In Memory of Dr. Harold S. Turkel

I don't know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that once telephony was made practical, and put in reach of everybody, everybody got a telephone in order to talk to other people who had telephones. That is, nobody got a telephone just to pick it up and listen to whatever came out of it. I think it will prove to be that way with the Internet too. The Internet will soon be just a medium, and such content as has been made resident within it will be of dwindling interest. As far as I care to tell, most of that content is backward-looking, and even if nothing happens from now on, and all that's left to view is ancient stuff, the number of people who expect to find relief by revisiting the 1970's is likely to go down.

But before that number drops to zero, I'd like to chip in something that is backward-looking, and from the 1970's, but not contemptuous. I speak of the 12th-grade Advanced Placement biology course I took in 1974-1975, under the ferocious leadership - calling him "the teacher" just doesn't capture the classroom-flooding power - of Harold S. Turkel, Ph.D.

It helped that he was teaching biology, a subject already enormous and one that will only get bigger. I doubt that can be said of any other - even physics. But he also taught English vocabulary, as all who instruct in this language should. One day he referred to something that was, in the physical sense, "ultimate" - that is, at the extremity of something. He taught us the word "penultimate." Then he asked if anyone knew the word for third-to-last. I did, because my father had taught it to me. "Antepenultimate!" I said, and Dr. Turkel threw his chalk at me.

Three decades later, I got an e-mail out of the blue from someone I didn't know - someone from a later high school class, I think - saying that Dr. Turkel had suffered a stroke and fallen and hadn't been found for a good dangerous while, the consequence of which was he lost a leg. I wrote a letter to him at what I found out was his nursing home. In case he'd forgotten who I was, I told the above story. He wrote back happily to say the memory almost made him fall out of his chair! Which was a wheelchair. So, I can, if I care to, claim I almost knocked someone out of one of those.

Well, I don't care to do that, yet, though I reserve the right because it could come in handy later! Anyway, for a year, we twelfth-graders who were also taking AP calculus, European history, English, and a foreign language "had" - not just "took" - biology. You don't "take" biology, certainly not Dr. Turkel's biology. "Taking" means just bits of it, and optionally; "having" it means all of it, all around you all the time, whether or not you are apprehending it in its entirety. Which is how it was with Dr. Turkel.

It's the subject that has greatness; here, the teacher was equal to the subject. I was wondering if it would come out more poetically if I said "discipline" and "disciple" but I feel certain that while Dr. Turkel would have an ear for such music, he'd otherwise wave it aside: he was no preacher, no homilist, no missionary. Encomiums to teachers often have a religious longing to them. Not this one. "Curator" may be the best word. To a fortune in knowledge, Dr. Turkel was the energetic steward: he did not conceal intellectual riches, or make them mysterious, or act as if they were under attack and needed to be defended or rescued. On the contrary, once you walked through his door, he showed you all of them. He expected you to be interested. He expected you, and himself, to feel this interest profoundly and express it fluently. Because the subject deserved it.