I never cared much for science in school. Biology involved way too much memorizing of terms and Physics was impossible for my brain to actually visualize. I enjoyed Chemistry because it was like a beautiful puzzle where all the pieces seemed to fit nicely together. Only once did I have a teacher who made me feel excited about science and that was in what we called Junior High back in my day. That’s when I encountered an educator named Mrs. Colby, a delightful woman with so much passion about all things related to science that her fervor was contagious, and I caught the bug.
I was in Mrs. Colby’s class during the early days of space travel when flights lasted only minutes and technology was still rather crude. NASA was being built in Houston and the original astronauts were buying homes down in the Clear Lake area while being feted around town as heroes. For a time there was a temporary NASA facility not far from the school where I listened to Mrs. Colby rapturously explaining how the rockets that would carry them into space actually worked. It was the first time in my life that I actually cared about such things.
We learned about our own atmosphere and what it meant to travel fast enough to break through our protective covering of oxygen into the weightlessness of space where there is no air. Mrs. Colby made all of those facts sound incredibly fascinating like science fiction that had somehow become real. I remember feeling a sense of history and great importance in her lessons, so I clung to her every word.
One day she rolled a television into the classroom and prepared us to watch John Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth. She so giddy with excitement that I realized we were about to witness something quite extraordinary. I watched with the greatest anticipation and wonder that such a feat was even possible. I believed in that moment that Mrs. Colby was giving me a great gift of being part of something that I would remember for the remainder of my life. In that moment I thought that she was magnificent with her explanations of what was happening and her joy in humankind’s ingenuity.
Mrs. Colby was a very rational woman who taught us to think. Perhaps that is what I remember most about her. She showed us the value of the scientific method and demanded proof for our hypotheses and statements. She spoke to us of the painstaking processes that led to great discoveries. She helped me to understand how very complex all systems are and how unraveling truth is critical to our existence. Somehow I don’t recall all of the facts that she taught us, but I do remember her admonishing us to be willing to look beyond the seemingly obvious by taking the time to do our research and apply logic to every situation.
I never saw much of Mrs. Colby once I moved on to high school. I had classes with one of her sons, but never thought to ask him how she was doing even though I often felt so much gratitude for what she had taught me. The years passed and I lost track of her and her son. I often spoke of her and her influence on me and my memories of her were always so warm. At my fiftieth high school reunion I learned from her son that she was still alive and as passionate about the world as ever. It made me smile to think of her advancing into her nineties with her brilliant mind still observing the world around her.
Last week Mrs. Colby left this earth for the great unknown. I’d like to think that she experienced some grand feeling of floating weightlessly into space toward new adventures in her next life. I imagine her analyzing her situation and wondering what made her transition possible. Like a true scientist I believe she would have been fascinated and delighted by the process and wishing that she had a way to tell us all about it.
Some teachers leave a lasting impression on us. Mrs. Colby was one of those people for me. Junior High was a horrid time in my adolescent life. I felt awkward and lost in rather typical ways. For the most part seventh and eighth grade are enshrouded in a kind of fog in my mind. My math teacher in eighth grade terrorized me even though she was probably a nice lady. I can’t even remember anything about most of my other teachers. I waded through the gawkiness of those days with a kind of dread with the exception of the hours spent with Mrs. Colby. She broke through my self absorption and presented a way of viewing the world around me that was filled with optimism and possibilities. She focused my mind on the joys of learning and exploring and creating. She was in a word quite wonderful.
I wish that I had been able to convey my deep appreciation to Mrs. Colby while she was alive. I suspect that few of us take the time to actually thank the educators who have meant the most to us. Mrs. Colby was that rare teacher who changed the trajectory of my life. For that I have always been grateful. I will never forget her and I hope with all of my heart that she is now resting in blissful peace. I’d like to believe that she is now on a grand adventure and finding answers to the many questions that she so often posed. Godspeed, Mrs. Colby. You were one of the best.