Sunday, October 25, 2020

Mr. Sands — a character study

Not long ago, while looking for a new place to walk our dog, we wound up in neighboring Hopkinton on the Douglas Sands Memorial Trail, a half-mile rambling hike along a wooded ridge. The website described Sands as “a Hopkinton science teacher who was a natural raconteur and passionate observer of nature.” Unless there were two local science teachers with the same name and characteristics, this must have been the Mr. Sands I had in eighth grade in Wellesley. Did he teach in Hopkinton and then in Wellesley, or the other way around, or in other places as well? I don’t know.

I hadn’t thought about Mr. Sands in years, and wasn’t aware that he’d had a hiking trail named after him. As we climbed up through old glacial boulder fields now grown up in woods, I noticed that someone had built this meandering path with exceptional care. To shore it up, they had borrowed from the array of stones scattered all around, and provided rudimentary staircases here and there where it was steep. Someone outdoorsy and knowledgeable and thorough. Maybe it had been Doug Sands and some of his friends. That would have been like him.

Mr. Sands was my science teacher at Wellesley Junior High between 1963 and ’64. My brother Bob had him in 1960, and Ned would follow in 1966. In all, he would teach middle-school science in Wellesley for over 30 years. In his appearance, and in the enthusiastic, quirky manner in which he conducted his classes, he stood apart from other teachers I had, who by now have mostly blurred together in my memory.

In the classroom, especially just before and after class, he would be formal but friendly. But if you saw him out walking among the scurrying students in the crowded hallways between classes, towering over everyone, loping along with great long strides, his gaze fixed on some distant object, you learned not to say hi to him, because he would not acknowledge you at all.

Mr. Sands was a sight. Tall, thin, and bony, middle-aged when I had him, his face was narrow and weathered and the features within it – his chin, lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears, his teeth when he laughed which was often – were prominent and elongated. Horse teeth! He wore glasses with thick lenses; I remember that they reminded me of goggles. His gray hair stood almost straight up from his forehead, as if a blast of wind had once blown it up and back so hard that it had yet to recover. He had a deep, booming voice and an unpredictable manner; both tended to get your attention.

His was the most unusual and engaging class I ever had at that school, maybe any school. Mr. Sands threw out the rule book and he threw out the lesson plan. He must have had an overall design to his teaching but I was never aware of it.

One of the first things you’d notice was that the standard lab bench and teacher’s desk up front were a mess, and so were the bulletin boards. There was stuff everywhere: curios, keepsakes, bird’s nests, tiny skeletons, shells and stones from far and near, and amber bottles of who knew what. The stock terrarium was filled not with turtles or fish but what appeared to be mosses and mold, and litter. Halfway down the right-hand wall (the left-hand wall was all windows, north-facing) was a cork bulletin board with a white dish towel tacked to it, on which someone (Mrs. Sands? For there was a Mrs. Sands.) had spelled out in needlework, “Mr. Sands’ Crying Towel.” It was understood, tongue-in-cheek, that the crying towel was to be used after Mr. Sands handed back his corrected quizzes to the class. Such quizzes were frequent; he was trying to impart knowledge – were you getting it or not? (Some of the kids, disdaining science, resisted Mr. Sands, his efforts and his personality; I’m sure it puzzled him.) Across the bottom of the towel, in smaller letters: “It’s Your Own Fault.”)

At the back of the room, on the floor in a shallow carton, was something most of us had heard about before our first day: the classroom mascot, Mr. Sands’ Galapagos tortoise, which he’d named Albee, or Alby, or Albie. Albee was about the size of a toilet seat and rode to work each day on a pile of old newspapers in the back of Sands’ blue-violet Ford Fairlane convertible. Albee would sit in class quietly munching apples and gazing at the sights. No other teacher had a pet in their room, certainly not anything as exotic. Albee made you want to look up the Galapagos Islands in a book, without anyone telling you to do so. He also made kids (Albee’s groupies) want to sit in the back of the room, where they could keep an eye on him, and be interested in him. This tended to push the slower kids up towards the front, where Sands could keep an eye on them.

I never asked how or why Sands had acquired Albee. I’d heard rumors that he (Sands) had been in the Navy or the Seabees in World War II, and it is easy to imagine him stopping by the archipelago sometime during those years and taking a young tortoise on impulse. I can’t picture Albee in the classroom of today, with or without a pandemic. Individuals aren’t allowed to walk off with tortoises anymore, and a committee would have to be convened before it could be allowed into the school, and the Board of Health would probably get involved. All this would be well and good from the standpoint of preserving the tortoise species. But our classroom experience would have been significantly less rich without Albee, and I feel lucky that we were able to enjoy his presence. (I do wonder about Albee sometimes, wherever he is. He’s still a fairly young tortoise.)

Mr. Sands clearly liked his job. He liked to draw examples from what we could see around us. One day he pointed to a utility pole across the street, which had two gray cylindrical boxes attached to it up high, with wires running in and out. “Now, which one of you bright young people can tell me what those boxes are? Come on, now, somebody? You see them every day, aren’t you curious about them?” There were some who snickered (“Who cares?”), and some of us were embarassed to admit to ourselves that we took these devices for granted and had never wondered what they were. But scientists don’t take things for granted, and Mr. Sands strode out into the hallway where he seized a hapless student on his way down the hall with a bathroom pass and ushered him in. “Now, you look like a smart young man to me. You see those gray boxes up on the telephone pole? I’ll bet you can tell me what those are.” It made little difference that the student didn’t know either, because by now most of us did want to know. We wanted to know; a thing more rare than you’d think. They turned out to be transformers; their purpose was to reduce the power from the high-voltage lines to a level that wouldn’t “fry your mothers’ fridges.” He didn’t really say that, I read it somewhere; but he could have.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands was discussing the Moon. Everybody knew that the Earth rotated fully on its axis once a day; that’s what made a day a day. But how often did the Moon rotate, not just around the Earth but on its own? Did it rotate on its own? Someone offered the theory that there was a dark side to the Moon that nobody ever sees; the Moon always shows one face to us; therefore, it doesn’t rotate at all. At this, Mr. Sands asked me get up. (“Stand up, Robert,” he said, using my older brother’s name. When Ned had him three years later, Sands used to call him “David.”) He had me stand at the front and face the class, and keep on facing the class, with my arms out to the side at shoulder level so I could be seen better. “Let’s pretend that you’re the Moon and the rest of the class is the Earth.” Then he asked me to move sideways over to the window-wall, still facing the class, then to the rear wall (being careful not to trip over Albee), then to the fourth wall (“Keep your arms up, Robert, you’re drooping.”), then back to where I started. How many times had I turned? Like the Moon, I had turned once.

Today, NASA delights us with this information: “The Moon does spin on its axis, completing a rotation once every 27.3 days. Confusion is caused because it also takes the same period to orbit the Earth, so that it keeps the same side facing us.” I hear ya, guys, but I’m still baffled. I guess that’s one reason I didn’t go into the sciences.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands took the class on an imaginary trip to the Moon. (NASA’s own Moon missions were several years in the future.) He did this with every class, every year. Sometimes he did it for whole auditoriums. The room would be our spaceship, Mr. Sands would be the Captain. There, in the sky, is the Moon; what would you need to take along for such a journey? Sands positioned himself at the blackboard, chalk in hand, ready to write down our suggestions.

We had some: the Moon was far, we would need fuel. The moon was airless, we would need spacesuits. We thought and thought and threw out some more ideas, but of course we forgot a few things. “Is that it? Anything else? OK, then!” And he grasped the handle of a heavy, invisible door and drew it firmly shut: “Kah-LAAANG!!” followed by a burst of mad-scientist laughter. And so over the next 20 minutes, we were all on board with him (which was another remarkable thing in itself), flying to the Moon and back. While everyone was in on the joke, still we managed to absorb a few crucial facts about space, and rockets, and the inhospitable surface of the Moon, and the deviousness of our Captain, by getting killed off one row at a time because we had forgotten to bring – what? – food, or bottled air, or water, or radios, or weighted boots, or a parachute for our ship. By the time the ship got back to Earth, the only one left was our Captain. Truly a tragic outcome for the rest of the passengers! But then, there was always the crying towel.

At the end of the school day on Friday, November 22nd, after the principal had given us the bad news about President Kennedy over the P.A., I made my way down to Mr. Sands’ classroom. I must have thought I’d feel safer there. Nothing was said; he had left the door open for anyone who wanted to come inside. There was a radio on, reporting what little news there was at that point. After a while, Mrs. Sands appeared. They gave each other a quick hug and went back to listening to the news with somber expressions, each staring ahead blankly, trying to imagine, trying to understand, to see. Mrs. Sands looked . . . normal.

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