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Creation Myths, Part One

August 14, 2012

You may be happy to discover that I made it through all of first grade without being sent to the principal’s office, and was off to a good start in the second grade.  I likely would have made it the entire year if my teacher hadn’t been Mrs. Rathbun (like the infamous Dr. Six, this is a name I am not fabricating).

Like many second grade boys, I was obsessed with dinosaurs.  Giant, near-mythological reptiles, terrifying yet fascinating—how could a boy resist?  I think what really got me hooked was a visit to the San Diego Zoo when I got to ride a giant Galapagos tortoise.  I had seen tortoises before, but never one so big you could ride it! (This was also before it would have occurred to me to be troubled by a noble endangered creature being turned into a sideshow freak for profit.)   Mind you, we didn’t go very far or very quickly, but just the idea that a small reptile could also come in such a huge form fired my imagination.

After that, I wanted to learn everything I could about dinosaurs, and I found myself a teacher—Roy Chapman Andrews.  Long before Indiana Jones (or, to a lesser extent, Ross Geller) made archeology cool, there was Professor Andrews.  He spent his life digging up dinosaur bones in the Gobi Desert and running the American Museum of Natural History, but he also wrote books for elementary school kids who wanted to learn more about Triceratops.  I devoured all of his books at the local library, and got to the point where I could list all of the known dinosaur species, in what part of the world they lived, in what period they emerged and disappeared.  I could tell you that, but I didn’t because of my stammer.  That was all right, though—why talk to someone when you could just read another Andrews book?

I was never tempted to speak up in class until one rainy afternoon when Mrs. Rathbun began discussing dinosaurs.  Suddenly, she had my attention, if not my participation.  She asked the class:

“What were the names of the giant reptiles that lived in the past?”

Maria Gonzales raised her hand.  “Dinosaurs!”

“Yes, that’s right, Maria! Dinosaurs!”  Yes, she was right, but it hardly merited that much excitement.  Who wouldn’t know that?  Mrs. Rathbun asked a follow-up.

“And who else lived with the dinosaurs?”

I was pleasantly surprised that she would ask about the various plant and insect life from that period, but she then made the mistake of calling on Tony Nobiensky.  In seven years of elementary school, Tony never got a single question right—including “What’s the name of our school?”  It was Thomas Jefferson elementary, but Tony answered “George Jefferson.”  And his answer to this question:

“Cavemen!”

I snickered under my breath.  Cavemen!  First of all, that’s a totally inaccurate and oversimplified description of our human ancestors.  (Probably not my exact thoughts at the time, but still.) Go ahead Mrs. Rathbun, be gentle.  Our Tony knows not what he does.

“That’s right, Tony.  Cavemen!”

What?  What?  WHAT????  I did not just hear her say that.  Tony smiled, smugly, believing himself to be correct, and not a single one of my classmates raised an objection.  They were all going to accept Mrs. Rathbun’s answer.   I didn’t understand how she could tell the class this, when everyone knew that humans came millions of years after the dinosaurs went extinct.  It didn’t surprise me that Tony thought “The Flintstones” was real, but my teacher?   I found myself trembling, trying desperately to spit words out.  Mrs. Rathbun noticed, and called on me, no doubt wondering what my problem was.  I so desperately wanted to explain myself with the eloquence and factual documentation of Professor Andrews, but unfortunately the only words that would come out were these:

“Y-y-y-you’re…wr-wr-wrong!”

And then I was back in the principal’s office.  What occurred after I arrived will be next time.

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