by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
I attended great public schools in Brookline and Newton, Massachusetts, from kindergarten through 12th grade. I have a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and a master’s degree in business from NYU—for which I incurred and paid off a lot of student debt.
But even with all this education, I am still woefully ignorant of many aspects of the physical world—particularly when it comes to nature and physics and everyday structures like bridges and tunnels. I was always more of a reading and writing and social studies kid. It wasn’t that I was discouraged from being successful in biology or chemistry or math—I just didn’t gravitate to those subjects.
Often during my childhood family dinners, we played Who Knows All the State Capitals? These were pretty fun “kitchen competitions,” and to this day, I know every seat of government in every state. But sometimes, my father would host much more stressful Elements Quizzes to see who in our family could name the most elements from the periodic table. I tried to memorize all of the elements to stay in the game—my favorite was californium—but I never understood what those names actually meant.
My sister, who went through the same Newton public school system I did, was an excellent science and math student. While she went on to major in Russian studies in college, she ultimately couldn’t ignore her left-brain aptitude and went to Harvard Medical School and became a doctor. Not me.
I was squeamish about dissecting frogs in 7th grade. In 11th grade, I was much more interested in chatting with my pals than taking meticulous care to perform science experiments in our Newton North High School biology class. When it came to chemistry, my experiments never seemed to generate the expected change in color or substance the teacher wanted.
Also, it didn’t help my progress in science class that I could not see what the rest of the class was looking at. I have terrible eyesight, and my parents wouldn’t let me get contact lenses until I was 16. Even if I could get over my vanity, I would never put on my glasses with thick Coke-bottle lenses to peer into a microscope.
Feeling stupid and being unsuccessful in a class is a sure way to turn a kid off from a subject, and that’s what happened to me with science. I disconnected from science (and math) early on and never really caught up. I squeaked through high school science, algebra, and geometry. And then in college, I managed to pass only the required science and math courses. When I got to graduate school, it took me three tries to complete a mandatory calculus minicourse.
I do understand math concepts and the principles of economics. However, I have not made much progress in grasping basic principles of science, chemistry, and physics…nor understanding what the elements—including californium—actually do!
Fast-forward a few decades: I had given up expensive New York City apartment living and moved to a New Jersey suburb. Now, I had to figure out how to commute to work.
In order for me to get from our home in Montclair, New Jersey, to my Scholastic office in SoHo—only 17 or so traffic-filled miles away—I have to pass through water (namely, the Hudson River). Typically, I take either the Holland Tunnel or Lincoln Tunnel.
When I was a kid, growing up outside Boston, we regularly used the Callahan Tunnel to get to Logan Airport and out to Nantasket Beach. This was years before the Big Dig, and the Callahan Tunnel was a fertile breeding ground for road rage since several lanes had to merge into one at the mouth of the tunnel.
Improvements in tunnels (and bridges) can be life-changing. For example, built in 1961, the Callahan Tunnel was replaced in 2014 by a modern, clean, well-lighted, fast-paced tunnel, which means today I can get from my parents’ house in Newton to Logan Airport in about 20 minutes—a trip that used to take at least an hour.
But nothing much has changed in the Holland Tunnel—no improvement that I can see—and since I spend a lot of time inside it, I started thinking about how it was constructed. Recently, I asked my husband, Jeff, what prevented it from developing a leak. I’ll spare you an account of his incredulity, but he could not believe I did not know that a tunnel is not built through the river but instead is constructed under the riverbed.
My newfound—albeit belated—understanding of tunnel construction led me to a lot of related questions…such as: How do the cranes and heavy digging equipment get to the bottom of the river? And how do they get out once the tunnel is dug? Also, how does the tunnel angle up from way under the riverbed to street level so it can deposit me at the crazy traffic rotary in lower Manhattan? So many questions!
My friend Joann Papageorgis recently retired from the Port Authority, where she worked for more than 30 years. (She survived both bombings of the World Trade Center, where the Port Authority had its headquarters, and tells harrowing stories about how she had to make her way down 64 flights of stairs, one step at a time.)
She knows all about bridges and tunnels and is very patient and generous with her explanations in answering my questions. Joann’s capstone project at the Port Authority was serving as the program director for the raising of the Bayonne Bridge—a huge $1.5 billion project. I know as much about bridges as I do about tunnels, so reconstructing a bridge—let alone the engineering, political, community, and regulatory issues—escape me.
The Bayonne Bridge was originally opened to traffic in 1931, with a roadway deck clearance only 151 feet above the channel. The roadway needed to be raised to allow more clearance for taller ships to sail under the bridge following the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016. This involved complex project staging; environmental studies; roadway access planning; traffic closures; air quality, noise, and marine navigation considerations; and detailed engineering and design specifications—not to mention deep political negotiations about funding between the powers that be in New York and New Jersey, as well as consensus with municipal and federal agencies.
I reached out to Joann to ask about her experience with math and science, from growing up to managing the Bayonne Bridge project:
“Attending elementary school in the ’60s, engineering, science, and math were generally academic areas where only boys could excel. Years later, when looking in the newspaper for my first job, I looked in the classified section under Help Wanted Female. As education and employment opportunities have slowly evolved, many new technical careers are now available.
“The Bayonne Bridge program necessitated integration of complex math, science, engineering, and program management challenges while balancing community, political, and environmental impacts.”
Today, I really do want to learn more about engineering and scientific work. I am eager to have a better understanding of the physics of everyday life. I don’t have too many regrets, but I do miss the fact that I gave up too early on integrating a good science education into my life.
Fortunately for the kids who have grown up in the past 30 years, there’s the Magic School Bus series. Developed by the brilliant editor Craig Walker, the Magic School Bus adventures—written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen—revolutionized making science fun for kids. (You can hear more about the creation process from Bruce himself in this week’s Behind the Scenes post!)
I have such an appreciation for the Magic School Bus series, which the New York Times has called “the freshest, most amusing approach to science for children.” From behind the wheel of a magic school bus, everyone’s favorite teacher, Ms. Frizzle, makes science come alive for her students—and for students all over the world—through wild adventures filled with learning, scientific facts, and humor!
This week, in celebration of this timeless and beloved series, our Dollar Deal is The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks. First published in 1986, this book makes the water cycle fun and understandable for kids, and it launched one of the most recognized children’s book series of all time.
In the early ’90s, the Magic School Bus series was made into a hand-drawn animated children’s television show starring Emmy Award–winning actress Lily Tomlin. It was notable for including a diverse cast of characters who were all interested in learning science, and for being a show teachers, parents, and students all loved. The series ran until 1997, although young adults today will tell you it remained a staple in many classrooms for long after.
Just over a month ago, Netflix breathed new life into the property and released the digitally animated reboot, The Magic School Bus Rides Again. In the story, the original Ms. Frizzle retires and passes the Magic School Bus’s keys on to her younger sister, Miss Frizzle—an equally quirky, dedicated, and imaginative teacher voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon.
If you’re curious about the series, compare the two title sequences! Here is the original from 1994. The 2017 version includes an all-new rendition of the theme song by the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda.
We at Scholastic Book Clubs consider this week’s Dollar Deal a tribute to amazing teachers everywhere, who—like Ms. Frizzle—dedicate their professional (and often personal) lives to bringing subjects like science alive for children, and who help their students make sense of the world they live in. This has always been at the core of Scholastic’s mission.
So if you have a Ms. Frizzle in your life, please send his or her name my way at JNBlog@scholastic.com. I’d love to let them know much we appreciate what they’re doing, and maybe even send a few books their way!
PS: Take a look at David Vozar’s memory of his earliest childhood field trips, inspired by this week’s Dollar Deal!
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs