No Stone Unturned

By Daniel Robb — April 01, 2002 19 min read
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Reluctant, at first, to face a geology class filled with seemingly apathetic teens, the author soon learned that he couldn’t get enough of the latest ice age—or teaching.

Last summer, I was reminded why it is I return, now and then, to teaching. And the chance to get back in the classroom came about the way this kind of thing often does in a small community. But first, a little background.

Most of the time, I’m a writer and a carpenter, and as I think about it, I’m not sure which one predominates. A major house recently published my first book, but later today I’ll be out in the wind, on a ladder, at the edge of Buzzards Bay, putting new shutters on an old summer home. So I must be a carpenter, right? But when people ask me what I do, I still say most easily, “I’m a teacher.” Why is that?

I guess it’s because I have taught, off and on, for about 10 years— mostly high school English in Mississippi and New York City, with some time spent on an island at a school for juvenile delinquents. Stints teaching writing, ropes courses, sailing, and “Literature of the Sea” have been mixed in.

In the past, I’ve tried to figure out why people like myself teach, and I must say, the subject has proved unruly. With this article, for example, I set out to write a piece about a class I taught in glacial geology last summer, a piece that would focus on the essence of the process and, in the end, reveal what it is that draws folks inexorably to the profession.

Well, all my good intentions led me straight into a briar patch. I found myself caught in an uncomfortable reality: There are a number of things that turn me on about teaching as well as a few that flick the same switch down.

Daniel Robb made use of two classrooms: One in the elementary school he’d attended as a child, the other outside, among the Woods Hole environs.
—Photo by Sevans

Now let me go back to the beginning of this story. One day, at the end of June, I walked into the Falmouth National Bank. (If you’re like me, and it’s May or June, and you want to have time to sail a little, or go fishing, or for a run, or kayak, or whatever makes summertime feel relaxing, never, ever go to the bank—or the post office, or anywhere you might run into someone who knows you teach.) There in the lobby, big as life, was Doug Jones, a slightly shorter version of a youthful Burt Lancaster, in tweed and a turtleneck. He had the look in his eyes of the harried administrator that he is as he stood across from me at the island.

Our greeting was terse—

“Hi, Doug.”


—the way it can be between old friends. The loan officers watched us from behind their chunky, dark wood desks, just beyond the fence that protects their department from bank customers. I’m sure they pegged me as a non-balance-keeper and Doug as one who knew his balance well.

Freedom in the water?” I asked, referring to his old wooden sailboat.

“Oh, yeah,” Doug said. “Not leaking yet. You want to teach this summer?”

I’d had a feeling he was going to ask me this, so the words, when they were finally spoken, came at me slowly, the way images do during an accident, just as the process of crashing has begun. All you can do is watch.

“Uh . . . maybe,” I answered.

Aside from being an old friend, Doug runs the Children’s School of Science in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, an 80-year-old day school program offering all kinds of science classes for kids 6 to 18 years of age, a sort of easygoing yet rigorous camp that students of every description flock to each summer.

Doug and I got in line, and one of the green glass columns in front of a teller lit up and donged. The line advanced.

“I need someone to teach advanced geology,” he said.

“I’m an English teacher, Doug,”

“I’m a classics teacher. If I can’t find someone, I’ll teach it.”

“I’m busy in August. I’ve got a little addition I’ve got to start.”

“It’s just three weeks in July.”

His voice had taken on a plaintive tone. Another column donged. He was up.

“I could . . . " I began, searching for inner resolve. “I could only do it in the mornings.”

“OK. Mornings it is. You’re on.”

“Wait a sec. What kind of class is this? Is it A.P. geology? Are these guys boning up for the SATs, or . . . “

“No, no. It’s a for-the-fun-of-it kind of class. No homework, no grades. Your job’s to teach them as much as you can, with no way to evaluate other than your conversations and the quality of their questions, maybe journal entries.”

I could tell he was feeling he had me on the hook. “They’re just having a good time for the summer,” he continued. “The hardest ones to please are their parents—some of them are scientists in Woods Hole—and that’s where I come in. I’m the guy who takes the heat for you.”

Doug looked at me for a moment as I considered his offer, his blue eyes boring in on me.

“It does sound like it could be a gas,” I said finally.

A woman in a blue denim dress was getting ready to cut in front of Doug.

“Great! I’ll sign you up, 9 to 10:15 Monday through Friday, three weeks, glacial geology, general high school ages. This is great,” he said, heading for the teller. “I’ll drop some rocks by your place.”

“Shit,” I thought, now standing at the front of the line. “Thus far I’ve caved in. How can I get out of this? I’ll just tell him I can’t do it.”

But in the few moments that had passed since the invitation, I knew I wanted to do it—a significant part of me wanted to do it, anyway, despite the havoc it might wreak on my life. Doug was done, so he headed for the door with a wave. I didn’t stop him.

A few days later, I came home to find a box on the front steps. Inside were three plastic trays of rocks: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. As I picked them up, the rocks made a dry, rattling sound in the trays, which, I imagined, must be what it sounds like inside my head. Still, I didn’t call Doug to beg off.

And then the day arrived. I walked into the classroom assigned to me and started to get a sense of why, in part, I’d wanted to teach the course. I was standing on the second floor of the building where, some 30 years before, I’d gone to elementary school. The place had been constructed in 1885, on a hill overlooking the inner harbor—a lagoon called Eel Pond—of Woods Hole, a coastal village right at the elbow of Cape Cod. Known as the Woods Hole School back then, it was now home to Head Start in winter, the Children’s School of Science in summer.

This was a space, full of light and air, where one could breath, where great thoughts had the best chance of rise through the mud to the surface.
—Photo by Sevans

The building consisted of four rooms: two on the first floor, two on the second, and a broad staircase on either side. At each level, the classrooms shared a common wall, with the other walls given over to windows, and opened onto broad landings, where there was space for an office and a bathroom. But the school’s most important feature, found on the second floor’s south landing, was a heavy Manila rope, which rose through a hole in the ceiling to the belfry. Each day, students took turns with the honor of hanging on that rope and ringing the old school into session in the morning and out of session in the afternoon.

My classroom, like the others, measured thirty-five by thirty-five, with fifteen-foot ceilings and ten-foot windows. Wooden wainscoting met white plaster wherever windows and slate blackboards were absent. This was a space, full of light and air, where one could breathe, where great thoughts had the best chance of rising through the mud to the surface, a place made when people knew how to build a school!

I had walked to the Woods Hole School as a child, for grades 1 through 4, along the muddy harbor edge. During that time, my four teachers—Mrs. Barrow, Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. Perkins, and Mrs. Zuck (who might have lived there, for all I knew)—never let on that any of their students might be destined to fail. It was truly a village school, that most valuable of institutions, and three decades later, I wanted to stand on the same floorboards as those great women who had defined my childhood and, like them, try to teach.

Ego? Why, yes. But I also wanted to reconnect with the magic of those times, when learning seemed an extension of family, when the strong affection and caring of those women had muscled aside the news of the Vietnam War and the life-sapping energies of Watergate and welcomed us in. The briar patch, I realized, was thicker than I’d thought.

I have come to see stories as ways to learn, to remember things best.

For days, I’d mulled over my predicament, wondering how I, someone with a master’s degree in English and little training in the sciences, could suppose to teach geology to high schoolers. But this also was part of the lure, the risk in trying to impart a subject of which I had no ken, the thrill of sailing into uncharted waters with only my wits and the kids’ curiosity as guide.

There was also the desire to tell a story to my students—the story, in this case, of geology—and through that narrative to pique their interest, to create suspense, to get them to say something like, “Yo, this is the ‘bomb,’ yo.”

I use the term “story” (and “bomb”) loosely, of course, but I have come to see stories as ways to learn, to remember things best. So, for me, part of the fun, after marshaling the facts about the region’s geology and ruminating upon them, was to create a narrative that would prove riveting enough to get kids first to listen and then begin to grow. Ah, ego again, yet I wanted the process to be a dialogue, a joint project between the students and myself.

I had done my research. I’d read several books and recalled some of the geology I knew from writing my memoir, Crossing the Water, an account of teaching troubled teenage boys at a school on a small island not far from Woods Hole. Conveniently enough, Penikese Island had been created by glacial action, and the story of that process, it turned out, was a page turner.

Depending on whom you believe, approximately 100,000 years ago, a new ice age began on earth, and as temperatures fell, snow began to gather. Before long, the once innocent drifts of snow had accumulated into an immense sheet of ice, covering much of the northern reaches of our hemisphere and spreading southward from Canada. One mile high and moving a mile or more per year, it ground inexorably south, taking boulders, soil, trees, anything in its path, like a vast conveyor belt, and depositing this stuff in a bank at its terminus, part of which, for a time, was the western edge of Cape Cod. Later, as the ice began to retreat, this terminal edge, or moraine, became the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—and, later still, the northern shore of the upper Cape.

My plan was to tell this story with plenty of detail included. For example, before the ice melted, the sea level was 300 feet lower than it is today, meaning that Woods Hole was six to 10 miles inland, not right up against the shore with the ocean lapping the sands. If we had been living at that time, before the rivers of frigid water flowed from the mile-high sheet of ice, we would have been able to stand upon a ridge and peer into the valleys of Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay, where caribou might have grazed in grasslands. Woods Hole, back then, was probably a great place to begin a hunt.

A few minutes before my students were due to arrive, I stepped onto the iron fire escape just outside my classroom and surveyed the schoolyard. As always, there were seesaws, swings, and an old pipe jungle gym, with oak trees at the edges and the sparkling inner harbor beyond. Soon I heard footsteps, and they began to meander in.

A third of my students, roughly, were so young—not beyond 8th grade—that cynicism hadn’t begun to creep in yet. They sat there, wide-eyed, and either hit each other on the shoulders (the boys, mostly) or remained shyly silent (the girls). The other two-thirds were between 14 and 17 years of age, and they affected disaffection, sitting glumly at the tables, seemingly too cool to care. One 16-year-old boy sat on the edge of his seat near me, exuding precocious intelligence. A girl, about the same age, leaned back in her seat, a bandanna around her head, Jerry Garcia-style, looking optimistic and confident. I knew we had to get outside fast, so as soon as introductions were done, I related the gist.

“What we’re dealing with here is cataclysm,” I began. “Disaster. The end of the earth as we know it. How old is the Cape? Anybody know?”

Two hands went up. A boy named Marshall offered, “A million years,” and the precocious boy, Jeff, said, “Five million years.”

“Nope, 10,000 years, more or less, which is nothing in terms of geological time. The earth is 5 billion years old, and our country is 225 years old. The Cape is only 9,775 years older than our country. How did this happen? Well . . . “

My overwhelming goal became not to enable the students to identify a vast array of mineral specimens, but to encourage them to walk the landscape consciously.

And I began to tell them of the snow, of the immense weight of it, of the height of the ice sheet as it began to move southward. I asked them to imagine what it would be like to gaze up—how far?—5,280 feet at a wall of ice, from which rivers of meltwater gushed milky with pulverized rock, and from which rolled the occasional granite boulder or lump of Roxbury conglomerate. I suggested what it would be like to watch these watercourses gurgle toward the sea.

They listened, unsure if there was any truth to what I was telling them, if caribou had really grazed where the drugstore now stood, or if this was just another cartoonlike version of reality visited upon them by yet another exaggerator.

And then I took them outside to walk the village. Atop a high ridge, on a road that wound through new-growth trees and 100-year-old houses, we came upon a row of pinkish granite boulders lined up along the grassy verge.

“How did these get here?” I asked. A young woman, Sarah, looked at them as if they were just a bunch of common stones.

“Right. How would we know?” I said. “Well, they are pinkish, and I know they are granite from how they look, and they’re rounded, so I know they’ve been rolled around in something and worn down, and I also know, from a book I read, that Maine is the nearest place with pink granite, so . . . “

“A tractor picked them up and put ‘em here,” said the girl with the bandanna. I was trumped.

I suggested what it would be like to watch the watercourses gurgle toward the sea.
—Photo by Sevans

“Yes! But you get my point, right? These were brought here in the guts of a glacier, rolled around until the huge boulders they began as were broken down into these much smaller stones, and then they were left near here, probably came up in some farmer’s field one winter, pushed up by the frost.”

Sarah, looking right at me, made no sign of having heard. A kid named Ken punched a kid named Jeremy on the shoulder, and two other girls collapsed into each other, giggling. They all knew each other from summers past.

We trudged on, down the hill into a valley, deep and steep-sided, descending 70 or 80 feet nearly to sea level. In the depths of the vale, with tupelo and red maple all around, jewelweed at our feet, and a proper swamp just off to our left, I paused again.

“Look around you. How did this valley come to be?”

Blank stares. Several boys kicked a stone back and forth between them. An older boy with long hair pulled absentmindedly at some tall grass growing by the roadside, like a sated cow.

“Erosion!” I bellowed.

After I delivered a few more sentences, replete with information on wetland and upland plant communities and their relation to the geology of the site, we began the final leg of our walk, a quarter mile uphill to the school.

Over the next three weeks, we went outside every day, walking the village—its beaches, kettle holes, and hills—and my overwhelming goal became not to enable the students to identify a vast array of mineral specimens, but to encourage them to walk the landscape consciously, to ask, “How did this ridge get here?” It became clear to me that to inculcate the spirit of “What’s the story here, and what questions do I need to ask to find out?” was far more important than the rote knowledge of rocks.

My reward arrived a couple of days before the end of the term, after I asked, as we paused next to a swampy area about a hundred yards inland from a beach, “Why do you think this area’s wet?” Sarah, through her slacker gaze, said: “Well, maybe there’s a lens of clay under there ‘cause, like, the water was moving slow through here off the glacier through this flat area, so the sediment could actually, like, settle out, which is, like, maybe why this area doesn’t drain for squat.”

“Duuuuuuude,” said Chris, the bandanna girl. Another kid, who had taken to wearing a bandanna as well and was sketching Che Guevara in his geology journal, nodded his head.

The marvelous part was that an understanding of sediment transport seemed to have moved into Ronald’s brain by osmosis.

In class the day before, we’d constructed a miniature glacier/flood plain with bags of cocktail ice, sand, soil, a sluice made of plywood and two-by-fours, and a kiddy-pool outwash plain. Sarah helped build it and pour the water, but she hadn’t said a word and just watched as Ronald, a skinny boy of 13, stood at the far end of the run out, the nether end of the wading pool, scooped up thick dark sediment in his hands, and said: “It worked! The sand is near the mouth of the slice, and the guck is all the way away down here.”

“That’s sluice, Ronald. Good man,” I’d said.

Ronald, at some point, had heard my description of how the finest sediment is transported farthest, laid down by water only where the current lazes across the bottom. This was how I had hoped my students would learn—by listening, watching, and thinking. The marvelous part was that an understanding of sediment transport seemed to have moved into Ronald’s brain by osmosis. And Sarah’s, too.

The next day, before our visit to the swamp, my plan was to discuss what was in store for the earth in terms of ice. After the students had filed into the classroom and taken seats in the circle of desks, I began.

“So what if this could happen over the course of 50 years?”

“What, you mean a whole ‘nother ice age?” asked Sarah, her eyes wide.

“Yeah. What if it could happen fast? How would that affect us?”

“Totally, like, more than totally,” said Marshall, a well-built kid of 15 who seemed to see everything through the lens of football. “That’s fourth down and looong yardage,” he added.

A couple of mourning doves chortled outside on the fire escape, and we could hear the voices of another class as it headed to the playground below the windows.

“OK, what does that mean?” I asked.

“All the football stadiums would have to be enclosed,” said Marshall.

A girl with thick, dark hair named Jen, who sat across from me every day and said little, rolled her eyes at this.

“Well, how would it go down, man?” said neo-hippie Chris.

“It would probably begin with some of the major ocean currents changing direction,” I said. “Does anyone know the name of the current that sweeps north, past the East Coast of the United States?”

Ronald had this one. “The Gulf Stream.”

“Right, man, and if that were to change direction suddenly, the whole temperature system of the earth could change. Right now, [scientists] are doing core samples of the ice on Baffin Island up in Canada to see how fast temperature changed in the past, and they’re finding changes in the ice that suggest that an ice age can come on within a lifetime. How would that affect us? How would it be if Mexico was the nearest place where food could be grown because it was too cold up here?”

“Whoa, dude, that would be a struggle, man, because they have some legit grudges against us. Man, that could be a bad scene,” uttered Ken, a tall, goofy kid with big feet who rarely said anything. Jeff, the precocious one, added, “That could completely shift the balance of power in the world.”

“It could,” I said, “and nobody knows how all of this is linked to global warming, or if it is at all.”

“They don’t know why it might happen?” asked Chris.

“They don’t,” I said. “They think it might happen because of the pollution humans generate, or be accelerated by that, but it’s happened in the past, and no one knows why. What they do know is that this has been an extra long time of stable climate, so we are maybe living on borrowed time.”

I believe that at the core of my drive to teach is something that isn’t voluntary, or conscious, or calculated.

This was obviously a useful conversation, and there had been a number of similarly satisfying moments, such as when Lee explained the difference between obsidian and granite to his father as we walked a beach one day. “See, Dad,” he said, pointing to a boulder the size of a grand piano, “that’s granite, and it had time to cool, so its crystals are all lumpy. But if it had cooled quick, then it would be all smooth, so we could make a knife out of it.”

After the three weeks were over, the class of kids said goodbye and unceremoniously walked out the door, sweetly oblivious to the fact that something extraordinary had come to an end. Still, I was glad I’d taught the course. I had enjoyed learning about glaciers and their habits, about sedimentary and metamorphic processes. Nancy Martin, the author and teacher, once said it best: “The word for teaching is learning.”

The learning part alone doesn’t explain why I keep returning to the classroom.
—Photo by Sevans

But the learning part alone doesn’t explain why, in the end, I keep returning to the classroom—sometimes for just a month, other times for a year or two. In part, I do just want to have that primal connection to learning again, the one I find in the presence of young minds, when, together, we come to a new understanding of reality. I can complete that process on my own, but it lacks an excitement and a newness that kids bring to it, and I like to think my students can’t do it without me. I hope that when I get older and look back on my life—regretting some things, wishing I’d taken an extra risk or two—that I’ll know, at the very least, that my time in classrooms was well-spent, that I helped move some young people closer to whom they hoped to be.

I believe, however, that at the core of my drive to teach is something that isn’t voluntary, or conscious, or calculated. It isn’t something to take credit for. I just feel at home with the blackboard at my back, and my students over the years have seemed comfortable with me in that role. Maybe the ability to teach is simply something I had in my portfolio when I first arrived in 1965 and plunged into this bizarre and marvelous life on the surface of the earth. It is a vocation that I can’t deny moves me, for all of its lack of earning power or prestige.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to teaching full time again. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever tried, harder than digging holes for a living, which I’ve done. But I do know this: For three weeks last summer, I came close to experiencing, once again, the best days I’ll ever remember, which happened for me in 3rd grade in the Woods Hole School, where Mrs. Perkins convinced me that just about anything is possible.


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