The Chemistry Set, or Too Late I Think of Consequence

I don’t know what Mr. Lovely was thinking the recess he left Barbara Hyde and me alone in our classroom with an unlocked chemistry set. It was newly purchased and so enticing, a little suitcase filled with glass vials of elements to be explored. I am sure Mr. Lovely had intended to have us perform scientific experiments with the contents under supervised study. He probably imagined our eager little minds intrigued with testing to see if a substance were an acid or a base, a classroom full of engaged, hormonal 7th and 8th graders. He never banked on how powerful an urge is curiosity; how it overcomes reason in a young brain as yet unfettered by consequence.
Barbara and I read over the contents, which while interesting, were mostly unknown to us since we’d had no instruction in their usage so far. That might have been a good thing since sulpher was in one of the vials and we could have made stink bombs had we known. As it was, thanks to me, what we did was awesome and scary enough. I recognized the contents of two vials as we read: nitrogen and glycerin. Something sparked. Ah, yes, thanks to TV and its depiction of building railroads in Westerns, I knew things were blown up with nitro-glycerin. I didn’t know the exact recipe, which can no doubt be found today on the internet, but this was waaaay before personal computers. I reasoned that maybe if we combined some of that nitrogen with some glycerin, we could make some home-grown dynamite. I think it’s safe to ask what was I thinking.
My mad scientist buddy agreed this experiment was one worth doing, and so we poured, sloshed, jiggled and combined and there was our result. Now the frightening reality hit us. What were we going to do with it? If it really was dynamite, we couldn’t just throw it anywhere because it would explode—us, for sure, maybe the school and everyone in it. This was when Barbara got really angry with me and started yelling. That brought Mr. Lovely back from the teachers’ break room with its cigarette haze and day-long burnt coffee stench.
We had to tell what we’d done. I did not volunteer it was first my idea because I didn’t think I’d get any gold stars for brillance in this case. Besides, I didn’t want a whipping either. I swear that a look of fear passed over his face when he heard what ingredients were in our concoction, but maybe that was projection? Surely he had enough of a science background to know what we’d done was harmless? Surely he realized the makers of the chemistry set would never include ingredients that could kill schoolchildren? I’ll never know because he looked panicked to us.
He took the vial, slowly and carefully, as if it were the deadly substance, from my hands. “I am going to throw this down the sink,” he said. “You look out there on the playground,” and he pointed to a specific place. “That’s the septic tank. If you made dynamite, the whole place will blow up and you will be in more trouble than you can even imagine.” Not to mention, dead.
His footsteps faded and our heads turned toward the septic tank. Time stopped and our short lives with it. Images of what could be gushed through our brain. Silence reigned except for kids on the playground shouting and laughing.
Nothing happened. When it became clear nothing would happen, we breathed again. Barbara started yelling at me. “I hate you now and I always will.” She remained true to her word, too, for the rest of our school career together.
We were punished by having to stay in for a number of recesses, her glaring at me and making nasty comments, the chemistry set safely locked away somewhere for the rest of the year.
That Mr. Lovely hadn’t made the kids get off the playground or emptied out the school should have been a clue to us that our dynamite really wasn’t. That he just threw it down the sink should have been another. That we hadn’t already blown ourselves up with all that jiggling and fumbling, another. Because, really, had it been real, he wouldn’t have made all those bad decisions, would he?
Mr. Lovely died quite early and I hope our experiment had nothing to do with that. I don’t know what happened to Barbara after high school. Myself? I never did take a chemistry class.

Happy Birthday Grandma Georgia!

Today is my grandmother Georgia’s birthday. Born in 1906, she would have been 102 today. She almost made it to 100 years, passing away at the age of 98, all but one of those years in possession of her faculties.
If someone is your grandmother, what do you remember about them? Her hair ran a close second to the run-away look of Albert Einstein. A stylist she wasn’t. One of her gestures was to put spit on her palm and then flatten the frizzy mess as best she could. Like a nebula, all the hair circled out from her crown. She never dyed it, set it, waved it, or permed it. It just was and it wasn’t pretty. I see from her wedding portrait that such abandon might not have always been the case. There her hair is brunette, long and flowing. By the time I knew her, it was salt and pepper, all the time heading toward salt, short, and unruly. She was a widow, working continually, and didn’t have time to battle her wayward coiffeur. She never gave up hope of being a beauty, however. When she could no longer even feed herself, bemoaning that she just looked awful, I told her that I thought she was beautiful. She made me bring her a mirror to see, just in case.
She always wore the same style dress that she cut out and sewed herself. She had a nice one, and one or two for every day, always a floral pattern and the everyday dresses were always dirty around the stomach area.
She never wore makeup that I know of. Her face had always been wrinkly and seemed to stay the same forever.
She limped. Her story was that her older sister dropped her on her head when she was an infant, and that had caused one leg to be way longer than the other. I’m not a scientist, but sure that what happened instead was simply a birth defect. It helped her cope to blame her sister, a whopping case of sibling rivalry. I never thought her a lesser person because of the limp, though no doubt others did an maybe herself as well. It just was. That’s the way it is when someone is your grandmother. In later life she tried to have her legs evened out in one of the first double knee operations. Since the salesman for the joints actually performed the surgery because the doctor didn’t know how and it wasn’t perfected yet, it didn’t take. Her legs were the same length, but the joints had to be removed and she spent the rest of her life on crutches and then in a wheelchair. None of that stopped her from being an active person. She did everything a normal person could do with very little help while on crutches. Having once spent six months like that, I know how strong in both persistence and body she must’ve been to live years like that.
When she started singing, you wondered why someone hadn’t oiled that door hinge. And she loved to sing. She sang songs she learned from early childhood in school, songs she picked up from cylinder Victrola recordings, from vaudeville, from her Irish mother. The songs were mini soap operas full of warnings about the right way to live and what would happen if one should make the wrong choices. Some were hilarious and extremely non p.c. by today’s standards. My favorite was the song she’d performed in school as a little Japanese girl with a fan. She still had her fan until the day she died.
At every family function we sing, and even when she was stone deaf, Grandma sang along. She started and ended a song when she pleased which was not when the rest of us did, causing one hell of a cacophonous din. Still, it made her so happy and it made us happy too, to see her laughing.
She was not educated because girls simply weren’t when she was young. The family needed you to work, and then your husband needed you to run the home. I don’t know how many years of school she did end up having, maybe through 8th grade. But she had opinions and nothing kept her from voicing them, right or wrong, or hurtful. Blunt is a nice word for what she was. Her prejudices were from another era. Men with mustaches were bound to be evil. To wear earrings was wanton.
Cooking was one of the things she did well, despite her distaste for tomatoes. It became her career late in life, cooking for Boy Scout camp and then for Eastern Oregon College boys’ dorm. She loved having her grandkids come over and presiding over a tea party. There would be cookies or fruit bars or some delectable, and either tea or hot chocolate. She didn’t drink coffee. I’ve never had hot chocolate as good as Grandma’s, nor her other standby’s, German Chocolate Cake, Banana Crème Pie or Coconut Crème Pie, all from scratch. This was the time when Grandma got to be our age and hear what was going on in our lives and we heard about her young life, the part she wished to share. If tea was our beverage of choice, she read our tea leaves for us. She told us how to interpret our dreams and read to us from her mother’s dream book. She told us how to medicate ourselves by reading to us from her mother’s doctoring book. Sometimes we got to play with her ouija board, which was the most fun of all, until my mother told her she’d prefer Grandma not do it.
One of the most fun times I had as a college student was when my cousin and I took Grandma to the movies, and then drug the gut with her, having guys check us out and then watch their expressions as they saw one of us was older than they’d expected.
Grandma bought her first home when she was 60, and she started driving. I remember my father saying how someone that old shouldn’t even be driving, let alone just starting to learn how to drive. Her car and her driving were a point of contention until she finally scared herself and gave it up sometime in her 80’s. She loved her little house and we thought it was cool because there was a brick barbecue in the back yard and we envisioned summer barbecue parties. The truth was more that it was always stuffed full of paper garbage that she burned, nothing as glamorous as what we kids had imagined. Her back wall brick flower planter was always filled with pink impatiens. After our grandfather had died at age 49, Grandma re-married for a short time but had that marriage annulled, so she always said she’d never re-married. She loved having her own life and making her own decisions.
There were family secrets. Grandma had a sister she’d not known about. Her mother had been forced to give up one of her children because she couldn’t feed her, and that sister’s son got in touch with Grandma to tell her about it. Sadly, that sister had already passed away, so she never got to meet her. If Grandma didn’t like a family member or a neighbor, she was not nice. She could be spiteful, rude, and plain nasty. She wasn’t always thankful for what other people did for her. She hurt one of her daughters by openly preferring the other. She never seemed to learn her actions were unacceptable. To me, she was always, for the most part, except when she commented on my weight, very kind and accepting. This was because she’d lost a daughter a few months older than I, born stillborn. I became the replacement, and since people told Grandma that I resembled her, she was happy enough with me.
Living in another town a state away, I mostly communicated with Grandma by letter. I tried to write at least one a month. She wrote sometimes twice a month with conservation of paper always in mind. Not only would I have to decipher what was written on the back of very thin paper, so hard to read, but she would then write around and around the margins until there was no more space left at all. When her handwriting got shaky in her later years, to figure out what she had written took a lot of concentration and asking other people what they thought. The advice, the recipes, the opinions kept coming until she could no longer write. In person, we communicated by white board, since she could no longer hear and refused to wear hearing aids.
The other day I was laughing about something, and I stopped to listen. It was Grandma’s laugh I heard. I’d missed that. But I can sing in tune. Honest. Happy Birthday, Grandma Georgia!

Sun, finally!

Sun has arrived and that means I’ve gotten down and dirty in the eastern flower bed. I became judge and jury when it came to what stays and what goes to compost. Grubs sentenced to death were excuted between thumb and forefinger. Today I’ll save some for the birds to eat, placing them on a big bowl in lovely presentation. Some protein to augment their usual diet of birdseed. Earthworms are huge out there, and the grubs are larger than usual and thicker skinned. I wonder what that portends? There’s a lot going on under what the eye can see and it’s fun to have a sneak preview.

Not a valid excuse

In recent days I continued to read editorials and letters concerning school districts keeping teachers who were flawed in some way because, according to them, the teachers’ union fought their dismissal. I’m here to say that such an excuse is hooey. What I saw in my long career, time after time, was that the administrators did not do the necessary paperwork to fire the teacher, or did not do it correctly.

Believe me, teachers do not want the rats and perverts as colleagues any more than parents want them around their children. However, unions exist to help those innocent teachers who are accused, or those who discover someone has it out for them. That is the union’s job. What we teachers always wished was that the administrators had done their job just as effectively. That’s one of the things they were getting paid for. Time after time, they bumbled. Where was THAT story in the media?

7 a.m. walking to get the paper

Earthworms,
legions,
multitudes,
litter the asphalt
like scratches on old celluloid film.
Bradley’s rooster
gripping the fencepost
crows
and the next door neighbor
leans out his door to yell,
“Cockle-doodle-do!”
in response.
I tell the hens roosting
in the apple tree
they are silly girls.
Mist falls from the
one-shade-of-gray sky
Another homespun morning
here on South Prairie Lane,
a most splendid beginning.

–c. 2008 KDK

Schools in the News

Two articles came out in the news today concerning how schools deal with problems. How schools get rid of teachers accused (and guilty) of sex offenses was one topic; the other focused on schools that pay their students for attending and for doing well on state/federal measurement testing.
As a retired educator, I could write volumes about how I think schools should be run. I’ve seen plenty and wondered plenty about how things could be better. I have taught in schools where the practice of giving creepy teachers a severance check and moving them on elsewhere was in force. Like so many unfair things in life, the creeps got paid off for being creeps while the good teachers just got their barely above minimum wage salaries. I see no difference between schools pushing bad teachers out to another school and the Catholic Church sending bad priests on to other churches. I’m thrilled that some school districts are now refusing to write references for teachers who have engaged in criminal acts, instead of giving them promises of confidentiality as to why they were let go, health insurance for six months, and a fat severance check. Those kind of people should be nowhere around children.
Should students be paid for attending school and doing well on mandated tests? All of us hope and wish that schools were so good that every student would find the inner motivation to be there every day and excel. The truth is that it’s hard to find inner motivation if you are rarely at school to begin with and your parents are so overwrought with daily life they neglect to encourage you scholastically. Money speaks to every income level and more so to the districts where there is not enough money to live or eat. As was pointed out in the news segment, rich kids get these financial incentives as a matter of course. Do well this semester and we’ll take you to Italy during summer break. Do well on your SAT’s and we’ll give you a car. If you get a hundred percent on your spelling test, you can go to the movie Saturday. If you pass the math test, I’ll buy you a guitar. $100 for every A, $75 for every B…
Here’s how I think it works: You get the kids there, and paid for good work according to their success, and it doesn’t take long before the love of the learning takes over, and the pride in accomplishment, and the money earned becomes sooner or later secondary to learning. If you want it to work even better, you teach those kids the benefit in saving their money in savings accounts for college. You take them to a bank and you show them and their parents how to get a savings account. The kids know they are headed for college. Their parents know the students are headed to college and they become cheerleaders for the future. You get cooperation and support from home and there’s nothing a student can’t do. If it works, don’t knock it. And in the meantime, put even more money into schools so the kids have good books, good teachers, good programs and good organic lunches. If you aren’t willing to support schools, then why would students ever think what they do there is of utmost importance?

Firsts

Yesterday I ground whole wheat into flour using our brand new Vita-Mix. I felt the way the ancients must’ve felt to see that their two stones together made a fine dust out of hard nuggets of grain.
Then I tried to make a loaf of bread using the recipe given. Something did not go right because I ended up with a brown mass, slightly hardened, that didn’t rise. I baked the gummy mess, and we ate it in little one-inch strips. It tasted great despite whatever mistakes I made.
I’ll try again tomorrow to see if I can improve the results. In the meantime, this “first” has got me to thinking about firsts in general. They usually don’t go perfectly, do they? The first time I drove, the first time I kissed a boy, the first time I had sex, the first day of my first job, the first interview, the first marriage, the first time I tried to follow instructions to put furniture together. Each one of these firsts is a story unto itself, a story of fumbling and nerves, of determination to start and afterwards, keep going.
I’m painting my front door today, gold to match the color of our shop, another first for me. And this is my first blog. I’ll keep going, n’importe quoi, (no matter what) because our brains like firsts. New synapses are born. Firsts keep us young and interested, if not a little enraged sometimes. The more firsts we have, the more we want, and the more we appreciate others going through their own firsts.
Happy Firsts to you!

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