Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Biological Phenomena

18 Jul 2005

This morning, I woke up, and sat wondering why I hadn't taken IB Biology. Was it because I'm more of a physicist and a chemist than I am a biologist? But no, I am more interested in biology than I am in physics and chemistry put together. I think it was quite an unthoughtful decision on my part to have not taken IB Biology; I would have done well. Too bad there wasn't a Sorting Hat back then to help you choose your science streams. To put down my agony, I did take Biology over summer school, and even though I got a mark that was one point shy of a 100%, I'm still not wholly content.

My interest in Biology has its roots as far back as Grade 8. Almost all of the natural sciences studied today can be categorized as Physics, Chemistry and Biology. For us, the split happened early in Grade 8, and given no choice, we were forced to study all three sciences. I still clearly remember him, my biology teacher, who taught us for two years straight: tall, laconic and highly pluralistic in his scientific outlook. It was he who sparked my interest in this wonderful field called Biology. In a subject as sophisticated as Biology, your teacher can either make or break your passion — it is all in his hands.

His name was A. M. Shariff, and he commanded respect even before he had fully requested it. I always used to wonder why he wasn't called P. M. Shariff, given he taught Biology to us in the afternoon.

Now this Mr. Shariff requires some preliminary introduction. Once, Mr. Shariff inspired me to dream of becoming a soil specialist — in Grade 9, I spent four full months investigating the organic conversion of desert soil into rich, fertile soil fit for agriculture. He taught us about soil texture, quality, moisture management, and all sorts of random things. At the end of my shallow investigation, I realized that all the poor soil needed was a bit of humus, some elbow room, and time.

The only thing I clearly remember of him, and will probably never forget for my lifetime, is his laugh. His laugh was very characteristic: hysterical and yet derisive in an inexplicable way. He would laugh for the most unusual things. Once, he was talking about a little boy who lost his limbs in a car accident, and for some reason, he found this incident to be utterly jocular. He started laughing, and I, taking the cue, my mischievousness an integral part of me, armed by my almost unshakable desire to disrupt the class and re-route all attention to me, would laugh along with him, but in a slightly louder pitch, like a hyena that had swallowed too much ice-cream. I would steadily kick my timbre up a notch, and would continue to laugh long after Mr. Shariff had gotten bored and ceased laughing. The whole class of thirty or so students—who had hitherto been snoozing during Mr. Shariff's monotonous lecture on the organization of species, i.e. taxonomy in this highly convoluted and materialistic world, or on the symbiotic relationship between a peanut plant's root nodules and some insignificant bacteria—would immediately raise their heads from their desk like a zoo rhinoceros who had been tickled by a notorious kid in the belly area, and would also again take the cue, this time from me. My friends would do just about anything to disrupt the class; consequently, the whole class would suddenly burst out laughing as if the funniest joke in the world had just been said, and the laugh would ensue for a delectable good two minutes. Mr. Shariff would not have the slightest idea as to why we were laughing (some even crying due to the excessiveness involved in the act), or the slightest suspicion that we were laughing only to kill class time. In a sense, I was a true leader: I could harangue the classroom with my cackling laughter and make the whole class follow in heated pursuit.

What was truly amazing about Mr. Shariff was his ability to teach biology without actually teaching it. I've heard many accounts from my fellow classmates about Mr. Axel Krause, our resident IB Biology teacher. The accounts had to be definitely good, so good that there were students making postcards for him at the end of the year. But Shariff had a knack for teaching biology. I don't think he has ever heard of anything even as remote as a biology joke, a pun or an analogy that would help us understand and remember facts. His tactic to make us learn was quite simple. He'd make his lectures so boring and so insipid that you would have no other option than to just pick up the textbook and start reading it over and over again throughout the class so as to avoid hearing his lecture or to avoid dropping to the floor in your miserable sleepiness. Of course, once the textbook had been read, you pretty much knew all that you needed to know.

I was one of the few students who always looked forward to please Mr. Shariff at every opportunity. Each time he would pose a question to the class, I would be the first one to put up my hand, regardless of whether the question was easy or tough, regardless of whether my hand was tall or short, regardless of whether I knew the answer or not, and regardless of whether the answer was only a word long or an entire lecture into itself. My hand would reach high up into the air, even higher than smart little Hermione could have possibly imagined to put up in Lockhart's class. Such was my enthusiasm in his class.

How can one ever forget the day when we walked, behind Mr. Shariff's supervision, into the coveted room known as the Biology Laboratory? The biology laboratory at our school was one of the most intriguing places in the whole school — it was large and spacious, bright and airy, and the sight of the gruesome specimens placed on the window sill was tolerable, if not vomit-inducing. He showed us how to use the microscope, and soon after, he materialized a toothpick out of nowhere and started scratching the inner side of his cheek. He informed us, much to our relief, that he was going to observe his cheek cells under the powerful and impressive microscope he now had in his command. When he had prepared the sample, he asked each one of us to form a line and take turns to observe the specimen. Without a moment's hesitation, there were shouts of disgust emanating from every corner of the room. I was the bravest, if not the most imprudent, and one look through the eye piece told me Mr. Shariff's inner cheeks were made of neatly cemented brick …

Mr. Shariff is most well known for his language. His language was unimaginably formal. He would say things like "please refrain from speaking during your presence here in this classroom" when others would have simply said "Oh, just shutup." He was always polite, and he treated those who got zero out of twenty on a quiz the same way as he treated me with a twenty out of twenty. In Grade 9 when we were supposed to learn about human reproduction, he quite modestly informed us that we knew more about reproduction than he had ever hoped to teach. And for some bizarre reason, he would find simple and tasteless topics like cell division (mitosis & meiosis) more exciting than anything else, perhaps with the exception of the day when he spoke about the reproductive organs of a flower: he became so shy that the lesson had to be cancelled.

But, no, don't get me wrong here. Mr. Shariff was an amazing man. He had his head firmly placed on his shoulders, and nothing, mark me, nothing, could have made him give up biology and say, become a scuba diver or something. He always insisted on discipline and enforced it more strictly than they did in military school. And when he walked, his head was held high, a duster with some stray chalks in one hand, and a seemingly new copy of Organization of Life: A Concise Textbook for Grade 9 in the other. When he walked into our class, he would expect pin drop silence, and would see to it that all his pupils were standing in a single file in their respective rows. Only when he was thoroughly satisfied would he give us the sign, and we would all pronounce in disorganized unison: "Good Afternoon Sir." And only after all these legal formalities were we allowed to sit down. The black board would have been scrupulously tidied up by me beforehand, because I was afraid all the chalk dust might get into his lungs and choke him, resulting in our supervisor assigning us a new biology teacher. A new biology teacher was the only idea I totally feared and despised with all my heart and soul, and I would have done just about anything to save me from that unspeakable punishment, even cry.

I once dreamed of becoming an entomologist. That was both my childhood vocation as well as childhood obsession. Some tiny little fortunate insects, whose only ambition in life is to mate, soon after which they die; some baby ants, who burrow their way into the damp soil seeking a new home; the lethargic sloths, who have absolutely no notion of time; from the most primitive to the most complex — all these wonderful creatures that we classify as insects excite me for reasons I fail to understand even today. I still remember the day when a pregnant queen-ant decided to invade the privacy of my balcony and make my glamorous flower pot her new home. Her pregnancy resulted in an enormous family within just a matter of weeks. I then wanted to venture out into the world of bees, regular bees or bumble bees, I didn't care. Those crazy bees, totally unconcerned about stinging me or inflicting any sort of pain on me, and oblivious to the plastic mesh in my possession. Insects are fun. But I can't become an entomologist anymore. I lack sufficient zeal. The world of insects has become as ridiculous to me as a swarm of bees knocking on the door of a wrong hive, waiting to be let in.

Insects know no bounds. A mild breeze to us is a catastrophic twister to them.

« Straight from the DeskIn an other province far far away »

[ about | all posts | subscribe | resume | contact ]