My inspiration

Time for me to answer my own question: how did I end up here?

I think I have followed a more or less classic geologist path. I had the little kid inspiration, the stage of forgetting about it because barely any earth science is taught in high schools, and then the fabulous intro teacher in college that sucked me back in, and the rest is history.

in the field

So there was this guy who would come to our elementary school to give presentations for the kids. They would book him for an “assembly,” which would last about an hour, and he would give big slide shows for the whole school in the gym/auditorium/cafeteria. They were the fanciest slide shows I had ever seen: two big projector screens with two slide projectors running simultaneously. He would get one student to work each projector and cue the slides by waving his arms. And the talks were always really well put-together. He was a reptile biologist by training (the one exception to the slide show assembly format was the reptiles one, when he would bring in his reptiles and show us some awesome snakes), but he had enough knowledge of general science to be able to teach on other topics. And one assembly he gave was about geology.

This was the mid- to late 80s, so right around the start of plate tectonics. None of us had ever heard any of that before, and he used slides and these great foam models to demonstrate subduction and volcanism at plate boundaries. He also had fabulous earthquake offset and volcano eruption pictures. I was so excited. I loved how logical the theory was, and how exciting it was to think about volcanoes and earthquakes.

And there was a series of very elementary science books in my school library. I forget what they were called, but the title of the series was a question (how does it work? what is it? something like that). I read all of them, but after the earth science assembly I went back and checked out the geology one again, even though by then it was way below my reading level. Except that the book probably pre-dated plate tectonics, which I didn’t know at the time, and I was disappointed that it was just a catalog of rocks and minerals and didn’t talk about tectonics. Still, I totally wanted a rock collection, and if the book hadn’t said that rock specimens needed to be at least 3″ in length I would have started one right then. (After all, where was I going to find a rock that big around my parents’ house? They were all little 1-2″ glacial cobbles. Of quartz. Every rock I ever found there was quartz. boring!)

Fast forward to high school. There had been a bit of earth science exposure during the science survey class we took eighth grade (we did a fun project with testing “well samples” for “contamination” using chemical indicators, and then mapping the path of a fictional groundwater contaminating plume — it’s the only thing I remember from that whole class), but otherwise science in my town focused on the usuals: chemistry, biology, and physics. I liked those subjects but didn’t love them. And the Earth Science class in my high school was not on an honors track, so I had no room for it in my high-achiever schedule. I basically forgot that I liked geology.

I did like history, though. The history classes taught in more than half of my public school years were American history, which was very recent, and usually that started with colonialism and made it about as far as the Civil War. One year they started at the Civil War and made it all the way to the Depression, but except for AP American History, none of my classes got farther than that. Meaning almost all of the history I took in school was on the same exact subject, over and over, with almost no context. In 7th grade they jumped back to Ancient Civilizations, and in I think 10th grade there was some world history in there. But until AP American and AP Euro there was nothing connecting those things: a bit of ancient civilizations, a little bit of late European history, a whole lot of American history from colonialism until maybe the 1890s or so, and then nothing to connect it to my life here and now. Frankly, it drove me crazy. And when I finally had teachers and those AP subjects that connected the dots even a little bit, I was so happy to know what had happened beforewhy things were the way they were at, say, the start of the American Revolution. Or even now! I also loved languages. I started French in 6th grade and stuck with it through college, and I was also blown away by seeing Old and Middle English in my English classes (not that we read any Old English, but I saw what it looked like). So I decided I would study those things in college. I wanted to study history because I wanted to know why things are the way they are, including linguistics and etymology.

Okay, so after that long intro, the fact is that I never took a history class in college. I’m putting that right out there. And geology is to blame. I did sign up for a year of latin, figuring I might declare my major in Medieval Studies so I could study history + medieval linguistics. But at my alma mater we were encouraged to take chances and branch out our first year, to get that liberal arts education and try new things. When I saw that they offered an introductory class in Geology, remembering how much I liked it as a 9-year-old, I decided to try it. And before I knew it I was reading my entire textbook for fun in my room when no one was looking. I had planned to study history because I wanted to know what came before, and why things are the way they are — and that’s what geology is. Except it goes just a little bit further back, so it’s even better! (sorry, historians.) Plus scientific critical thinking was like a set of logic problems from a puzzle book, and I always loved those. For some reason that didn’t click in high school, but with geology it clicked.

So there was pretty much no looking back. I was stuck with that year of latin, of which I remember nothing, and I did later pick up some archaeology and art history on the side, but geology was it, and I knew it by the end of that first weekly field trip. I mean, hello, dinosaur footprints down the road? seriously?? To be fair to my professors, that class was designed explicitly to suck in new majors (as all good intros should), and later classes were just as exciting and engaging, and so I owe so much of my enthusiasm not just to the subject itself but to them. And later, when I had to start thinking about possible career paths, I realized that what I wanted to do most of all was be my advisor. I wanted to give other people that moment of realizing this is it omgomg, just like he and the other faculty there had done for me. And as a teacher, that’s the rush for me — when it clicks and a student suddenly gets it. Is there anything better than that?

Oh, I also liked the field trips. Getting to visit some of the most spectacular places in the world — for work — that’s not bad, either.

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2 Responses

  1. […] Comments July Accretionary We… on New Accretionary Wedge: I…My inspiration … on New Accretionary Wedge: I…Garry Hayes (Geotrip… on New Accretionary […]

  2. Excellent! I think you highlight some of the issues that plague our subject- the poor way it’s treated in K-12 in particular. You also do a great job of pointing out the aspects of geology that are so engaging and wonderous to us… and that could be for so many people if they ever got an opportunity for a decent exposure to the discipline.

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