Carrie and the Spider

Here’s a story and meditation I wrote down several years ago. A colleague just mentioned it — the story, not my written version of it — so I decided to pull this out of the files and share it with you.

Picture this. It’s a beautiful fall afternoon. A gentle breeze shakes the gold-edged leaves of the trees just west of Lloyd Road and shoulder pads crash on the turf just east.  Elvoid Christmas is at the front desk, talking to stragglers, students and faculty alike, as they head for home or stage, from field or classroom, carrying books and laptops and uniforms and costumes. 

Now pan to the science wing where things are hushed. A teacher works in her classroom, preparing for an 8:00 a.m. lab.  She is alone, making progress, but only briefly. 

For out of the discrete silence of the science wing walks a large, brown spider.  This spider is the kind that, we imagine, might not just bite us but that wants to bite us.  The kind that would send most of us flailing out of the room in search of the nearest rolled up newspaper. 

But this teacher just cocks her head to the side and smiles, because this is Dr. Carrie Fyler, a scientist who has spent countless hours in science labs, has done meticulous research on tapeworms and seals and has turned such encounters into peer reviewed papers.  Warm-hearted and curious, she takes the world as it comes.

So Dr. Fyler doesn’t scream or instinctively smash the spider with the nearby safety goggles.  Instead, she gently covers it with the nearest petri dish. Something from the natural world has lit up Dr. Fyler’s imagination.  She has thought of something.

Seconds later, the email inboxes of Dr. Fyler’s colleagues in the science department begin to light up, too.  Dr. Fyler has written a polite inquiry:  “If nobody has any use for the spider I just found, I’d like to amplify and sequence its DNA with one of my classes.” 

And so the spider sits in a jar, since joined by two others, waiting to become part of the science curriculum.  Using field guides, Dr. Fyler will lead her students through a primary identification.  Then, using our lab technology, she will teach the students how to amplify a gene and how to then send that gene to another lab that can sequence the DNA, to aid in further exploration.

Dr. Fyler’s spider is worth pondering, but so is the story about Dr. Fyler and the spider.  It asks just a little for us to see it unfold, but it asks a lot, too, in that it’s an invitation to reconsider and renegotiate the lines that we sometimes draw around learning.

First, the story teaches us that the “classroom” is not always located at the physical addresses of our schools.  Sure, students and teachers meet in schools, and they spend much of their time together in classrooms, but the site of learning can and does shift.  Sometimes learning unfolds when we focus on textbooks.  Sometimes it unfolds when we focus on what’s happening in a test tube or on a board or in a discussion.  And sometimes it happens when we focus on something that walks into our lives on eight legs.

Second, Dr. Fyler could consider the power of amplifying a spider’s gene because she was an educator who understood that the well-timed improvisation might lead to an intensification of standard knowledge and conventional understanding. Students must do their best to attach new knowledge to old. Teachers must be prepared to push their lessons into authentic contexts and experiences – into the unexpected and new.

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