LIFE LESSONS

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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.

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