It really came as no surprise when my 9th grade high school biology teacher told me that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year. The high school I attended was a chronically underperforming and severely underfunded school situated in the densely-populated, square-mile city of Central Falls, RI–an impoverished, inner-city community with a largely immigrant population. And if you were wondering, yes, it’s that Central Falls–the city that infamously tried to fire all of its high school teachers and shortly, thereafter declared bankruptcy (although, it has since rehired most of the teachers and exited bankruptcy). So I was pretty sure the reason we wouldn’t be doing experiments that year was due to a shortfall in the school budget.
The prospect of not doing experiments however, was still a disappointment to me. Especially considering that a classmate and I had spent the beginning of the school year petitioning the administration to let us take biology instead of the general science class outlined in the normal 9th grade curriculum. We’d already taken general science during the previous two years in junior high and I had grown tired of learning the different types of clouds and classes of rocks. No offense to meteorologists and geologists, but it was time for me to move on to what I thought were the “big leagues.” I wanted to do more hands-on experiments like dissecting frogs, looking at cells under a microscope, or wiping bacteria off of door handles and growing them on petri dishes. These were, at least, what 14 year-old me thought constituted a science experiment–before I knew that these were really called “labs.” And so, after petitioning the school and obtaining approval to take biology, what was the obstacle to making my dreams of experiments a reality, you ask? There wasn’t enough money in the school budget for latex gloves.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only bit of bad news in my life back then. Right around the same time, my dad lost his job at a local medical supply manufacturer, after they had decided to move their operation to Mexico (perhaps a casualty of NAFTA and what not). They were “kind” enough, however, to offer their former employees a “severance” package–their choice of the surplus medical supplies left behind in the move. According to my dad, there were boxes upon boxes full of gauze, bandages, medical tape, cotton swabs, and other supplies available for the taking. When I told my dad the disappointing news that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year because the class didn’t have latex gloves, my father smiled. Completely out of coincidence–unaware as he was to the plight of my biology class– my father had decided to take home nearly a palette’s worth of cases of latex gloves.
I remember the day my dad delivered the latex gloves to my biology class. Since my dad was never much the sort to draw attention to himself and because he didn’t want disrupt class, he waited until after the school day was over. I met my dad by the door nearest our biology classroom and helped him carry the cases of gloves into the building. We knocked on the door to the class and when my bio teacher answered, I explained to him that my dad had some things he wanted to donate. I could see my teacher’s eyes light up when his gaze fell on the large, cardboard cases labeled “Medical Exam Gloves” of assorted sizes. He was speechless for a brief moment as my dad and I pushed boxes into the classroom. And when he fully realized what was happening he grasped my father’s hand and started shaking it. He thanked my father profusely and told him how much this meant. I stood between them, translating in Vietnamese the extent of my teacher’s appreciation for my father’s generosity. My dad tried to wave it off as though it were no big deal, but I knew it was. Just days prior, my dad had suffered the indignity of losing his job, but on that day, my dad was a hero– a hero at a time when he really needed to feel like one. He needed this moment as much as we need those gloves.
I left Central Falls High School the following year after accepting an opportunity to attend a private school that I couldn’t turn down. But I never forgot about CF High. I came back often to visit the school and, in parpticular, my biology teacher. For my high school community service project I helped out as his teacher’s aide during the first semester of my junior year. Even when I went off to college, I made an effort to see my biology teacher whenever I was home on break. And during each visit he’d remind me of how grateful he was for what my father did. Sadly, I can remember seeing those same cases of gloves sitting in the back storage room–the number of smaller boxes inside dwindling with each passing year.
Several years ago, my 9th grade biology teacher retired and I haven’t been back to the school since for a visit, so to when those gloves finally ran out, I wouldn’t know. But the fact that he was frugally rationing them out over the course of many years really stuck with me. And the sad reality is that underfunded schools, unfortunately, is not specific to the city I grew up in. It’s a problem that is faced by a number of inner-city and rural schools across the country–a problem exacerbated by the financial tumult of the past few years.
Since 2006, however, a select group of science bloggers have been raising money through the online charity DonorsChoose to help fund many science education-related projects submitted by teachers in underfunded schools. Going through their giving pages and reading the projects submitted by teachers really drove home for me just how underfunded some schools are. Projects from requesting money to purchase new stools to securing supplies for frog and organ dissections to, you guessed it, latex gloves. If you’d like to contribute, here’s your chance to capture the spirit of my dad and help save science education for students in need–but you’ll need to act fast because fundraising ends on
Nov. 5th November 9th (there is also a match in effect of up to $100 if you enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” box).