By Lisa Davis Orf

There’s that occasional block of substitute teaching where the class doesn’t need you and, really, you’re just a casual observer keeping the room in compliance. A recent anatomy and physiology class at Jefferson City High School was one of those assignments for me. Who knew it would turn out to be one of the most incredible days I’ve ever spent in public education?

Ten students, self-sufficient, on-task without prompting — tempered with a fair amount of levity. Yep, you don’t come across this every day in the subbing world. These are students who (mostly) arrived before the bell, set their things on a desk, then went straight for the dissecting microscopes listed on the sub plan and went to work. When I interrupted them to take attendance, I confessed that I was just a placeholder in their room. I could see they clearly didn’t need me. They were doing a great job on their own. They laughed. Briefly. Then back to the task at hand. Young scientists working in pairs (but for one, awaiting his partner’s arrival), examining each other’s skin, recording data.

Just as the bell rang, our lone straggler arrived, completing that last project pair, bringing the classroom count to an even number. He had a story. (There’s always a story.) And it had to be shared with, in this case, his table mate. I admit, the ensuring conversation (within my earshot) was entertaining.

“My dad texted me this morning to make sure I was up. I didn’t reply. . . . (Talking-to-text his dad.) ‘I’m still in bed. He he.’ Yeh, that should get a response.”

“You put ‘he he’ in a text to your dad? Shouldn’t that be ‘ha ha’?

“ ‘Ha ha’ sounds like you’re taking a breath ‘ha (inhales dramatically) ha.’ See, ‘he he’ is much better.”

“But ‘he he’ looks weird.”

Hmm. This was indeed a dilemma. Our late arrival needed a second opinion from his remaining eight classmates.

“Which works best in a text to my dad: ‘ha ha’ or ‘he he’?”

They answered in unison, without so much as a moment’s hesitation, “Ha ha.”

Late arrival’s phone buzzed. He read the text out loud. “ ‘Get up and get to school now! You’re late!’ (Talking-to-text his reply.) ‘Didn’t you see my ‘he he’?’ ”

This was seemingly a revelation of sorts for late arrival. Then, muttering to himself, “He needs to take a breath. (Pauses.) Maybe should have gone with ‘ha ha.’ ”

The comedic interlude was brief, and the last table was quickly up to speed examining each other’s skin along with the rest of the class. Honestly, for a while, the group was like watching paint dry. One student would look at their table mate’s arm under the microscope, write down data, then they’d change roles. They’d look things up in textbooks and on their iPads. There was some dialogue exchanged between them. All of it was specific to the assignment.

It’s when they had completed the data collection and analysis that class got interesting. All 10 students began exchanging their observations and findings with each other. Excitedly, so! The genetic composition of the class was a compelling mix of students who are superficially identifiable as African-American, Indo-American, Hispanic-American, Irish-American, and Caucasian. Amazement emerged from the group over the variations in cellular appearance between classmates of different ethnicities and they just seemed to regard the differences as the coolest thing on the planet! No exceptions.

These highly intelligent high school seniors were darting from table to table comparing skin color on a cellular level and thrilled over the variations as opposed to the sameness. As they clamored to view the skin cells of their classmates, I picked up bits and pieces of their comments. I’m not sure if their remarks really weren’t terribly science-like or if I was just latching onto this pleasant lapse in a classroom where any emphasis on race was a paradox of sorts. I kept thinking Schrödinger’s Cat — both alive and dead — but really, it was more like integral or not.

“Are those sweat glands?”

“You can’t see though through that layer on me.”

“I love the way her cells look, mine are nothing like that.”

“Wow, his cells are seriously awesome.”

“Hairs are giant.”

“I didn’t see his veins, did you?”

“No, but I can see your veins — look!”

“Weird.”

“Cool scar!”

“You’ve got tiny bumps that are giant bumps under the microscope.”

“Wow, the freckles sort of blur away.”

“Did you notice how the microscope sort of makes the pigment disappear in order to penetrate?”

As I wandered the room, students were telling me that the biggest difference in skin among classmates is due to the amount of melanin they produce. It’s the density and distribution of the melanin that creates the individual skin color. Then it passes to the basal layer causing pigmentation. Shading depends on how the melanocytes are grouped. They spoke with melodious intellect. Yes, this is the same group of students who had settled the “ha ha” versus “he he” debate an hour earlier. Our late arrival now indistinguishable from the others. All of them have plans to enter career fields that require medical skills. They aspire to be doctors and nurses, some specializing in research, some in pediatrics, one in forensic medicine. When you think “tip of the spear,” it’s right here.

I am certain that no one in this group is unaware of ethnic differences among their peers, or of the challenges one race may encounter in life as opposed to another race. What I do think is that this class is exactly what we aspire to in public education. Students who don’t view their classmates as the African-American or the Indo-American, or the Hispanic-American, or the Irish-American, or the Caucasian but, rather, as equals from whom we have much to learn.   

Note: Thank you to Susan Saracini-Cram, science department chair at Jefferson City High School, for the substitute teaching assignment that allowed me this observation.