I didn’t need to see the Google home page to remember that today is the 400th anniversary of Galileo constructing his first telescope. That date has been burned into my brain since the sixth grade, and, like many things remembered from grade school, there was a certain amount of suffering involved.
I was already a science geek kid by the time I wound up in Sister Beatrice’s classroom at Saint Catherine’s School, the grade school affiliated with my parish church. While I don’t doubt that some of the Franciscan nuns who taught there were true educators, Sister Beatrice represented the majority of the staff: strict disciplinarian caretakers who knew how to advance lesson plans provided by the State of New York Board of Education.
We were learning “science” by reading a combined textbook/workbook. At the end of every week’s lessons, there was a review test. We’d fill out the multiple choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank questions, tear out the page, and hand it in. The graded test would be returned the following Monday. Beatrice always returned my 100% correct tests with an air of suspicion: I was clearly bored out of my skull and paid no attention to her or the textbook, yet I knew all the answers.
One fateful Monday my test came back with a 95% grade. “You got one wrong, Mr. Shaw,” she smirked before walking away. By the time she returned to the front of the classroom I already had my hand up.
“What do you want?”
“Sister, there’s a mistake in the grading. You marked a correct answer as incorrect.”
“Which answer is that?”
“This one, about the inventor of the telescope. You marked my answer wrong.”
I was already a year into my astronomy phase. I dragged out my Gilbert 2.5″ reflector telescope every clear night and tried to identify as many celestial objects as the Pelham night sky would allow, marking off what I saw in my battered copy of The Stars by H.A. Rey (his wife, Margaret, wrote the Curious George stories). I knew a few things about telescopes, and one of the things I knew was that it had been invented by Hans Lippershey, a Dutch lens grinder.
“I marked your answer wrong because it is wrong.”
“Could you please tell me the correct answer?”
“Everyone knows Galileo invented the telescope.”
“I’m not sure that’s true.” Now I could hear the grumblings from my classmates. If I could prove that my answer was correct, then everyone else had the wrong answer. My seat was on the outside aisle near the windows, below which ran a long bookcase. I reached over and pulled out three volumes of the ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica: G (for Galileo), L (for Lippershey), and T (for telescope). Even though men had not walked on the moon in this encyclopedia, I was sure they had the telescope thing worked out.
“Mr. Shaw, what are you doing?” she asked as she walked to my desk, blackboard pointer (the most feared weapon in the classroom) in hand.
“I’m checking my work, the way you taught us” I replied. I turned to the Galileo entry, pointing to the line “In the spring of 1609 he heard that in the Netherlands an instrument had been invented that showed distant things as though they were nearby.” I turned to the Lippershey entry, pointing to the line “traditionally credited with inventing the telescope.” Finally I turned to the Telescope entry and pointed out “Galileo is credited with having developed telescopes for astronomical observation in 1609.”
“Young man, I don’t like your attitude. You can report to the principal’s office immediately.”
I told my story to the principal, she sent me back to Sister Beatrice, and my parents received a note requesting their attendance at a meeting on report card day. That didn’t go too well. My Dad was indignant that I was being punished for knowing the correct answer and backing up my position with facts. My Mom was convinced I was acting in defiance of the nuns. I managed to survive the remainder of the sixth grade without further incident, although I learned that “I don’t like your attitude” was actually code for “You just made me look stupid in front of the class.” I would hear that sentence often from then until my graduation day.
The story should have ended there with my defense of Lippershey and my own “eppur si muove” moment. But, six years later, my younger brother Chris took the same test in the same classroom with the same teacher with the same results: an incorrectly graded question about the inventor of the telescope. When he brought the error to her attention, she replied “Your brother tried that same nonsense with me six years ago.”
Chris, who had been subjected to endless comparisons to me – for better or worse – for six years by the increasingly arthritic, senescent teaching staff, finally snapped. “You’re right, my brother did try it,” he retorted, “and he had the right answer, just like I do.”
You can guess what happened next: visit to principal’s office, note to parents, parents meet with principal. Dad asked “Why are we doing this again? Has history changed in six years?” I can’t remember how that meeting ended, but I do remember going out of my way to make things right with Chris. After all, he had two more years of my legacy to contend with, and the nuns he had to face in seventh and eighth grades were mean.
I had been trying to reconcile inconsistencies between science and religion for a while, but that day with Sister Beatrice was the beginning of the end for me and the Catholic church. She inadvertently pushed me in the direction of reason, and I never looked back.