How a paper plane intended to annoy became an instrument of instruction.
Mr. Watkins was not a teacher to be messed with. Lethargic in movement and thunderous in speech, he was a veteran educator with no tolerance for the inattentive child. Students were humbled when he intercepted their notes and posted them on the hallway bulletin board for public consumption. The sleep-deprived 10th grader who considered his physics classroom a Motel 6 was subject to verbal humiliation and sent to the nurse to be assessed for narcoleptic behavior. Detention for any of the above offenses was a given.
So to throw a paper airplane at Mr. Watkins was no act of cowardice—nor one, as an aspiring delinquent, I’d ever tried before in a classroom. The giddiness I’d felt while folding the simple dart gave way to sheer terror when I realized that the plane, which I’d named “Newton’s Apple” and had just let fly, would successfully complete its mission. As Mr. Watkins was factoring an equation on the blackboard, it beaned him on the back of the head.
The class was silent. Only George, my buddy who’d provoked me, stifled laughter through his nose. Mr. Watkins remained dead still at the board for about a century before he slowly turned and looked me directly in the eyes. The spotlight was on me. Then, with careful articulation and delivery, he said the two words that I never thought he would say. I was not sent to the principal’s office, nor was I chided in front of my peers. With perfect coolness, Mr. Watkins announced, “Nice shot.” He then turned back around and completed the equation he’d started. All mouths were agape.
After the bell rang, I made it to the door faster than any Olympic track star ever could. But then I heard, “Oh, Mr. Quinlan!” yodeled as I reached the hallway. “A word with you, please?” Like a puppy who’d just chewed its owner’s favorite piece of jewelry, I slinked back into the classroom to receive my punishment. I began delivering a futile onslaught of apologies, but he cut me off mid-plea.
“James,” he said, “you’re not doing very well this semester.”
“I know, sir.”
“Academically, I mean. Your average has dropped from a B to a D in here. Other teachers notice your falling grades, too.”
How does he know about grades in my other classes? I thought.
Mr. Watkins sat me down. Then he dealt me the blow.
“I want you to do an extra-credit project for me. That’s your punishment,” he said.
I was speechless. He examined Newton’s Apple, which he’d retrieved from its landing area behind his desk. The tip was bent from the collision.
“Two weeks from now, I want you to teach your classmates about the physics involved in the flight of a paper airplane. That’s your assignment—a 45-minute presentation. You can conduct the lesson any way you want as long as you demonstrate what physical properties are at work when a paper airplane is in the air.”
He tossed the airplane toward the wastebasket. A perfect shot.
I wandered around the rest of the day in the proverbial fog. I didn’t know what to think. I was excited about escaping detention, but facing a teacher’s wrath is the purpose of causing trouble in the first place. Had my mission failed? It was certainly incomplete. There were no real consequences for my actions.
But when I got home that afternoon and began my research, I discovered that the assignment was no simple task. I had to read up on lift, drag, and thrust, the three components that are the basis for flight. I had to fold hundreds of paper airplanes that were both functional and nonfunctional, drawing diagrams for each to show why flight was or was not possible.
My bedroom gradually turned into a hangar and a tree hugger’s worst nightmare, but I continued to fold and experiment for two weeks straight. I made some airplanes that were weighted in spots, others that included elevators (tabs cut into the tail section) for controlling lift and speed. I researched turbulence, velocity, air resistance, gravity, and aerodynamics. I studied the evolution and history of flight so I could add interesting tidbits of information to my lesson.
I was excited whenever Mr. Watkins checked to see how my project was going, and I was often late for English (my next class) after asking him questions and sharing some of the information I’d gathered. He seemed the proud father when answering my inquiries about the effect of air resistance on aerodynamics, and he was like a child when I refused to divulge the surprises planned for the lesson. I reserved the auditorium as my venue; it was perfect because the demonstration flights wouldn’t be hampered by desks, walls, or wind.
Finally, the day came. With my classmates gathered in the auditorium, I showed a five-minute movie as an introduction that I’d edited together from clips of films featuring airplanes. I passed out a variety of patterns for paper airplanes so that my classmates could fold while I taught. As I invited students to the stage to toss their planes, I explained what I’d learned about the components of flight and used each student’s design to exemplify my points. Forty-five minutes passed in mere seconds.
The only thing that troubled me during my lesson was that Mr. Watkins did not appear to be paying attention. He sat in the back of the auditorium reading a dime novel. While the rest of the class cheered me on and took part in the lesson, the paper airplane pattern that I’d given him remained unfolded. Not once did he make eye contact with me. Not once did he smile. He knew how much effort I’d put into the project. He didn’t care.
When the lesson was over, as I began cleaning up the hundreds of paper airplanes that littered the auditorium, he shuffled into the hallway with his 10th graders. Later, in his classroom, I asked him what he thought of my presentation. He looked up at me.
“Not bad,” he said. He resumed preparations for his next class.
Not bad? I thought. I worked for weeks to teach that class and you don’t even care! I was furious—and hurt.
“I worked really hard,” I managed to say.
He looked up and nodded. A hint of a smile crossed his face.
“So do I,” he said.
It took me a moment, but I got the point. My fury gave way to remorse as I realized that he too prepared feverishly for his classes. He too was excited about every lesson that he taught. He too hoped that his students learned what he felt was important to teach. He too was hurt when they didn’t seem to care.
Mr. Watkins didn’t say a word when he saw that I understood.
“Thank you,” I said. Then I left his classroom.
My attitude toward school changed after that. I started listening, appreciating, and respecting my teachers. My grades rose the rest of the year. This is not to say that I never caused trouble again. Rather, I became the best kind of troublemaker: one who knows when it’s the right time to rebel. And who’s still awesome at folding paper airplanes.
Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 55-56Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as Air Apparent