Someone nudged my shoulder, stirring me from deep sleep. “Wake up, grandpa,” said an unfamiliar voice. Grandpa? Who’s that? I opened my eyes to see a young woman, dressed in black, looking back at me. Her face was brown, and her eyes looked like deep pools of water.
She smiled. Nothing in twenty-plus years of teaching could have prepared me for this, I thought. I looked around, trying to find my cell phone, without success. Nothing here was like anything I’d seen before. Small lights, like fireflies, circled us in the darkness.
“I know it’s confusing to be called ‘grandpa,'” she said, answering a question I had not yet had the chance to ask. “This is, well, complicated.” Her voice sounded excited, even though she was speaking softly. She reminded me of teachers new to the profession, positively bursting with new ideas, and looking forward, enthusiastically, to the new school year ahead.
“It would have to be complicated,” I mumbled. Sleep was fading as I rubbed my eyes, trying to see where I was. A light came on, but it was unclear where the lightbulbs were. We were alone, inside a blue and white cube. The cube slowly moved, but its direction kept changing. “What am I doing here? Where’s my wife? Where am I, and who are you?”
“So many questions! I expected that, though. I will explain what I can.”
“That’s good, because . . . .”
“Please don’t interrupt,” she said. I stopped talking, but did not stop thinking. It appeared to be time to listen, not talk. “Thank you,” my alleged granddaughter continued. “In order, here are the answers to your questions. First, you are here for an important conversation. Second, your wife is peacefully sleeping. Third and fourth, you’re in my time-travel cube, and my name is Xiahong Al-Nasr. Technically, you’re my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, but . . . .” I raised my hand to ask a question, as if I were in class myself. She shook her head, and continued, “. . . I’ve always thought of you as, simply, ‘grandpa.’ It’s a time-saver. May I continue explaining why we are here, or can your question wait?”
I thought fast. What should I say next? There was only one logical response. “I’ll listen,” I replied, and put my hand back down.
“You’re about to go back to school,” she said, “and you’re the teacher. It’s important that you understand why you are doing what you do, this year, above all others.” This reminded me of advice I’d heard before, but this time I was listening as if I were hearing for the first time.
This woman’s name, Xiaohong Al-Nasr, combined a Chinese given name with an Arabic surname. I hoped she would explain how that had happened.
“You’re wondering about my name,” she said. I swallowed, and nodded. My mouth was too dry to speak. “I’m from the 23rd Century,” she continued. “Nearly everyone where I work and learn, including me, has DNA from every continent on Earth. I’ve also got a little from off-world colonies, but I’m 100% human, just as you are. I was given my name by all of my parents.” She paused. Her gaze was locked to my own. “I’ve been authorized to tell you that much, but I have to be careful about revealing more, to prevent altering the timestream. Do you believe me?”
“If you know anything about me, you know that I teach science, as well as other subjects.” It was a relief to finally have my turn to speak. My alleged descendant, Xiaohong, was listening to me now. Finally! “You’ve either studied me, somehow, or you’re reading my mind, or it’s something else even more complicated, but you seem to know what I know. You must know, then, that scientists are trained to be skeptical. Everything has to have evidence to support it. In science, there is no higher authority than experiment.”
“I understand that, grandpa. We knew you would need evidence, so I do have a gift for you. It’s a t-shirt. You like t-shirts, after all.” Xiaohong smiled, and removed a small capsule from her pocket, no larger than a quarter. She opened it, and — somehow — pulled a full-size t-shirt from that impossibly small place.
I took the t-shirt from my descendant. Touching it was, well, real! I turned it over. It said “Go Bears!” on the back. Even if I believed her, though, I knew I would need more than just a t-shirt to convince anyone else. After all, time travel to the past was considered impossible by every scientist I had studied. Quickly, I did the arithmetic, using the year on the shirt. “That’s the year I would turn 300 years old, if I could live that long!” I was now catching Xiaohong’s excitement. “Clearly, Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws apply here, as does the Sagan Standard, Feynman’s First Principle, the grandfather paradox, and — and — and — the entire scientific method!”
“You’re absolutely correct, and it will be important for your students to understand all those things as well.” She was right; these are all things I talked about in science class, every year. This year, though, I can try to explain them differently, or perhaps have my students research them, and then have the students explain them to my class. Correction: my classes. My students. All of them.
Something fell into place in my mind at that moment, and I finally understood what was going on. It wasn’t my own accomplishments that had brought my descendant back in time to visit me, but the unknown creations of a student of mine — from the school year about to begin. Xiaohong smiled.
“You’ve figured it out, haven’t you?” She was asking a question, and, this time, I had the answer.
“Yes. You came back through time to refocus my attention to my own true purpose in the classroom. My job is to help my students learn to do great things. It’s not about me. It’s about them!” Xiaohong’s smile grew larger. I continued. “This school year is critical. This is true of all school years, in fact. Each year is both important, and urgent. In every school, and for every student, we must always do our best to learn — together.”
Xiaohong extended her hand, and received a firm handshake from me. “Now that you know the truth, grandpa, our work here is finished. You’ll wake up in the morning, in bed with your sleeping wife, and after that, you’ll find your t-shirt, in the dryer, at home. I have to go, though; I’m needed back in the 23rd Century. After all, I have my own classes to teach, quite soon, at our Time Travel Academy, where I got your t-shirt. Goodbye, and have a great school year! I know I will, as I continue my training to become a teacher myself.”
“I will do that,” I replied. “Thank you so much! As for this evidence you’ve given me, I know how I’ll handle that. I will let the students evaluate it, with help from me, on an ‘as needed’ basis.”
“Exactly,” Xiaohong said, and then she spoke to the ceiling of her time travel cube. “Send us both back to where we were — now.” A humming sound started, then became louder. The lights began to dim. After a few minutes, everything faded to darkness, and silence, once more.
When I awoke, home again, I checked the dryer, and found it — my t-shirt from the future — waiting for me. This school year will be amazing!
This is my 22nd year teaching. This year, I teach in only one department. This is nice; I’ve spent much of my career in multiple departments, simply because I am certified in multiple subject areas. This year, in my building, I am one of three science teachers. Our high school has become so large that the 9th grade has been “spun off” to a new freshman campus, while remaining part of the high school, and I’m one of the teachers who gets to go to the new campus. This provides my students, my colleagues (especially at the new campus), and myself the opportunity for a fresh start, to a greater degree than is usually the case when a new school year begins.
My students are in just two subjects, this year: Physical Science, and Pre-AP Physical Science. I don’t want the students in the class without the “Pre-AP” prefix to feel that they are in a “lesser” class, in any sense of that word, so I am renaming “Physical Science,” slightly: “High School Physical Science.” It is my hope that this change in wording serves to communicate high expectations, and 9th grade is the first year of high school — which, in the USA’s public school systems, means 9th grade students must pass courses to earn credits toward graduation, usually for the first time.
In the other class, Pre-AP Physical Science, I am teaching that version of the course for the first time, but I feel well-prepared by the extensive training I had this Summer, and last school year, through my university, the school where the Summer training was held, and the College Board. Both classes will challenge students, but it is also true that the two classes will be different, for Pre-AP Physical Science have to leave students prepared to function effectively, later, in other Pre-AP and/or AP science courses.
Physical Science is an introduction to two sciences: physics, and then chemistry, at least in my school district. It helps me that I have experience teaching both subjects as higher-level, “stand-alone” classes. In this class (both versions), we also touch on some other sciences which are also physical sciences, such as geology, astronomy, and the science of climate change. However, those sciences do not dominate these courses, as physics and chemistry do. The image above is from chemistry (and was created with Stella 4d, which you can try here), and shows a model of a sixty-atom all-carbon molecule called buckminsterfullerene, one of a class of roughly-spherical carbon allotropes called fullerenes. Mathematicians call this particular fullerene’s shape a “truncated icosahedron,” and, in sports, this same shape is known as the (non-American) “football” or “soccer ball.” Physical modes of this shape may be made with molecular model sets of various kinds, Zometools, and other materials. In both versions of my science classes this year, building models of this molecule will be one of many lab activities we will do; one of my goals this year is for my students to spend a third of their time doing labs. The legal requirement for science class time spent in lab, in my state, is at least one-fifth, so more than that is fine. Science classes helped me learn both science and mathematics, but what I remember the most is the labs. I don’t think that’s just me, either; students learn more effectively, I have observed, by conducting scientific experiments themselves, than by being “lectured at” for extended periods of time.
I’m looking forward to a good year — for all of us.