Mr. Vanderlaan’s voice boomed down the halls from his classroom. No wonder they gave him the room closest to the double doors leading out to the soccer field, tucked away with only student’s lockers in close proximity. The narrowness of that hallway, coupled with the hard surfaces of aluminum lockers and linoleum tile floor, functioned like an echo chamber, the way a slot canyon bounces sound back and forth, amplifying a whisper to plain speech. And Mr. Vanderlaan rarely whispered.
“Come on in!” he’d exclaim, welcoming his pupils with extra thunderous hellos, especially if they were running late. When he greeted you, he always looked you in the eye. “Gorter, get in here. Come on in, come on in… Mr. Schepers, have a seat… Duemler, good sir, let’s get going. It is another fantastic, fantastic day the Lord has made.” His gratitude spilled over, and we relished his optimism.
We shuffled into our seats and dug through our backpacks for our three-ring binders, mine tattered and tattooed with drawings my friends and I doodled; next to me, Jessica’s binder was spotless, a subtle shade of sky blue matching an ocean-themed pencil case. My seventh-grade compatriots and I had priorities other than keeping binders in good shape and stocking lead for mechanical pencils, like collecting used staples from announcement boards to add to Josh’s collection of twenty thousand—and growing—that he kept in his sister’s old clarinet case (a collection he, a married man, still has nearly twenty years later).
Standing some distance above six feet tall, Mr. Vanderlaan often ducked to avoid knocking his head on the anatomy of an animal cell diagram that hung from the ceiling. His short white hair he kept in check with a standard issue black comb, probably a leftover from the ones passed out on picture day. His plumulaceous eyebrows, on the other hand, were wizardly untamable.
“Mr. Thuele,” Mr. Vanderlaan’s face widened into a grin. At this stage, there was no knowing whether he had a genuine question for you or if he was about to place you into one of his fictional stories that he’d use to quiz us on class concepts.
“You’re on your first date over at the Cutlerville pet store, and you notice some white speckles on a goldfish. What might that be?”
We chuckled, and Seth made a cheeky jab at Joel Thuele’s shoulder. Joel’s cheeks turned red. The “first date” storyline always got the class stirring.
“Ok sheesh everyone, calm down. Is it Ichthyophthirius multifiliis?” Joel replied. He was right, and we all cheered like raucous sports fans.
If you were placed into a story about first dates, you’d better know your fish diseases, which means you had better be paying attention in Mr. Vanderlaan’s class.
“Excellent! You are right on, good sir! Now, Mr. Vanvolkinburg, you’re paddling a canoe across a Michigan lake, and you look down in the water to see something that surprises you… a floating blob, with tentacles? How could that be? What exactly are you looking at?”
“Oh! Oh! I know this one. Is it a Craspedacusta sowerbii, a freshwater jellyfish?”
“Very good, very good!”
Mr. Vanderlaan stretched out his arm and pointed to the banner above the chalkboard and emphasized the class motto.
“Learn for Life, everybody, Learn for Life!”
He loved when we could recall factoids from a previous day’s material or when we got excited with him about natural history. He’d emphasize that each day was a gift and that remembering a day—really paying attention to it—was one of our highest callings in life. Instigating few tests or quizzes, he gauged our comprehension through a back-and-forth dialogue about what we were learning, how we were applying it, and where we could see it in the world around us. Learn for Life was a strategy for mastering seventh-grade science, but it was also wisdom to live by, a policy to be heeded for a well-lived life.
He also loved to push us out of our comfort zone, like when we had the only-somewhat-optional activity of holding his pet tarantulas.
In a glass tank toward the back of the classroom lived two massive tarantulas.
“They might look scary but they’re nothing to be afraid of,” Mr. Vanderlaan reassured us.
This, of course, did little to assuage the anxiety of the class. Black and hairy, these spiders were easily the size of Mr. Vanderlaan’s palm and bigger than the average seventh-grade hand entirely.
“You’ll need to hold out both hands to support her as she comes past. Be gentle, be gentle.”
My classmates and I aligned our hands end to end, forming a narrow walkway for the eight-legged arachnids to move across. I felt myself hesitate as she got closer. I wanted to pull my hand back—what if she didn’t like the way my clammy skin felt, and sunk her fangs into my palm in disapproval? Or, what if I dropped her and her frail exoskeleton couldn’t take the impact? To be remembered as the one who dropped Mr. Vanderlaan’s beloved tarantulas to their death would be a career-ending move.
“What do you notice about her legs as she walks? How is she moving? Does she feel light or heavy?” Mr. Vanderlaan peppered us with questions, maybe to get us thinking scientifically or to distract us from ruminating on our fears.
Slowly, she moved across my hand gently, tapping the pads of her feet across my palms methodically. She was heavier than I expected. And before I knew it, she’d moved on down the line, still slowly and steadily crawling on down the line of hands, till Mr. Vanderlaan placed her back in her terrarium. After the bell rang, we shuffled out of the classroom and continued on with the day.
Now, reflecting back on this classroom, I know that, at the time, I had little understanding of what learning for life could mean. I couldn’t comprehend much about my life’s future or ponder anything in the future past what the eighth grade might hold the following year. Still, I’m grateful that someone took the time to get me thinking about how the knowledge and experiences that were right in front of me, even as a seventh-grade kid, mattered. My experiences at that moment mattered such that I should carry them with me for life. In that classroom, our time was more important than to go in one ear and out the other—it had to be captured, recalled, and savored because soon that time would be gone like the tickling hairs of a tarantula’s feet, there one second and gone the next.