. Did you know they've even found life in stone?"
"Most life around here is stoned."
A tsunami of teenage laughter sent Ms. Bowden back to her desk. After writing two notes, she handed them to the smirking boys and waited until they left the room.
"Anyone else anxious to see the Principal and do detention?" No response other than silence. "How nice to have your undivided attention. Now, because life is so tenacious, so insistent, its colors run the complete spectrum of visual light, some reflecting nearly all and appearing white, while others absorb most and reflect almost none. In between we find every possible combination."
She paused again as though waiting for off-color comments but none seemed forthcoming.
"So, why is there so much life?" she asked. "That's the real question, and perhaps its answer lies in the fact that earth supports it. Life, past philosophical issues, seems to insist, much like those two I had to send to the Principal's office."
"So - why do we die?" Tara asked, hand up again.
Apart from murmured whispers of, "To get rid of people like you," and, "Because you're so frickin' boring," for the most part the class remained respectfully attentive. A few kids were groaning as another said, "You don't know why we DIE?'
Ms. Bowden turned to the student who made that remark. "Well, then, sir, would you please explain to Tara and the rest of us why we die?"
All heads turned. Ms. Bowden waited for the boy to respond.
"Everything has to end. Don't all life forms feed off of some other life form?"
"Yes, exactly." Ms. Bowden smiled and nodded. "One of the conditions of life is its cyclical nature," she explained, patiently, knowing she was getting and hoping to keep their attention. "That's how life does it. Life feeds on life, but usually when it's no longer alive. Of course, there are exceptions. Some forms kill to live, but all live because of life itself. There are simple life forms that live on the most basic molecular substances, but most live on what was once biology, decomposing as it passes through its carbon cycle. Even plants must wait for organic salts to become non-organic before they can be absorbed and utilized."
She went to the board and drew the Taoist symbol of Yin-Yang.
"This picture represents the balance between all things, the constant change of one thing into another - night into day, light into dark, life into death and so on and so on. Even ancient people realized the interdependence of things and incorporated this understanding into daily lives."
The remark was made by the same boy who had been so antagonistic toward Tara. A very quiet class waited.
"Would you like to elaborate on that?" Ms. Bowden wasn't about to lose them now.
"Humans don't kill to live; well, not usually. I mean, we kill animals and eat them, but we kill other people too. I guess once in a while, it's in self defense, but most of the time it's not."
"You raise some good points. What are some examples of humans killing for survival?"
"What about soldiers in a battle? Aren't they killing to survive?"
"Didn't ancient people kill when they thought someone was trying to take their food?" asked a redheaded boy in the back of the room.
"We don't have to kill people to get stuff to eat. Man, you're stupid!" said the boy who'd been talking.
"Hmmm. He's stupid? Do you think that people all over the world have as many available food sources as we do here? Is that how your parents taught you to make a point? By insulting people with whom you disagree?"
Ms. Bowden's tone was enough to send a chill through the classroom.
"All right, then. Soldiers in battle and people protecting their food sources both have the survival instinct in common. We're moving away from Life Science here, but, that's all right. How does the survival instinct affect you in your daily lives?"
There was renewed interest in what had only moments before been blank faces. She went to the front of the room and leaned against the edge of the desk.
"How many of you have had to deal with bullies?"
Nearly every student began fidgeting in their seats, downcast eyes on desktops. The room remained quiet. Books were shuffled, papers ruffled.
"No one's had to deal with bullies? None of you are ever criticized or pressured into something? All of you do only what you want? No one ever teased you or picked on you because you were smaller or different? I just sent two boys to the Principal's office for making snide remarks about girls."
One hand went up in back.
"I know this kid who was really small," said the redheaded boy, almost defensively, "Bigger guys used to beat him up until he finally started to grow."
"Why?" Ms. Bowden was watching faces.
"'Cause they could. He wasn't gonna fight back."
Heads nodded knowingly.
"How about you?" Ms. Bowden asked, addressing Cassidy Morgan Blake. "Anyone give you a hard time?"
Ms. Bowden kept an eye on the boys to make sure there were no more double meaning wise-cracks on the tarmac ready to take flight.
"Guys are always sayin' stupid stuff, tryin' to impress girls. Showing off, like they've had so much sex and they're experienced or something."
Rude sounds bounced between a group of boys.
"So...you girls have something that those boys want?" Ms. Bowden crossed her arms. "How do the boys get what they want if the girls don't want to give it to them?"
"By just trying to take it?" Tara said, lower lip quivering. "SOME boys, anyway."
More heads nodded around the room.
"Sometimes it's being different; sometimes it's having what someone else wants...sometimes it's out of fear," Ms. Bowden said. "Fear of what someone doesn't know."
"My grandmother said that the Germans feared the Jews. That was why it was so easy to blame everything on them." Sarah Goldsmith lowed her hand.
"Most people fear anything different than they are," Ms. Bowden said. "They're told stories - many having no basis in truth. It doesn't make any difference if it's the truth or not. They strike-out at what they don't know and don't understand, at whatever seems different than they are."
"Like the jocks at that school, what was it? Columbine," said a girl in black. "Jocks here too. Just 'cause we're into Goth and they're not."
"And who are they? The 'them' you're talking about?" Ms. Bowden keep her voice calm. "People who look and act differently than you?"
"OK, OK, I get your point," Goth-girl said. "But, yeah, they ARE different. They're into sports, being popular, they listen to METAL."
"Are you saying there is something wrong with people who like sports?"
"It's not the sports. It's the whole sports thing: the cheerleaders, the expensive clothes, the 'being popular' thing. Anyone who's not into Tommy Hilfiger gets hassled."
"What is it about 'being popular' and good looking? Is everyone going to win?"
"Hey...winning's everything!" laughed one boy, glancing around at pals.
"Are you going to get the best grade in this class?" Ms. Bowden asked, an eye brow arched. "If not, does that make you a loser?"
The boy wasn't laughing but his pals were.
"That's what I mean," Ms. Bowden said, standing and walking over to the boys who were seated in one section of the class. "As soon as one of you looks like a loser, the others are quick to make fun of him. There is no way, when using your rules, for all of you to win."
The classroom was quiet as Sunday church. Ms. Bowden returned to her desk and looked out over a now contemplative lake of serious faces. No one spoke. She turned and picked up a piece of chalk and wrote the word 'Different' on the board.
"Okay...what makes people different from each other in this class?"
Ms. Bowden wrote the responses on the board. When there were no more offers, she put down the chalk.
"Okay...so...the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the hobbies you enjoy, and the friends you like to be with make you all different from each other. Any idea what you all have in common?"
Cassidy raised her hand.
"We all wear clothes, don't we?"
"Yes, Cassidy, that's exactly right. You all listen to music too. Most of you have hobbies and friends. The only difference is in the STYLES of music, clothing, hobbies, or friends. So...there you are. No matter where we go, or what we think or say, someone is going to think differently and they're going to think we're 'weird'. Know what happens when that kind of thought gets cooking in someone's mind who doesn't have a solid understanding of themselves?"
They go out and start shooting the ones who they think are weird?"
There were murmurs and nervous giggles, but the room grew quickly silent. Sarah Goldsmith raised her hand.
"In Germany, they put people in concentration camps and killed them... ."
"And in America, they killed Indians, lynched blacks and shot Irish mine workers... ." Ms. Bowden sat down behind her desk. "So what are you going to do? How are you going to put an end to ignorance and fear and prejudice? What are you going to do to make this a safe place to live? Do we just continue to wait until someone kills and then lock them up or kill them too? Do we warehouse people for a few years who don't obey the law - and then let them out to do it again? What's the answer?"
This time, there was a longer silence. Students glanced at each other. Faces reflected all kinds of thoughts. No one raised a hand. Ms. Bowden waited.
"Why can't everyone just leave everyone they don't like alone," the girl in black asked.
It was a tenuous start.
"Yeah, like THAT'S gonna happen!" Tara's antagonist smirked and looked for support from smirking buddies.
"When should we begin being interested in bully behavior?" Ms. Bowden asked, taking a seat behind the desk.
"As soon as kids go to school."
It was Cassidy. The silence was broken by nods and whispers. Students turned to each other and began talking. Ms. Bowden let them talk without interruption until the room became noisy.
"You got it, Cassidy. As soon as kids start school. The first time a youngster picks on another, or does something we all know to be wrong...we have to teach our children that it's not acceptable behavior, that it's right to be indignant and want freedom from that kind of thing. We have to learn to really be brave and get back-up support from our schools and teachers. We can identify problems, can't we? We can learn to stop violence before it begins. We must, or we go on having incidents in school."
"Guns have to be outlawed," one girl said.
"They do? Or is it the fact that by the time a person is sixteen they've seen thousands of acts of violence on television and in movies? People aren't born with pictures of violence in their heads. They have to be taught, and after awhile, violence loses its punch...so entertainment does what?"
"Becomes more violent?"
"Yes. I have difficulty finding much to watch on television that doesn't have someone shooting someone. Good or bad; just shoot and shoot and shoot. After awhile, perhaps shooting just seems natural."
"But it isn't!" Tara said, voice raised instead of arm. "It's so disrespectful...that life means so little that people can just go kill someone...it cheapens life. The Ten Commandments say we shouldn't kill... ."
"But doesn't every religion say God's on their side? Don't Catholics and Protestants in Ireland both believe in the same God? Yet they kill each other, even in His name, " Cassidy said.
"And the Jews and the Palestinians both believe in one God but they kill each other all the time," Sarah said, "but that's because of land."
"Perhaps both," Ms. Bowden said, "but the fact is that individuals and groups and nations still go out and kill. What does it solve?"
"Nothing," Cassidy said, hands folded on desk. "It all stays the same. We can't do anything to stop it. No one listens to us anyway."
"Really?" Ms. Bowden asked, leaning back. "I'm listening to you. What would happen, say, if a large number of students went to the school administration and insisted that a policy be established and adhered to that deals positively with violent or aberrant behavior? A group who insisted the school not only identified those students, but intervened and helped kids learn socially acceptable non-violent ways to behave?"
"I think that's why Star Trek is so popular. Everyone in Star Trek is different but they all work together. They even have women in control."
Cassidy glanced around to see how her remark went over.
"I'm a woman," said Ms. Bowden. "I'm a black woman too. Am I in control?"
Giggles returned like mice when the lights go out.
"Sure you are, Ms. Bowden, but I mean, like, you know, Star Ship Captains?"
"We got women in the army who are Captains," a boy said. "They even have women who fly jets."
And women have their own businesses," Tara said, looking at Cassidy and wrinkling her nose.
A few off-color remarks followed that, but Ms. Bowden ignored them.
"I'm not here to give you all the answers to social questions. You'll be the ones to deal with the reality of daily life for the rest of your lives after you leave school. Here's an assignment for tomorrow. Write a short paper--more than fifty, but no more than a hundred words--with your best ideas about how to improve in-school safety and stop the kind of things that are giving kids your age a bad reputation. Take this seriously. Don't expect someone else to always take charge because you may not like their rules. And be specific or no one will take you seriously. Let's see if you can create the kind of school you want to attend."
The bell rang. Bodies stood, but froze in mid-step.
"Dismissed," Ms. Bowden said, and smiled.
She closed her folder and put it under her arm. Someday, she thought, and took a long, slow deep breath. Someday.
Then she followed students out into the familiar between-class hallway cacophony.
* * *