Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bugging Out in Biology

My fascination with insects began my sophomore year in John White's biology class at Nelson County High School in Virginia. He gave us the most comprehensive assignment I have ever had: catch, identify, mount, and label 50 insects. Only ten could be duplicates.

Mr. White taught us about the classifications of the animal kingdom. He showed us how to make our killing jars, and gave us instructions for making insect nets. His requirements included mounting the insects' wings properly so that the display looked as professional as possible. We were required to use an entomology handbook to make labels for our display case: a shadow box filled with a thick layer of batting to which we pinned our insects. Labels had to be straight, legible, and neat. 

My family spent late nights under the spotlight in the gravel driveway, trying to help me reach my goal. My brothers and I took turns climbing a ladder to get the larger moths that fluttered near the light. My friends and I traded our extras. The day I was able to trade two Io moths for a Luna moth was a very good day.

Mr. White's biology classroom buzzed with positive energy. His job could not have been easy. High school sophomores are more concerned about driver's ed, being with friends, and the opposite sex. Not many teachers know how to motivate that many students to invest their time and energy in a project of that magnitude. I can't speak for everyone, but I think most of us were excited to come to class with our questions, to work together in identifying our latest finds, and sharing our extras with our classmates. 

Even now, 35 years later, high school friends recall that entomology collection with fondness. I've seen classmates banter back and forth on Facebook about pictures of insects, correctly identifying butterflies or garden pests. There is good-natured teasing about the source of the interest and information.

My own collection moved with me from Virginia to Utah, and from house to house for 34 years. Every year at school, I would show it to the children in my classroom. I was very proud of my collection, but over the years, its age began to show. Some of the labels slipped, and some of the insect parts detached from the bodies. My last year of teaching, I finally gave it away to another teacher to use in her classroom. My bug collection lives on.
Danaus plexippus, Monarch butterfly

Sadly, within a couple of years of my graduation in 1979, the project was terminated by the school board. Parents had complained of the extensive project, stating that it took too much time, energy, and money. Like so many quality learning experiences, it fell by the wayside because of a small group of vocal people.

John White, you were the toughest teacher I ever had. You were strict, had high expectations, and did not accept less than our best. It freaked us out when you knew what was going on in the back row while you were the sage on the stage in the front. You kept a bunch of rowdy high school sophomores in line with your discipline, and your dry sense of humor. From you I learned about excellence, the importance of curiosity, and giving my best effort. 

Thanks, Mr. White. You were one of the best. 


  1. I remember I once killed a black snake in my dad's garden (for which I was scolded, lucky he didn't do worse because my dad loved snakes!) that was laying eggs underground, which I found out AFTER I killed it and pulled it out of the ground. I gathered the eggs and did my best to keep them warm until the next morning when I took them in to Mr. White. He was not thrilled that I had killed the snake either but he WAS impressed and thrilled that I brought him the eggs! I think most of them did not hatch but I seem to remember that he had at least one that did. I have lots of fond memories of Mr. White. The first day of class I remember he said something to the effect (there were 6 of us and I was #5) "Not ANOTHER Cater! How many of you ARE there?" I think he was relieved that there was only one more after me and NO MORE boys... I think my brothers were quite the handful! LOL Thanks for posting this and bringing back such great memories!

    1. Mr. White had such a dry sense of humor. I probably missed half of his jokes, but I really did enjoy his class. Thanks for sharing your own memories, Peggy!

    2. I had Mr. White for biology also. I hated that dang assignment!..I do remember catching some nice insects at the Dairy Isle!!..I think I was more interesting in socializing with others hanging out!!...later I had the privilege of joining Mr. White as a fellow teacher. I can honestly say..I enjoyed his humor more as a fellow teacher! As we got more and more technology...he was GREAT as mentor..teacher..and helped me with my "new" responsibilities! I remember him with fondness and deep respect!

    3. Thanks for stopping by. It's always nice to hear from the folks back home.

  2. I probably worked harder on the insect id project than any I had in high school. I can say I had a lot of help though. Usually as I arrived home from school, my nephew age 5 who was just about to start school, would present me with his finds of the day. I can say I owe my A+ grade to the help of my nephew who incidentally loves nature and can probably identify any plant, animal or insect in the forest. Thanks Mr. White for teaching observation, organization, motivation and giving us a goal to accomplish. You are a great teacher and inspiration to us all!

    1. I know Ms. Ponton shared this blog post with Mr. White and his wife. I hope they see your comment. Thanks for stopping by Randomocity. I love hearing from people back home!


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