Mixing God with Science

The Yellowknife Public School. NWT Archives/Henry Busse fonds/N-1979-052: 4060
by Catherine Dook

For a while, we had our very own Russian defector. We were very proud of him. He dropped out of the Canadian university where he’d been teaching physics (giving a defector tenure would have messed up the Russian exchange program) and he reappeared in Yellowknife Public School teaching Grade 9 science. He planned to mark time for a couple of years in the Canadian public education system and then quietly resurface at a different university.

The Doctor was a small, bald man with a heavy accent, wire-rimmed glasses and a modest, kindly way about him that did not auger well for teaching middle school in Yellowknife in 1969. The science curriculum was poor, he said. He told us about the aurora borealis and the nature of particles, and as he explained he waved his hands and his face shone with enthusiasm. He’d defected partly on religious grounds, so he explained the logic behind God, and the reconciliation between science and the infinite. We sat with incomprehension stamped on every face.

After awhile the principal took to lurking around the doorway and listening in, and one day he collared our defector as we filed out of class and said, “You can teach SOME religion, but not all the time.”

Our defector was a short man, but he drew himself up to his full height. His glasses flashed. “This is a free country,” he said. “I can teach anything I want.”

Back in the classroom, discipline disintegrated into spitballs and yelling disruption. Our defector was heard to complain mildly that children in Russia were better behaved than their Canadian counterparts. Our friend and fellow student Peter, attempting to help out, once stood up and hollered at some miscreants. “Have some respect!”

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“Please don’t be rude, Peter,” said our defector, and our hearts bled at his helplessness. Our French teacher carried a whip. Our music teacher could yell with such Wagnerian force that our eardrums rattled. I well remember the day she asked us to name a famous composer and someone said, “Chubby Checkers.”

Our defector liked to snowshoe, so on weekends he offered to take students for hikes. My sister and I enjoyed his kindly company. He stopped after a while and offered us refreshment from his thermos.

“Um, Doctor, what is this?” my sister asked.

“Vodka and orange juice,” he said. “It keeps you warm.”

When we explained about the Canadian liquor laws, he was horrified. “Barbaric!” he exclaimed. “Vodka is medicinal!”

After a while it became obvious that nobody was going to pass their Grade 9 science departmentals; we were too dumb and he was far too smart. The more he explained, the harder we floundered. The principal offered to coach those students who wanted a passing mark, but most of us stayed behind in the Doctor’s classroom. Our parents were all for it. “We want you to support the Doctor,” they said. “Marks are all very well, but how often do you meet a man as kind and good and educated as our defector?”

So my sister and I hung in to the bitter end and everybody flunked their science departmentals. Actually, I passed, but my mark was so low as to be a disgrace. And I avoided physics the entire tenure of my stay in high school, so the experiment might have been considered a dismal failure, except for one thing.

My parents were, I realized, right. You do not often meet a person as kind and good and educated as our defector. The Doctor was the first person with a PhD I’d ever encountered, and if universities ‘outside’ where I was bound to go, were full of people with PhDs who were as nice as our defector, well, maybe university was something to look forward to. And he taught me something else. If you believe in God, stand up.

He taught me a lot.

To order any of Catherine Dook’s humour books, contact her at catherinedook@hotmail.com.


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