by Fred Wurtzel
From the Editor: Fred Wurtzel is the immediate past president of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, but “past president” does not begin to capture his activity level in his affiliate. His retirement from remunerative employment means he takes the time to write reflective articles about his heroes, one of whom is an unsung treasure who worked as a teacher at the Michigan School for the Blind (MSB). His hero helped Fred come to appreciate science and helped land several of his classmates jobs in which science is their bread and butter. Here is what Fred has to say:
In 1964 I was in the eighth grade at the Michigan School for the Blind, a statewide residential public K-12 school for blind children in Lansing, Michigan. Science programs at the school had been poor at best. This was understandable since few people actually believed (or believe today) that blind people could participate and flourish in science, let alone get a job as a scientist.
Thanks to Sputnik, federal grants were available to improve science education in American schools. Dr. Robert Thompson, the superintendent of MSB, sought out the funds to create a first-class science program at the school. I'm not sure if it was inspiration or really good luck--it was certainly God's grace--that a very young teacher, Robert K. Burnett, a one-year veteran of Mio High School in northern Michigan and a graduate of Michigan State University, was hired to head the administration of the science grant and to teach science to the sixty-student high school.
My mother commented that she couldn't tell if he was a student or a teacher because he was a six-foot-plus, 250-pound baby-faced former tennis champ from Saginaw Arthur Hill High School. He was a big, happy, fun-loving man whose bulk had been acquired by loading one-hundred pound sacks of Michigan navy beans on ships on the docks around Saginaw and Bay City during his summers to earn money for college.
Despite his unconventional approach to life and the trends of the day, Bob Burnett was not a hippie. He had very short hair and wore a short-sleeved white shirt with a short necktie that did not reach all the way to the top of his pants as suggested by the Dress for Success book of the day. He certainly did have a youthful, possibly naïve, attitude about his job. Fortunately his temporary classroom was on the third floor of the high school building, far from the first-floor office of the principal. The third floor had the library; an abandoned recreation room, including a bowling alley with a manual pinsetter; and, off by itself, the science classroom. Burnett used this remote location to his advantage. He was not big on ceremony or formality, quite unlike Margaret Polzein, the stern-faced, stern-voiced, rather authoritarian principal. She rarely made the effort to climb the extra two flights of stairs to visit his classroom. Were it not for the geographic separation, I'm not sure Burnett would have survived under her austere supervision.
A great deal of learning has little to do with textbooks. Watching our teachers manage their relationship with supervisors was its own kind of education. Some teachers were insiders with the administration, and then there was Bob Burnett, who was irreverent when it came to rules but very serious about teaching science. Bob had been in Boy Scouts as a youth and a Scout leader in Mio. He reenergized an existing scouting program at MSB. Our Scout troop sold boxes of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups as a fundraiser. It just so happened that there was always a ready supply of these confectionery treats in the upper level classroom, mostly unobserved by a disapproving principal, whom Bob studiously avoided.
Bob did not avoid his responsibilities with teaching or grant administration. He oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art science lab with all the bells and whistles. The lab included three lab benches with gas outlets, a fume hood, a wonderful terrarium, and a fantastic aquarium. When students viewed the lab for the first time, we were amazed. I had never seen a real science lab before. By the time I graduated, I would be ready to take college chemistry along with my sighted peers. In addition to chemistry, I took biochemistry, biology, geology, soil science, ecology, and the natural history of vertebrates at my college.
I loved and still love science. One of my classmates went on to become an engineer for Oakridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where he has had major responsibilities for overseeing the strategic petroleum reserve. A number of Burnett's students became computer scientists, and one classmate is a professor of computer science at Eastern Michigan University.
There is no arguing with success, and by any standard Michigan School for the Blind graduates from the 60s and 70s are unqualified successes.
What was special was, and still is, the unusual confidence that Bob had in us as blind science students. We learned to bend glass tubing over the Bunsen burner and make aparati for chemistry experiments. We dissected specimens; we explored the outdoor environment and studied the periodic table and the taxonomy of life on earth. Bob played cat and mouse with the principal, and we ate peanut butter cups and drank Coke from the teachers' lounge. We worked hard and had a rigorous course of study in our four years of high school science classes.
One of the most amazing parts of this story has to do with textbooks. When Bob set out to develop a curriculum, there were no accessible books, as we would say today. Back then we complained because there were no books in Braille or large print or on tape. His solution was to have us make our own. We cut up the print book and ran it through a brand new, specialized Xerox copier that produced large-print pages on eleven-by-seventeen-inch paper. A Braille master was made by transcribers at Jackson Prison. We then used a Thermoform machine, which employed heat and a vacuum, to force warm plastic sheets over a paper master, creating a tactile copy of the original. The process of hand-making all of our science textbooks took us at least a year, working during lunch hours, after school, and during study halls. For general science, biology, and chemistry we were able to produce the books just in time for the lessons. We learned binding, collating, and laminating. So, in addition to science, we learned about book production, knowledge that has served me on several occasions in my professional life. Since we were already in the book-production business, Bob became head of the yearbook, and we employed the same skills and techniques to produce that.
How can I adequately credit and praise someone who believed enough in blind students to teach us how to pour sulphuric acid, do experiments with beakers and flasks over Bunsen burners, use scalpels to dissect specimens, and observe plants coming from seeds to bloom in the terrarium? What do I say to convey my gratitude for the man who helped us learn what science is, how it is done, and how it is applied in the world to create the things we use on a daily basis? What was it that caused this big, loud, gregarious person to have such faith in us? What made him willing to do unorthodox things to get us books, teach us, and expect us to learn the material and be responsible students, while maintaining a fun-loving atmosphere in the classroom, print shop, and lab?
I have worked for a variety of organizations in three states and have rarely encountered a person even approaching Bob's character, intelligence, and charismatic personality. I wish I could explain what made Bob such an outstanding teacher. Maybe it was that his father was a teacher in Saginaw. Maybe it was his strong faith, which he never pushed on anyone, but lived each day. Maybe it was the wonderful education he received at Michigan State University. Who knows? I only know that he was a model teacher. He was not perfect, which made him even better as a role model. We learned that being human was okay and that showing care, dedication, and a sense of humor would serve us well in our lives.
In addition to his duties as the science teacher and the head of the yearbook, he built a Boy Scout troop, which won awards in the Chief Okemos Boy Scout Council. He developed a coed exploring program that won an award from the President of the United States for doing river cleanup on the Pine River between Cadillac and Manistee, Michigan. He earned the disdain of some professionals in the blindness field and the admiration of his students by allowing totally blind people to canoe together on the Pine River. Clearly he believed in adventure and in the abilities of blind people to manage our lives independently. He took Catholic students off-campus to their catechism classes and to church on Sunday. Bob and his family were truly dedicated to us as students.I have pursued science as an interest throughout my life. To show my gratitude to Bob in some small way, I have worked with the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, and the Michigan Department of Education Low Incidence Outreach (formerly the Michigan School for the Blind) to create a science summer camp program for blind kids, which has operated for the past two summers. I am writing grants to fund our program for 2012. I want to try to give to blind youth of today a small measure of what Bob gave to me so many years ago. I have a passion for the outdoors, for technology, and for scouting and exploration, all thanks to an amazing man named Robert K. Burnett, a friend, teacher, and outstanding human being.