David Temple was walking into the entrance of the Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science when he spotted them—a pair of wide-eyed kids staring at a giant fossil of a 50-million-year-old palm frond.
“What is it?” a little boy asked his sister.
Before she had a chance to answer, Temple, the museum’s associate curator of paleontology, slipped between the fossil and the children and effortlessly took over. “This is a palm frond from the center of the United States when it was tropical, but the part that you’re going to love is, you see all these bumps—right there, right there, right there, and there,” he said, calmly pointing to small clumps of ancient matter. “You know what all that is?” The children, entranced by the confident stranger who’d suddenly inserted himself in their conversation, shook their heads no.
“Poop!” Temple exclaimed, discarding his professorial air and prompting the kids, and a small crowd that had suddenly gathered round, to burst into laughter and begin asking more questions. More precisely, Temple continued, it was “coprolite,” ancient animal feces that settled on the bottom of a shallow sea covering most of North America during the late cretaceous period.
This is what Temple, 53, calls a teachable moment. Over 22 years at HMNS—first as a part-time instructor, and more recently as an associate curator of paleontology and an influential part of the team responsible for the newly opened, $85 million Hall of Paleontology—creating such moments has been something of an obsession for Temple, whose hobbies include not only talking trilobites for hours at a time but also collecting toys and guns.
“I had a history teacher in high school, and he said ‘You’re gonna be a teacher one day,’” Temple said, remembering his time growing up in Alabama. “I think he noticed that when I talked about history I was able to make it cool and people listened.” Temple is still taking about history, albeit ancient history, and people are still listening. On his walks through the Hall of Paleontology, he has to suppress the impulse to answer strangers’ questions and start spontaneous tours. When the itch becomes overwhelming, the curator goes undercover as a tour guide.
“When you teach, you show people something they’ve never seen before, it can totally change the course of their life,” he said, recalling the moment he was handed an ancient rhinoceros jaw the size of a dog’s at a fossil show he attended during graduate school. “The fact that you could have a rhinoceros the same size as a dog changed everything for me. That was the moment I fell in love with paleontology.”
When he talks about that love he doesn’t recite information or talk jargon so much as tell personal stories and jokes, turning a 500-million-year-old piece of dino dung into a joke about ancient salads or comparing a fossil containing dozens of dead dinosaurs to a high school dance gone awry. His secret, as it turns out, is rather simple. “I was never trained as a teacher,” Temple said. “I don’t know how to teach by the rules.”