Mustard Seed

I do appreciate new technology.  I am Team Macbook in the laptop department, but Team Android when it comes to cell phones. I can order anything, from Christmas gifts to tonight’s dinner, with a few taps of a finger. My Roku streams movies, TV shows, and how-to videos on demand 24/7.  I even learned how to replace the computer board on my broken Whirlpool dryer by watching a 15-second Youtube video.  I have successfully repaired many washers and dryers since. The guys at the appliance parts place know me well.

It really is a wonder that I ever found my way to Senior Beach Week relying on a primitive roadmap and my mother’s scribbled directions.  Today I plug an address into my GPS and a sweet omniscient voice tells me where to turn, informs me of upcoming road delays, determines how long I will have to hold my breath to find a bathroom, and redirects me when I get off-path.  If the voice should ever begin to tell me to watch my speed, I’d be convinced it has a direct line to my dad, riding shotgun with a smile, somewhere in heaven.

Technology has made me smarter, more efficient, and it has saved me countless hours and dollar signs. Yet there is one area of my life that I just cannot yield to the information super highway.   I still choose to do the bulk of my reading the old fashioned way.

I love the feel of the bound book.  The flexibility and strength of the spine, the mountains and valleys of inscribed lettering, and the mere tickle of the pages on my fingers gets me excited. I admit to having inhaled the smell of many a volume.  There simply is no room for dog-eared corners or books moonlighting as coasters in this world.

My husband shares my love of reading.  We had two bookshelves custom built to house our his-and hers-collections. He loves to read about world history, sports, politics, and agriculture.  I prefer the classics of literature, biographies, poetry, history, and anything that my father-in-law puts in my hand and says, “You need to read this.”  The latter always gets immediately bumped to the top of my reading list.  His selections have never disappointed.

So it may come as no surprise that when I learned that my junior high science teacher, Mr. Shaw, had written a book, I had to have a copy.  My son, while a senior in Mrs. Shaw’s AP English class, gifted me a copy for my birthday, along with a special note from Mr. Shaw written right there on the title page.  I squealed like the 7thgrader that I once was.

In the 1980’s I was one of the lucky ones, having been a student of Mr. Shaw’s science classes in both 7th and 9th grades.  His classroom looked much like you would imagine a junior high science classroom to look….long rows of thick, black topped, lab tables facing an old-school chalkboard, specimens of once-living creatures adorning the back walls, and test tubes, microscopes and textbooks galore.  That is at least how I remember it.

To the 7thgrade girl in particular, Mr. Shaw himself was just as well manicured as his classroom.  He was the Professor from Gilligan’s Island standing in the flesh.  I do not recall ever seeing him in anything other than the standard sharply pressed khakis and starched collared oxford shirts with the sleeves meticulously rolled to the elbow.  My hand was often raised just to beckon him to my row where he would lean forward and plant his forearms firmly in front of me.

“You have another question, Ms. Hall?”

Yes indeed!  7thgrade me was a beaker full of questions, to most of which I already knew the answers.

Whether you liked science or not, Mr. Shaw’s classes were never boring.  They were science in action, with a good dose of dry humor.  On an average day we chewed saltine crackers and spit them out to learn about how enzymes aid in digestion.  I remember coaxing droplets of blood from our own fingertips to determine blood types. I made an A+ on my leaf identification notebook and actually kept it until the mounted leaves crumbled into dust.  My foam board-mounted bug collection survived much longer stored in the rafters of our pool house.   My mother was super proud of that A+, but her rule of no animals in the house, alive or well-preserved, stood firmly.

Now back to the book….

Thirty Years Before the Class had a longer than usual wait on my reading list.  I had been working my way through a 50-cent book sale at our local library and a holiday date night trip to the downtown used bookstore. My shelf had grown heavy.  Paired with my father-in-law’s urging to finish his copy of Killers of the Flower Moon so that we might be able to discuss and fume over the murders of the Osage Indians, Mr. Shaw’s book laid fallow in the field of good reads.

It waited patiently for me, and finally this spring its proverbial hand was raised.


The book begins with stories of his early exploration, into among other things, the scientific concepts of thermodynamics and electrical currents, which can be scary, enlightening, even comical depending upon your perspective. He tells tales of scouting at Camp Raven Knob, some quite “explosive.” He shares how a summer lifeguarding job may have just helped him chart a course for teaching.  And then there are those scientific and unscientific antics of college undergrads. Those may have been my favorites.   I literally laughed out loud while waiting at my daughter’s orthodontist appointment as I read the chapters detailing Mr. Shaw’s near death experiences as a college research assistant.  It was one appointment that I didn’t mind the long wait.

In the book’s 39 chapters Mr. Shaw includes stories of his early years teaching science at my former junior high school and later in a high school classroom.  One story in particular about a summer he spent helping two coworkers paint a barn would have made for a winning episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos.  His summer adventures traveling to science conventions around the country were adventures indeed, and the tales themselves could quite possibly be bound into a Volume II.

Yet Thirty Years Before the Class describes the lengths a teacher reached to reach his students.  Some comical.  Some serious. All memorable.

Why am I naming this my Best Read of 2019?

Mr. Mike Shaw not only shares his grand adventures in scientific curiosity, but how each trial and tribulation, each well-crafted plan that went awry, shaped him, inspired his search for the how’s, why’s, ooh’s and ahh’s, and molded him into a teacher that Stokes County proudly called its own.

Perhaps the best parts can be found in the lessons he gleaned along the way…

You learn because you love.

There’s no room for indifference.

Generosity and kindness are indeed long remembered.

Child-like curiosity gives rise to new discovery.

In his own words… It is never too late to become a listener of falling snow.

Mr. Shaw is now retired, but I hope he knows that he is still teaching.  I recently wrote him a letter of thanks for planting those young seeds that led me to double majors in biology and psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Now as a mom of a preschooler, a son in college, and five eager learners in between, I fully appreciate the value of the teacher I once had.

I wanted my oldest son, a college Junior majoring in English, Secondary Education, to have his own copy of Thirty Years Before the Class because I believe that there are some things that he will never get in a classroom as he prepares for his own opening chapters.  Every story shared is valuable to a young man who sometimes hears of the dark trials and tribulations of many in the teaching profession today.  I pray Mr. Shaw’s example, encouragement and passion is contagious.

Another copy of the book, along with a beautifully inscribed personal note from a seasoned teacher to an aspiring one, recently arrived in the mail.  It was a gift in more ways than one.

It isn’t on Amazon’s bestseller’s list, but it should be.  Grab a copy for your summer beach reads, and should your stack be as deep as mine, quickly move it to the top. Host a book club discussion.  Gift a copy to young minds who may be considering a teaching career or older minds who value childlike wonder and curiosity.  Be prepared to learn, to laugh, and to value all teachers and the passions they share.

May Mr. Shaw’s mustard bottle always be full…







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