Death is for the Living

Michael Doyle

“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” - Erik Erikson (Erikson, 1993)1

Every year, I introduce my classes to a hand-cranked generator, a simple device in which a coil of wire spins inside a few horseshoe magnets. A couple of wires lead to a light bulb, then extend beyond the bulb to two contacts, enticing the fingers of children.

Chemical energy transformed from last June’s sunlight and held in this morning’s bagel, gets transformed into the mechanical energy of our arms then back to light again. That’s the lesson, but it’s not the point.

A student eyes the bare contacts extending beyond the bulb.

“Dr. Doyle, if I touch these while I crank it, will I die?” she asks.

“Of course,” I say, not grimly.

The child grins — she’s heard the answer before; If you ask me “Will I die if … ,” my reply is always the same.

The most important thing we can teach our students is that each and every one of us dies. We are mortal, magnificent mammals created from muck and air, powered by the grace of sunlight. But unlike our gods, our magnificence cannot save us.

I (mostly) teach children biology, the study of life. You cannot know life, in any real sense, without knowing death. The essentials for human life come down to a few practices: Grow things, build things, love things, find and protect a water source, procreate, and share stories.

The most important things our children can take away from school are empathy, kindness, and the ability to be useful in the places where they live. I doubt that kindness or empathy can be taught well in our current schools where competition drives all. Science teachers in particular may not be so good at teaching empathy; our specialty has been to take things apart, to reduce the universe to bits and pieces.

So I do the next best thing, teach what I know to be true. Life is finite but not fragile. We are all here for a short while, but we are here now, our bodies as real as the earth that will reclaim us, and when we see this in ourselves, we cannot help but see it in others. We share the same needs,; we share the same fate. It only makes sense to care for each other.

1. Erikson, E. (1993). Childhood and society (p. 269). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Michael Doyle was very briefly a longshoreman, briefly a lab tech in a booze factory, more recently a pediatrician in the projects, and is now a high school biology teacher in his hometown of Bloomfield, NJ. He likes to ramble on his blog Science Teacher.