Babies: The Madness!

, , , , , | Learning | May 27, 2019

(I’m a PhD student visiting a local high school with my professor. It’s Science Day, and it is not going well. A demonstration on the dangers of electricity shorted out, setting off the fire alarm and blowing the fuses. Several students’ science projects were knocked over or destroyed in the evacuation, and someone has been bitten by a goat. Everything’s out of control, but after the regular lights come back on, the principal has gotten on a mic and is trying to calm everyone down.)

Principal: “Okay, everyone, please settle down. We may be off track, but there’s still plenty of science day to get to! I think we’re going to skip ahead now. We have a nice treat for everyone: eight parents of [High School] students in scientific and medical fields are going to tell you all about what they do and their exciting and important careers in science!”

(She pulls out a stack of index cards, and I recognize them: we learned early on that the science teachers had been organizing everything, and the principal didn’t really know what the plan was, so she asked each presenter to jot down a few notes about their backgrounds and what they’d be talking about.)

Principal: “We’re going to hear from… Let’s see… Dr. [Doctor #1] at [Local University]! She’s an entomologist, which means she studies insects. Her work focuses on… uh…”

(The principal is holding the cards at arm’s length, and it becomes apparent that she’s used to using reading glasses but doesn’t have them with her.)

Principal: “On… the ecosystem… of…” *squinting* “…of… migratory beetles?”

(There’s applause and then silence. At the back of the room, I see an AV tech bring up the slides.)

Principal: “Is Dr. [Doctor #1] here?”

Parent: “Oh! No. She fell in the lake when the fire alarm went off. She and [School Nurse] went off to find her some dry clothes.”

Principal: “That’s fine. That’s fine! Let’s find someone nice and pleasant. How about [My Professor]. He’s going to be talking… about… ”

(Her eyes go wide, and she puts the index card in the back of the stack. I guess “Infection Control in Spinal Surgery” doesn’t count as nice and pleasant.)

Principal: “Oookay. Here we go. Dr. [Doctor #2]! Here we go. He’s a doctor and a scientist, and he spends his time working with babies!”

(She puts the cards back in her pocket. The AV tech in the back is violently shaking his head, giving a thumbs down, and crossing his arms in an X, but she doesn’t see him.)

Principal: “Caring for vulnerable people like babies is what makes science so important, you know? Dr. [Doctor #2], can you join us on stage? And can we please get the slides up?”

(Next to me, someone who seems about the right age to be another PhD student speaks up.)

PhD Student: “Oh, s***. Oh no.”

(A worried-looking man walks onto the stage. He tries to push the mic away for a moment – probably to whisper in the principal’s ear – but she interprets it differently and hands him the mic. He stands there for a second in silence, looking at it awkwardly. The principal leans into the mic one more time.)

Principal: “Can we get those slides, please?”

(The AV tech gives a shrug and hits a button while starting to laugh. An image of a snarling dog appears on the screen alongside the words, “RABIES: THE VIRUS OF MADNESS.” The students EXPLODE into applause and cheers, and the principal looks delighted until she sits down and notices the slides. She drops her head into her hands.)

Presenter: “The first thing you need to know about science is the importance of clearly communicating your findings, and the first thing you need to know about medicine is that every cliché about doctors’ handwriting is absolutely true.”

(The rest of the event goes off without a hitch, to the students’ delight and the principal’s mixed feelings. After the presentations, I meet the other PhD student and we’re talking about the mixup.)

PhD Student: “I’m disappointed that [Principal] stopped reading off the card when she did. As soon as I worked out she’d misread ‘rabies’ as ‘babies,’ I was really hoping to hear her read our goals of eradicating the scourge of babies from the globe.”

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