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Wednesday, September 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘Magnificent Desolation’ by Jess Walter

By Jess Walter For The Spokesman-Review

I have a crush on the mother of my worst student.

I suppose crush might seem an odd word for someone my age, 50, but it’s an apt one. I feel crushed by this woman who appears in my classroom doorway to talk about why her son is failing seventh-grade science.

Abigail Cullen is ethereal. She wears a white skirt and a dark blue top that remind me of the upper atmosphere, where the stratosphere meets the mesosphere.

Hey, I’m a science teacher, not a poet.

“Please,” I say, “come in.”

My sister calls my job “teaching cats to fetch.” It feels that way at times – the utter disinterest. I’ll think, That was a good lesson, and I’ll look up to see 25 dull-eyed, comatose stares.

But sometimes I’ll see a student light up over a lesson on tectonic plates, or the property of waves, and I’ll think, Maybe I’ve awakened a soul.

I was destined to teach science. I was born July 20, 1969, the day men first walked on the moon. While my father sat watching news reports of the lunar landing on the waiting room television, a surgeon delivered me from my dying mother, who had a massive blood clot in her lung. I came into this world as my mother left it, as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the chalky surface of a new world and said, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong later claimed that what he actually said was: “… one small step for a man …” This upset some people because that article a seemed to diminish what was a vast human endeavor. But in some ways, a man makes more sense. If Armstrong had meant man in the broader sense, like mankind, he would’ve in essence been saying, That’s one small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind.

Few people remember what was said by the second man to walk on the moon, my hero, Buzz Aldrin.

“Beautiful view,” said Buzz. To which Armstrong replied, “Isn’t that something? Magnificent sight out here.” … Then Buzz uttered the two words that still give me goosebumps, expressing the paradoxical nature of our miraculous existence on this life-giving rock in the exurbs of a cold, hard universe:

“Magnificent desolation.”

“We don’t believe in that,” Jacob Cullen said the first week of class. He was explaining why he couldn’t do the assignment on plant life cycles. (It was nothing controversial, photosynthesis, vascular vs. nonvascular structure, that sort of thing.)

“You don’t believe in plants?” I said.

“Sex,” Jacob said. He was a slight 12-year-old with intelligent eyes and a constant half smirk.

“You … don’t believe in sex?”

“You’re not allowed to teach it to me.”

“I am certainly not teaching you about sex.”

“You said sperm.”

I explained that the lesson was about angiosperms and gymnosperms, plants that reproduce using flowers and fruit versus plants that use cones.

“We don’t believe in that,” Jacob said. “God made plants.”

This became a pattern. Whatever I taught – cell structure, heredity, geology – Jacob Cullen would approach my desk after class. “We don’t believe in that.”

“You don’t believe in rocks?”

“You said some rocks are 4 billion years old. How is that possible when the earth is only 7,000 years old.”

My unit on the moon and tides was the last straw.

I looked up to see Jacob at my desk. “What don’t you believe in now? The moon? Tides?”

“God hung the moon,” Jacob said. “And the moon landing was faked.”

This is when I finally emailed Jacob’s parents.

I can’t stop staring at Abigail Cullen’s angular face, her jet-black hair tied back tight against that smooth, elegant forehead.

“Have a seat,” I say, my hand shaking as I gesture to a student’s desk. “Is Mr. Cullen coming?”

“Jacob’s dad is playing golf,” she says. “We’re divorced.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” I say and blurt out, “Me, too. I mean, I’m divorced, not golfing.”

Monica left 15 years ago. She said I was “distant and unreachable.” I wish I could argue that description, but I’ve always had difficulty expressing emotion. When anger or joy arise in me, it feels like I’m in a space suit, separated from the world. I don’t like to make excuses, but my therapist suspects it’s related to growing up without a mother.

My palms are sweaty. My voice cracks. “Can I … get you … something?”

She looks around. “Like what?”

It’s a fair question. We are in a science classroom, not a martini lounge. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I reach for a chemistry beaker. “Liquid volcano?”

“I think I’m fine, thank you.”

Every teacher has to deal with fundamentalists from time to time.

I have a respectful speech I give parents about science and religion. I always end it with an anecdote about my hero. “Do you know the first thing Buzz Aldrin did when he landed on the moon? He took communion. He believed science and religion complement one another because both seek to understand the great mysteries – one through hypothesis and experimentation, the other through parable and metaphor.”

“The Bible is not metaphor,” an angry father said once. “It’s the absolute word of God.”

I smiled. “But even Jesus spoke in parables.”

“Science is Satan’s PR department,” the man said.

How do you respond to that?

This may be why Buzz Aldrin is my hero. In 2002, a conspiracy theorist was harassing him outside a hotel, insisting the moon landing was faked. Several times, Buzz turned away, but the man just kept hounding him, calling him “a liar” and “a coward.”

I have watched the video of what happens next maybe a dozen times: the 72-year-old former astronaut just hauls off and punches the man. This is the moment Buzz Aldrin became the hero of science teachers everywhere, the patron saint of not-taking-anymore-of-this-b.s.

“Let me start by saying I’m not trying to demean anyone’s faith,” I tell Mrs. Cullen. “What I’d like Jacob to learn is the difference between belief and knowledge.”

I am lost in her brown eyes. I clear my throat. “For instance, you could choose to not believe in gravity, but it won’t change what happens when you step off a curb. Same with evolution. Or climate change. These are not opinions we can ‘like’ or ‘thumbs-up,’ but processes widely observed, studied and proven by scientific method – whether a certain church or politician agrees with them or not.”

She cocks her head as if she’s not quite following.

“This is why I don’t think it’s fair to limit a child to knowledge that was available 2,000 years ago,” I say, “just as it wouldn’t be right if Jacob got a terrible infection to only give him Frankincense because that was the medicine available in Biblical times.”

That’s when I see the Cullen smirk on Jacob’s mother’s face.

And all hope drains from my body.

This is no longer simply about a boy and his religious parents.

This is about what’s wrong with our whole country, from the top down, the deep divisions created by people cherry-picking facts or ignoring them altogether, paranoid videos fed by social media algorithms, the cynical tools of the greedy and lazy, the willfully-ignorant.

“Look,” I say, “I’m sorry. But if two intelligent people like you and I can’t get past this crazy stuff, past these medieval fears and superstitions, centuries of bigotry and backward thinking, then what chance does humanity have? With the serious threats the planet faces, real, existential threats, we can’t be wasting our time arguing over whether the moon is real!”

She bursts into laughter. “Did he say the moon isn’t real? Mr. Wells, I think my son is having some fun at your expense. We are not religious. Jacob hasn’t been to church since he was baptized. He is, however, about to get crucified.” She smiles. “Metaphorically, I mean.”

Apparently, Jacob is failing science because his teacher is a drunk. Mr. Wells forgets to assign readings and doesn’t grade tests. Everyone in the class is failing.

“Everyone?” I ask. “That’s quite a curve.”

“Oh yeah, it’s an open secret,” Mrs. Cullen says. “No one says anything because Mr. Wells was in a terrible accident.”

“An accident!” I almost admire Jacob’s creativity.

“His wife and children were killed,” she says. “He drinks to forget.”

“I’ll bet he does. How many children?”

“Two.”

“Ah, the twins,” I say. “Reason and Hope.”

She smiles and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wells. Since the divorce, he’s been acting out like this. He told his P.E. teacher he can’t play floor hockey because he has lupus.”

“In his defense, it is floor hockey.”

We are still laughing when Mr. Cullen comes in.

“What’s so damned funny?” he asks. He is tall and balding, thick like a former football player. He’s still wearing his golf clothes, even his glove. His face is flushed, and it’s clear he’s been drinking, working up his anger.

He strides toward me. “I don’t care what happened to you,” he says, “you got no right to take it out on these kids.”

“Mike, calm down,” his ex-wife rises.

“I’m not gonna calm down!” He is coming around my desk.

I rise and hold out my hands. “There’s been a misunderstanding.”

“Mike, stop it!” Mrs. Cullen says. “It’s Jacob. He told his teacher he doesn’t believe in science, that the moon landing was fake.”

Mike Cullen looks confused. “So what!” he says. “I don’t want some drunk failing my kid for that!” He is right in front of me now, his hands balled up in fists. “Besides, the moon landing was faked. I just saw a video about that. They couldn’t have flown through the Van Allen radiation belts without …”

I don’t even remember throwing the punch.

We jokingly call it our first date, Abigail driving me to the emergency room. The injury looks worse than it is – a broken zygomatic arch, the narrow piece of cheekbone between the jaw and the ear. It’s a quick fix, maxio-facial surgery, like popping the dent out of an old car.

The whole thing sobers Mr. Cullen up. I could probably be fired for punching him, but my weak blow barely grazed his jaw, while his more practiced shot broke my face. So thankfully, there’s no talk of pressing charges or filing complaints.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Cullen says as I hold paper towels against my bleeding nose.

“It’s OK,” I say. “But I have to tell you one thing. While lengthy exposure to the Van Allen belt would cause huge problems, simply flying through them on a space ship exposes you to about the same amount of radiation as an X-ray.”

“OK,” he says.

“I’m so humiliated,” I tell Abigail on the drive to the hospital. “I go 50 years without punching anyone only to lose it over the Van Allen radiation belt.”

She smiles. “Don’t be embarrassed. Mike’s an ass. I just wish you had better aim.”

I promise her I will train harder for my next defense of the scientific method.

Our second date is to Manito Park, where Jacob is doing an extra-credit assignment on plant reproduction while his mother and I walk the gardens. The swelling has gone down in my face.

“Angiosperm?” Jacob asks as he examines the bursting crimson leaves of a Japanese maple.

“That’s right,” I say. His mother and I are standing in dappled sunlight on a wooden footbridge watching him. “Magnificent, isn’t it?”

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