By Anita Rafael
Photography By Hubert Schriebl
The odd couple: physical comedy married to serious science
Few things would ever make me wish to be a third-grader again. Then I met Doctor Quinton Quark, an itinerant science teacher who brings his interactive “Slapstick Science” programs to elementary schools. He’s tall and handsome in that red-rubber-nose and stretchy-bald-cap sort of way, and he’s hilarious. Best of all, he’s a genius without being pretentious. Preposterous perhaps, but never pompous.
Truly, when I saw the amply pillow-padded Dr. Quark performing “death-defying” physics demonstration using the kids
from the Woodford Elementary School as his on-stage assistants, I desperately wanted to be the little girl who cranked the handle on the carjack that lifted the giant lever that raised this goofy 200pound scientist high up the air and proved to her classmates that she knew all about the mechanical advantage created by a simple machine. I wanted the chance to learn everything all over again the way he teaches it. I wanted to grow up to be a scientist just like him, and, not surprisingly, so do the kids who are lucky enough to meet him.
Several days later, I met Ted Lawrence and, in a split-personality conversation, I chatted with both Dr. Quinton Quark and Ted to find out what it really means to “teach” science to young children.
“I make a lot of noise. I make pollen explode with my extremely dangerous turkey baster.”
–Dr. Quinton Quark
Interview with Dr. Quinton Quark
Stratton Magazine: Who is Dr. Quinton Quark? Is he a mad scientist?
Dr. Quinton Quark: I am not a mad scientist! I’m just kind of whacky and
I love teaching science. The most important thing to me in the whole world is that everybody understands why science is soooo cool!
SM: Where did you get your science degree?
Dr. Q: Actually, I was born to teach, but I also have a Ph.D-MaB.
SM: What’s the MaB?
Dr. Q: Oh, that stands for “Maybe.” (Laughs at his own joke.) However, I also have a MFA from the Ringling Clown College, and that stands for “Master of Funny Arts.”
SM: What were you like as a child?
Dr. Q: I was never a child. I am 173 years old, and I have been exactly that age for the past 25 years.
SM: Did you run away and join the circus?
Dr. Q: Oh no! (Fakes a horrified expression. Acts insulted.) I’ve been far too busy exploring science my entire life to join the circus!
SM: So, you were never a clown? You were always a scientist?
Dr. Q: Clown? Clown?! (Acts very indignant at that suggestion. Tugs on the edge of his bald head.)
SM: What is the quirkiest thing about your career?
Dr. Q: Ahh…many people don’t know that a quark is an eccentric particle from the world of physics, so I like to think they named it after me.
SM: I noticed that when you are teaching science you are in constant motion on stage. Are quarks in constant motion, too?
Dr. Q: Abbbb-solutely. Absolutely, absolutely. The coolest thing about quarks is that they move constantly, never still, never still. There are some that move up or down—borrrr-ing. Some that twirl clockwise or counter-clockwise. Also boring. In addition, there are quarks that are “charmed” or “strange.”
SM: Which kind are you?
Dr. Q: I am all of the above. (Laughs again at his own joke, slaps his knee, pats his belly.)
SM: What is your best science experiment of all time?
Dr. Q: (Presses on his nose several times, pretending to think hard.) Let’s see. I make a lot of noise. I make pollen explode with my extremely dangerous turkey baster. But, I’d have to say that the demonstration that I am most known for is part of a physics program about simple machines. In that session, the students have to figure out how high up in the air to lift a certain amount of weight, using ropes and pulleys, so that when their teacher or principal drops the bag of scrap iron onto the end of a giant lever, I will be propelled soooo-o high from the other end of the lever that I can do a backflip over Shaquille O’Neal’s head.
SM: What? Shaq, really?
Dr. Q: Noooo-o. It’s a life-size cardboard cutout of Shaq. He’s 7′ 2″ tall. Using the rules of physics they’ve learned so far, it does not take the students very long to calculate that if they have about 350 pounds of weight, and if someone can lift it at least eight feet high to the top of an enormous tripod, then that produces enough energy when it’s dropped on the lever to flip me quite high. On a good day, I have been known to fly over the basketball hoop in the school gymnasium. That’s physics! (Flaps both arms as if he’s flying upside-down.)
Eight Times Stronger
Those were Dr. Quinton Quark’s earlier, more athletic years as a scientist. Nowadays—still dashing, but not as daring—he uses a weighted, inflatable Bozo Bob in that experiment, and keeps his own size-22 sneakers firmly planted on the floor.
One of the highlights from the program Dr. Quark did at Woodford Elementary School’s assembly was when he asked the students, teachers and parents in the audience whether a petite and somewhat shy third-grader named Chloe could win a simple tug-o-war against the four strongest sixth-graders. Dr. Quark claimed she could use science to make herself eight times stronger. He nicknamed her “Power Chloe” as he set up the challenge. At this point in the lesson plan, everyone had learned enough from his various demonstrations about physics to know better than to bet against his apparently absurd ideas. Power Chloe, at one end of a rope that had been rigged with multiple purchases through pulleys, did indeed get the better of the two boys and two girls pulling against her with all their might. She didn’t just win the tug-o-war, she creamed the big kids. By carefully following Dr. Quark’s instructions, and wildly cheered on by the audience, she dragged the lot of them more than 40 feet, completely across the room all by herself. Chloe, who barely said a word, performed this extraordinary feat with one hand behind her back while hopping on one foot. I’d never seen a little girl with a bigger smile.
When the room was empty after the assembly, Dr Quark explained, “My goal is to get as many children as I can on stage with me at various points. The demonstrations are designed to use them as the props whenever possible. It’s a big chance they take when they get up there in front of their classmates and teacher. I have to make sure that they know they can trust me, and I have to make them look good in front of all their friends.” Except for Woodford’s humbled sixth graders that is. In the spirit of good sportsmanship though, they joined the raucous applause for Chloe’s victory as she took a slight bow with Dr. Quark and slid back into her seat.
Interview with Ted Lawrence
Stratton Magazine: Who is Ted Lawrence? Are you a mad scientist?
Ted Lawrence: I am a teacher. I am a guy who’s always marched to the beat of my own drum. I was a full-on math and science nerd all through school, and I was probably oblivious to the fact that everyone thought that about me. It didn’t matter though, because it was always more important to me to just have fun.
SM: Where did you come from?
TL: I grew up in Warrensburg in New York State, the Adirondacks region. I’ve been in Vermont now more than 20 years, and I went to UVM, but I’ve also lived a life of adventure. Some of it in the circus.
“I worked as an electrical engineer… Even then, I always rode my unicycle to work, until the boss asked me not to. He said that was not the way they did things around there.”
SM: Which came first—the circus or the science?
TL: I graduated with a degree to
teach chemistry, physics, algebra, and physical science in 1985, and then I went off to clown college a year later. Before that though, I worked as an electrical engineer. Even then, I always rode my unicycle to work, until the boss asked me not to. He said that was not the way they did things around there.
SM: Where did the circus take you?
TL: I toured for two years with the Ringling Brothers Circus, all over the United States, as a crash clown called “Steddy.” Steddy was, you might say, gravitationally challenged. I took a lot of big falls. If they needed to throw somebody down a flight of stairs for an act, it was Steddy.
SM: What did the circus life teach you about life in general?
TL: I learned that everybody in the circus is a hard worker. If you don’t do your job, they don’t let you back on the train. That’s a good lesson for just about everything else in life.
SM: You have said that donning the makeup and wardrobe backstage is “drinking the magic potion.” How much “magic potion” does it take before Dr. Quinton Quark can appear before his audience?
TL: Oh, not too much. It only takes about 20 minutes to take effect, that
is, after all the props are set up for the demonstrations. That part can take more than an hour. The more important question is how long does it take the antidote to work before Ted comes back. It can be quite a while before the last kid leaves the room because they all want to hang out and have more fun with Dr. Quark.
SM: When you dream at night, are you you or Dr. Quark?
TL: Nobody has ever asked me that before! We met on Halloween in 1988 and we have been together ever since, but, no, he is not in my dreams.
SM: Why can a silly 173-year old clown teach complicated science concepts about energy, motion, aerodynamics, combustion and states of matter better than an actual science teacher can?
TL: I have spent a great deal of
time thinking about that. I can teach kindergarten kids lessons that came out of a tenth-grade physics textbook, and in no time, they fully understand it and can put it into practice. I think it’s because everybody learns better when they are laughing.
SM: That simple?
TL: That simple. Something in your brain is opened that is otherwise closed. Unlike a classroom teacher,
I do not test retention immediately after a program, but on occasion Dr. Quark meets someone who was a kindergarten student in one of his sessions years ago. If that pupil sees him again when he or she is in the sixth grade, Dr. Quark can spot quiz with “Where is friction?”—and he always gets the correct answer from the child.
“I can teach kindergarten kids lessons that came out of a tenth-grade physics textbook, and in no time, they fully understand it and can put it into practice. I think it’s because everybody learns better when they are laughing.”
–Dr. Quinton Clark
SM: Which is what?
Dr. Q: (Dr. Quark, who has been listening in, cannot help but interrupt here.) Frrrr-iction is evvvv-erywhere!
SM: Thank you, Dr. Quark. Ted, is there a future for you, that is, being Ted, if Dr. Quark retires?
TL: Just like Steddy, Dr. Quark is tremendously active and physical, and, it’s true that I am having trouble keeping up with him now. He does five different science programs and he has been my full-time job since 1992. I am his business manager, talent agent, producer, costume maker and set builder. Plus, from our base of operations at my home in South Wardsboro, Vermont, I drive him around for all the workshops, and I am his only stagehand. If Dr. Quark ever retires, I’d like to start teaching circus again. In 1994, I returned to Clown College as a member of the faculty.
SM: Really? Will you teach me how to juggle?
TL: I will be happy to teach you. In one week, you’ll be great. ◊
Anita Rafael lives and works in Wardsboro, Vermont. She has been a contributor to Stratton Magazine since 2007.