Michelle Ross

Why Science Lessons That Involve Potatoes Give Me Grief

Kindergarten: Germination

Because before we planted our potatoes, we were instructed to give them faces—red smiles and googly eyes. Because potatoes are alive, dormancy like a deep sleep. Because a nurse likened my sister to a vegetable rather than, say, a stone. Because before this same nurse unplugged the heart-lung machine, my sister had lain as still and quiet as Snow White. Because despite the face I’d given it, my potato, inert on my desk, did not look alive, either. Because later when my potato laid face-up in a hole I’d dug in the school garden, dropping handfuls of dirt onto its phony face felt like murder. Because men in gray suits sealed my sister inside a wooden box, like a time capsule. Because the teacher talked about the knobby buds, also called eyes, from which roots would grow. Because I pictured my sister sprouting—curly tendrils emerging from the scabbed mosquito bites that had dotted her legs. Because I wondered would her roots push through the wood, seek water?

Fourth Grade: Circuits

Because as I inserted nails and wire into my potato’s skin, I thought of tracheotomies I’d seen performed on television. Because as I connected the wires, I thought of heart defibrillators shocking the dead back to life. Because before the nurse unplugged the heart-lung machine, my sister had lain as still and quiet as Snow White. Because my sister’s brain had been like a broken circuit. Because when the bulbs blinked on, the teacher talked about phosphoric acid and hydrogen ions. Because I couldn’t see ions. Because I stared at the light illuminating my potato’s mottled skin. Because it was the opposite of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—light a product rather than a reactant. Because after class I read about the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s book: Luigi Galvani making the legs of dead frogs twitch by zapping them with electricity. Because a girl in class said as she yanked the wires from her potato, Go to sleep now, so you can wake up fresh in the morning.

Seventh Grade: Newton’s Second Law of Motion

Because the teacher told us to pretend that our foil-wrapped potatoes were astronauts and that the straws were space debris, like loose screws and washers from the International Space Station. Because an astronaut’s suit is a dam. Because a tear could cause the body to swell, the lungs to rupture, the blood to boil. Because the pressure in space is too low for human survival. Because a friend of my mother’s said that my sister was up in the sky looking down on me. Because the teacher instructed us to first nudge the straws at our potatoes gently, slowly, to notice how the straws collapsed upon impact. Because he then told us to jab the straws a little faster, harder, notice how the straws punctured the foil, then the skin. Because force is the product of mass and acceleration. Because even the tiniest objects can be deadly, if they move at great speeds. Because a bullet. Because duh. Because after the nurse unplugged the heart-lung machine, my sister had lain as still and quiet as Snow White. Because for dinner the night the nurse unplugged the machine, my mother cooked baked potatoes, also wrapped in foil, their skins sliced vertically like pillowcases unzipped. Because there were tiny holes in the foil and skin where my mother had poked a fork. Because too much pressure is as dangerous as too little pressure. Because skin is a dam, too. Because the holes felt like wounds after you pick away the scabs.