Anoopa Singh fell in love with science — twice — thanks to her New York City high school teachers.

Credit for the first time goes to Emmanuel Moshos, a ninth-grade biology teacher whose lessons were so lively that Singh and her classmates couldn’t stop talking about them after class. In the process, they struck up friendships bonded by concepts like, of all things, plant reproductive systems.  

The second time was when she returned to her alma mater, Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, as a rookie chemistry teacher. Singh was nervous to take over for Benjamin Stevens, a long-time teacher she had looked up to. But when she moved into his old office, Singh discovered her mentor had left behind an unusual gift to help put things into perspective.

Singh recently shared her journey teaching and learning biology and chemistry at a special taping of The Story Collider, a nonprofit that shares personal tales about science. The crowd was made up of fellow educators with Math for America, a nonprofit that creates fellowships and builds a professional community for math and science teachers.

Here’s what Singh shared (including what Stevens left in a desk drawer for her), lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

I was always late to ninth biology class, but so was my teacher, Mr. Moshos. We would argue, ‘You’re only coming from across the hall, man.’ But he was bringing us pieces of his lesson. He would come in sometimes with a cart, sometimes with this huge armful of stuff. I remember this one lesson where he was teaching us about flowering plants, and getting us to connect flowering plants to the human reproductive system.

He brought in these enormous gladiolas, and before that day I didn’t know what a gladiola was. He handed them out to us, kind of ridiculously — this grown man carrying bunches and bunches of flowers. He had us pull them apart. And he’s telling us, this is a pistil. This is pollen, it’s similar to sperm. He was turning science from this ridiculous, crazy, unintelligible stuff into something that my friends an I could relate to. And that we did.   

We left that class and went to gym class, and probably played something really boring — volleyball or badminton. The point is we were talking the entire time, and we were talking about that lesson. No matter who I spoke to, we were scandalized. ‘Flowers have sperm? There’s like an ovary in them and they become fertilized — and that becomes fruit, and the fruit is like the children of flowers. And we eat that?’ There was no veganism or paleo diet to fix that for us.

What I realized in that moment was science was connecting me to people I wanted to be friends with — and that science was freaking cool, and it was something that I would do for the rest of my life.

I knew I was going to pursue science so I went off to college and let a lot of people talk me into going the pre-med route, all of the reasoning being: You want to do science, and that is science, is it not? It’s not. If you’ve been on that route yourself, you know it’s all about being a competitive applicant. I was making connections that were superficial to the max. I really missed the connections that my high school afforded me through science.

By the middle of my senior year I decided not to apply for medical school, and I took a job writing for a science news website. But my editor was only interested in readership. In weekly meetings, he would refer to it as hit count. I knew I had to get out of there, and I knew I had to do that by going back to school because that was the last time anything made sense to me.

I ended up choosing a program where I went to school in the evening, and taught during the daytime. My first class was chemical principles. I walked into that class, and I immediately recognized the teacher as the chemistry teacher from my old high school: Ben Stevens. That class was only five-people big, and it was discussion oriented, and we were all first-year teachers. We were all supposed to be sharing our experiences, but we had no experiences. So he was sharing all of his experiences during that class, and it was really awe-striking for me to hear about a teacher at my old high school thinking so carefully about his teaching. Not just: ‘What lesson do I teach today?’ But rather, ‘Everyone got this question wrong, what do I do about it.’ And I knew I had had such a wonderful high school experience because my teachers were so reflective.

By December of my very first year teaching, I knew that I had to teach chemistry at that high school. I knew that I had to because that community meant so much to me — more than any other community I had been a part of. I confided that in him, and I knew I had to confide it in him because he was going to help me make it happen. I wasn’t sure how, just yet.

That class ended and I moved on to another school in my second year of teaching. That June, I decided I wanted to go to the really big deal, full day, Museum of Natural History science teacher professional development. And I did, and I walked past that statue of Theodore Roosevelt, and I was totally alone.

I looked around, seeing all of those science departments from other schools enjoying their breakfast, telling little jokes, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow. This is like college. I really don’t belong.’ Just as that thought starts to become my reality, across the way, I see Ben Stevens — and Mr. Moshos. Excitedly, Mr. Moshos starts to introduce me to all of his colleagues who were there that day. And Ben and I hadn’t seen each other in a year, so we separated from the group and started to catch up. The first thing he tells me is that, after 16 years of teaching AP Chemistry and Chemistry at Manhattan Center, he’s going to leave. He’s moving to Ohio with his family to be a stay-at-home dad. And he reminded me of my goal, from back then. He said to me, ‘You need to take this job. It’s your school. It’s exactly what you want to do. And it’s right there for you.’

We went through the whole day of programming, and he made sure that, at lunch, he lets me know that his administrator is there. At lunch, he’s going to make sure that we’re sitting together. The administrator tells me that if I really wanted the job, all I would have to do is show up on Monday and let the principal know.

I think that was a Thursday. And Monday I showed up at the school. I met with the principal, who was the same principal from when I was in school, and he remembered me. We just reminisced on all the hijinx my graduating class got into — we staged a walkout and all of this really fun stuff that was against the rules. Eventually we did discuss my qualifications, and I got the job. This was in June.

All summer, I’m telling all my friends: ‘Guys, I have such big shoes to fill. It’s Ben Stevens!’ They didn’t care — they didn’t know who that was. But I was really taken aback. How could I get this job? I was so excited, but also, so terribly nervous.

I get to my new office — his old office — in September. I start to pull open the drawers, and he’s left me a few things. He left me like five dollars in quarters for my first difficult week, a phone charger, some toys that belonged to his son so I could demonstrate bonding — and a pair of his old sneakers. My big shoes to fill.

They’re still in that drawer. I kept those shoes to remind me that a challenge is not that serious. The shoes are there to fill. And they’re your shoes.