catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 8 :: 2014.04.18 — 2014.05.01


Thunderstorm at a bus stop

I was a late bloomer academically. After 11 years of parent-teacher conferences during which my teachers tactfully tried to explain to my parents that I was an underachiever, I had finally decided to give school a try. In the first three years of high school, I had been somewhere between the “college bound” track and the “work at the box factory” track. By my senior year, I had decided that I wanted to try for a career in biotechnology. To help me toward my new goal, I registered for AP biology.

The class began before the new AP biology teacher even started at the school. On the first day, I sat in the front row, eager apply myself to my studies. The old biology teacher who filled in for the first two days of class started with an analogy. He told us that people are like vehicles. Some of us are like tractors and some are like cars. Tractors, he assured the group of students in rural Wisconsin, have important jobs that could never be done with a car. Likewise, cars have important traits that let them do things that tractors cannot do. He told us, “This class is a highway. It is no place for tractors.” Then he asked us to think about what classes we had taken to prepare for AP biology. Who in the class had already taken organic chemistry (which was only for those pursuing science majors in college), who had taken honors chemistry (only for the college bound), and who had taken regular chemistry (for those working toward the box factory)? He started the list in the back. Each student put their name under whichever of the three courses they had completed. The paper came to my hands last and I was the only one to write my name under regular chemistry. I was the tractor on the highway.

On Monday, the new AP biology teacher, Mr. Travor Bussey, started his first day at my school. He sparkled with passion and excitement for biology. I told him that I was worried I couldn’t manage the speed required for AP biology and he encouraged me to give it a try anyway. When I performed like a tractor on the first exam he invented extra credit projects for me. We spent hours together after school building a huge terrarium with rivers and pumps (in hindsight I am sure it was all paid for out of his pocket). He was the kind of teacher who, when he caught a girl in class cheating on an exam, told us to put our pencils down, sat on his desk and read us The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. As far as I know there was no other punishment given or needed.

Over the year I learned skills like “studying” and “doing my homework” that I had not developed in my first 11 years of schooling. I was also captured by biology when I learned what happens inside of our cells. The video we watched in Mr. Bussey’s class that showed DNA spinning and being processed by molecular machines instilled a desire for understanding the tiniest wonders in biology that has never been quenched. I barely met the requirements for college, but was accepted and did well while majoring in biology and biochemistry. Not even two degrees’ worth of science classes could fulfill the desire for understanding that Mr. Bussey had kindled in me. After college I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Five years into my Ph.D. work (and ten years out of high school), I was standing outside the beautiful state capitol building waiting for a bus. As I waited, I was ignoring my book and looking out toward the southeast at an incredible Midwestern thunderstorm bombarding the area where I had attended high school. Another man at the bus stop said to me, “I have friends under that storm right now.”

I replied, “I have family who live there.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “Carlson.”

Surprised, I looked at him and said, without thinking, “Bussey.”

Bewildered by this monumental ghost of my life appearing before me in the flesh, it was difficult to communicate all that I was thinking. I told him I was finishing a Ph.D. in biochemistry because of the spark he had ignited in me. I tried to thank him for his class and tell him about the difference he had made for me. He told me he had only taught at my high school for two years and that he was thinking about going back to school, too. My bus pulled up. We said we should get coffee. I left.

The scene is shaded with the green light of the thunderstorm in my memory, and it reminds me of our first meeting. He started at my school after the semester had begun and only taught there for a couple of years. It was a quick wait at a bus stop in his life that changed my life forever. When I teach my students how DNA is processed by molecular machines, I am trying to share with them some echo of the passion and excitement that Mr. Bussey showed me. When I give my students more grace than they deserve after lousy test performances, I am extending the grace that was shown to me while digging a river in potting soil.

Travor Bussey came through my life like a thunderstorm. He appeared with little warning, went after just a short time, and left me completely changed. May the Lord use us to such ends at every stop along the way.

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