WHEN I WAS about 14 years old, my biology teacher told the class that osmosis was the attraction of a dilute solution to a concentrate solution through a semi-permeable membrane.
“You’ll never forget that,” she said, and she was right.
It is pretty much the only thing I remember about biology, except the fact that an insect has a head, thorax and abdomen.
I have sometimes been nasty about my school in the past, and that’s because it was rubbish – a tired sham of a state institution run largely by lazy, cynical violent men. And I’ve lived much of my life in furious opposition to its values of obedience, terrorisation, lip-service, and wearing dark socks.
But I can’t pretend I didn’t learn anything, because I did. I learned, for instance, that there are three types of rock: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. There are also three types of triangle: isosceles, scalene and equilateral. I know the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides of a rightangled triangle, although I have no idea what this means.
I learned there are several categories of rainfall, one of which is relief rainfall. Similarly, there are a number of different clouds, of which only cumulus nimbus springs to mind.
More significantly, I know a noun is a naming word, a verb is a doing word and an adjective is a describing word, and I still find myself repeating this mantra when I cannot remember what constitutes an adjective, which is surprisingly often. That’s about it, though. To be fair, my school didn’t know what to do with me. When I was 15, they took me out of English lessons and handed me over to a retired classics master, who tried to teach me Latin and Greek, while rubbing his hand along my thigh under the desk. This arrangement was short-lived, but I learned the declension of the Latin verb amare, which would have come in useful if I ever fell in love with an ancient Roman. Or a retired classics master.
I don’t necessarily think everything you learn at school has to be relevant in later life, but there are more useful facts I could have been taught. The first is that some people really are gay – a proposition I didn’t believe until I was at least 18 – and many of them are retired classics masters. Another is the fact that, despite repeated warnings about everything from pencils to marbles, very little in life actually takes out someone’s eye. This is evidenced by the extremely small number of one-eyed people you meet. Pretty much the same goes for broken backs. The developed world is a very safe place, and healthy young bodies are fantastically durable. It’s best not to be scared of anything.
On that subject, it might also have been helpful to have somebody – maybe even a parent, or a mate – tell me that when a driver indicates to turn left or right, funny little lights flash on the front of their car, to “indicate” the direction they have chosen. I wasn’t aware of this until I was perhaps 30 years old, and my ignorance may have contributed to the fact I’ve been run over. Twice.
It might have been chastening to learn I’d never use the delicious word “thorax” again, until I wrote this column, but might have given some indication of the very minor role insect biology would play in my life.
For years I resented the stupid way we were often “taught” geography, maths, physics and PE by physical intimidation. But when I grew up – which was comparatively recently – I realised you can’t just define yourself by what you’re against, and not every situation where somebody tries to exert their authority is just a rerun of school in grown-up clothes.
Sometimes – admittedly, fairly rarely – you’re better off doing as you’re told, and some occasions even call for wearing dark socks.
But I didn’t come by any of this knowledge at school.
I learned it by osmosis.