If it is wrong to waterboard, why is it right to dissect frogs?

When I was a kid, things were different. There was music in school. Not just "band," but orchestra, where kids learned to play classical instruments and perform together. There were even classes twice a week in which we had to sit and listen to composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Can you imagine?

But not everything was sugar and spice and The Magic Flute. Science class comes to mind. Instead of just reading from their notes and sending their students home to look stuff up on the Internet, teachers would do things like order supplies. Science teachers, inevitably, ordered things to dissect.

Things like live frogs.

I had always liked science. I enjoyed knowing that there were good reasons for things. It never made any sense to me that bananas had peels because God loved us so much that he made them with handy holders, even when this was spoken by authoritative persons like Sister Mary Swastika. What was up with raspberries, then, let alone pomegranates? Did it really stand to reason that white-tailed deer had tails so hunters could see to shoot them, or that tigers had majestic striped coats so that rich people could have nice rugs and impress their friends?

Oh, religion had lots of answers. But they were all dumb answers.

In all fairness, back in those days, grown-ups were always telling children things that didn't make sense: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jesus Christ turning back into flesh and blood every Sunday. This was why we weren't allowed to eat breakfast before church. You couldn't have His flesh and blood mixing with Lucky Charms, Post Toasties or, God forbid, Cap'n Crunch. After church, however, it was all right to go out and eat McDonald's. Probably some papal investigative commission had calculated exactly how long it took for the heavenly host to make its way out of a child's digestive tract to make way for the burgers and fries.

But back to the frogs. My greatest fear upon entering junior high school was the prospect of dissecting a frog. Not because I thought frogs were gross or slimy--nothing like that, but because I'd been told I'd have to "pith" one. "Pithing" meant you stuck the frog with pins to paralyze its central nervous system so it couldn't wiggle, freeing you to cut it up while it was alive.

And there was no fucking way I was going to do that. By the time I'd hit the eighth grade, I had already resigned myself to flunking science.

I don't know what got me thinking this week about pithing frogs. Maybe it's all this talk of "waterboarding." Waterboarding, waterboarding. It sounds so exciting and fun. Let's score a sixer, head to the seashore and go waterboarding.

Of course, "waterboarding" isn't any fun at all. It's the systematic inducing of terror and pain during a half-hour period with the goal of extracting information for the greater good. Normally, so the argument goes, a swell country like the U.S. of A. doesn't do this kind of thing, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and if it's going to stop another terrorist attack, or whatever, then wax up the waterboard. Kawaboonga.

Which when I think about it is the same thing they told me about pithing frogs. "It's mean!" I said.

"But it's for the greater good." So the argument went. Torturing live animals for the sake of learning, they told me, was OK. Real scientists did it all the time. Why, if it wasn't for torturing animals, we never would have made it to the moon!

"But I don't want to hurt a frog." I remember that day in tears, too much eye makeup running down my face. This was heavy shit. I'd never gotten a grade other than an A or a B in my life. My parents were going to kill me.

Mrs. Strumwasser, the teacher said, "I'm not wild about it, either, but it's a course requirement. I don't have any choice."

I shook my head. No damn way.

"They don't have the same kind of nervous systems we do." Strumwasser ran this up the flagpole, but not even she genuinely wanted to salute it. It was the same old claptrap someone had taught her in school. If I'd been a little smarter, or at least more well-read, I would have told her that the Nazis said the same things about Jews during World War II, or that Southern slaveholders had said the same things about Africans while they flayed them to death for trying to run off.

In the end, on dissection day, Strumwasser walked in with a load of pickled clams. I could dissect one of those. Hell, I could have eaten one of those. Several of the boys in the class were terribly disappointed. But not me.

I got an A in science that semester. And Mrs. Strumwasser? As far as I'm concerned, she was the best science teacher I ever had.