Extra credit existentialism

By The Columbia Chronicle

On one of the tests in 10th grade biology, my teacher asked us an extra credit question: Is your teacher an evolutionist

or a creationist?

This question would have been forgotten had it not been for the reaction of my deskmate upon the return of our tests. DJ, a boy who once offered me a “morning snack” of pot that had been wedged in the spine of his textbook, looked over at my paper and scoffed, “I can’t believe you got that wrong!”

I was amazed and mortified. Mind you, I got every other question on the test right, and atop DJ’s paper sat an unimpressive D. But somehow he knew something I didn’t, something that had nothing to do with rock ’n’ roll, how to make an efficient bong or how to skip class and still be marked present.

My answer was something like “Evolutionist.  Any scientist worth his/her weight had to be an evolutionist.” I reviewed my red-X’d answer, read it over and over again, as if by rereading it there might be some clue as to why I had gotten this wrong.

I must have looked like my world was coming to an end. And I admit, it kind of was. At that moment, everything I knew collapsed and conflated. The world was not as I had believed. DJ softened a bit and clarified things for me, pointing to an obvious fact: “Dude, like, Mr. S. is the faculty sponsor for the Young Christians Club. Everybody knows that.” As I had done for him countless times, he gently slid his paper over so that I could see the right answer: “CREATIONIST, OF COURSE!” His block second-grader print mocked me even as DJ offered his support. I thanked DJ for his clarification and walked out of the class forever changed.

Before that test and prior to that moment, knowing and believing were, for me, one and the same. I knew I was smart, as was evidenced by A, after A, after A. I believed by using some sort of faulty logic that this meant that DJ was, well, less smart than I, as evidenced by his D, after D, after D. That our categories were discrete and our statuses dependable followed. The world made sense in terms of its opposites, its goods and bads, its rights and wrongs.

Even more, I believed that knowledge was pure, that teachers were somehow attached to data and empiricism, not all wound up in the nether regions of religious belief. I believed that a public school system could not—would not—ever allow someone to grandstand religion even as they were supposedly teaching science. I believed in the separation of church and state, and was proud that I attended public school.

But this moment shattered those absolutes forever. He wasn’t necessarily as dumb as the system claimed and I was certainly not as smart. For the first time, I understood that there could be lots of ways of knowing and though I could read a book like nobody’s business, apparently I didn’t pay very much attention to people, to who they were and why that might matter to me. I had a thing or two to learn from the DJs of the world.

If I saw a question like that today, all my education, all my training in analysis, all the hours I spent reading cultural theory would make the answer obvious, but for a different reason: An evolutionist wouldn’t ask the question in the first place. For me, this doesn’t mean knowledge is relative, that Mr. S. had a point, or that I ought to consider creationism as a viable explanation for the existence of life on our planet. The guy was still kind of a jerk for asking this in the first place.

Yet, I also know—and believe—that whether he meant to or not, Mr. S. taught me more about how to learn and what we might count as knowledge. I know and believe that this one question I got wrong was more valuable to me than all the questions about Punnet squares and fruit flies combined—all of the ones I got right.  I can only hope that DJ got something out of the moment, too.

Ames Hawkins publishes in both creative and academic realms. She teaches creative nonfiction, first year writing and cultural studies. Besides writing, sites of pleasure include golf, drinking microbrewed beer and thoughtful conversation.