Why is the Teacher Beating the Back of my Head?

Ah, high school chemistry class, where most students first encounter (nowadays) science that might hurt, maim, or kill you. Those with parents in industrial chemistry might have already come to understand the in-jokes and winces, but for most, this is the first time they get to play with fire, things that produce toxic fumes, or go “boom!”

So, there I was in Chemistry I lab, doing the assignment with Pyro Partner, Notebook Dude (keeper of the official tome), and Invisi-partner. Invisi-partner was there in spirit because he was out sick for almost six weeks. We helped him keep up with events, but this was before telecommuting (late 1980s).

We had finished our work, and our numbers agreed, as did the results of the experiment. Notebook Dude was recording our results for the official write-up. I had finished cleaning the lab table, and Pyro Partner was washing the now-empty glassware. The Bunsen burner was still on, because we had one last thing to do, and that thing was bubbling away for three more minutes. When the timer went off, we’d do some things to it and finish the experiment.

The timer sounded. I turned my back to the table and waved to catch Mrs. Reagent’s eye so she could come supervise. She looked my direction. Her eyes went wide, and she covered the width of the classroom in 0.05 seconds. I’m not sure her feet touched the carpet. At the same time, I smelled something icky. She grabbed my shoulder and began pounding the back of my neck, shoulders, and head.

What had I done? I was too surprised to protest, as you can imagine. Plus she was bigger than me. “Put that down!” she barked as she pounded.

“OK, Mrs. Reagent,” says Pyro partner. She set the Bunsen burner back down on the lab table.

Any guesses as to what happened?

Yup. Pyro partner, seeing my very long pony-tail, and the open flame, couldn’t resist finding out what would happen when flame met hair. I lost about an inch of hair, and was persuaded not to throttle Pyro. It happened so fast that Notebook Dude looked up, saw the flames, and before he could protest, Mrs. Reagent had leapt into action.

Pyro failed the lab and got a detention, I got a haircut, and Notebook Dude and I got a B+ on the lab (we forgot to record a step, although we did have the results listed.)

40 thoughts on “Why is the Teacher Beating the Back of my Head?

  1. You have better self control than I did in high school. I would have considered my response restrained if I had bothered to turn the Bunsen burner off. . . before I force fed it to my lab partner.

    • You are not alone. I would have been considering… the recreational uses of magnesium.. as a milder reaction, shall we say. And my coat was NOT long in those days.

  2. The mind doth boggle.
    Setting someone else on fire is rarely considered polite or appropriate.
    In our school, the chemicals were locked up in a special room. Overlooked, was the fact that the walls of that room didn’t go all the way up. They reached the drop ceiling and stopped. Breaking.in, was as simple as getting a boost and lifting an acoustic tile.
    We might have taken advantage.
    And caused the school to be evacuated.
    (Hydrogen sulfide gas, so nothing too terribly dangerous., There’s a line between being mischievous and actually putting someone at risk.)

    • Incidentally, I call BS on pyro partner’s alibi.
      If you’re inclined towards playing with fire, you will burn your eyebrows off at least once before high school.

  3. Hhmm. My adventures in chemistry weren’t quite so exciting. The one that leaps to mind was when I opened the big jar of ammonia water and took a whiff. Not one of my better ideas…

    • Oh, later on Pyro and I charred Mrs. Reagent’s desk in the shared physics/chemistry office. The good news was that the desk was solid wood. I was able to use a borrowed tool to erase the evidence, then clean up and get everything back in place before the next class (I was the physics teacher’s student aid.)

      Kids: do NOT try any of this at school, or at home! Seriously, Pyro and I were very lucky that we didn’t do major damage or get badly hurt. [What’s really funny is that I was the one who went on to do airshow explosive effects, and Pyro Partner married a preacher and settled down to raise a family.]

  4. I’m afraid I would have lit her up, literally… I was rather scrappy back in HS… We only blew the windows out of the lab twice, that I remember… Chemistry teacher was a scientist from TI on 2 year sabbatical… LOL

  5. Me…it was my eyebrows due to my idiotic partner turning a LIT bunsen burner UP while I was measuring the contents of the beaker.

  6. And then there was the time that a student, who shall remain nameless, wanted to continue an experiment at home: so he “borrowed” a Bunsen burner from the lab, took it home with him, and connected the hose to a regular 20lb. propane cylinder. Unfortunately, he didn’t think of the fact that the laboratory gas system was LOW pressure, whereas the propane in a full cylinder, without benefit of regulator, comes out at HIGH pressure.

    His father, in a mixture of fury and admiration, wanted to know how the hell he’d managed to char the ceiling of the workshop, ten feet above the floor!

    Oops . . .

  7. That reminds me of the time in 9th grade metal shop when a classmate needed to see what would happen if he put a burning alcohol lamp (used to heat the tools for working casting wax) on the vibrator (used to debubbleize the investment plaster.) What happens is a stream of burning alcohol shooting out around the wick. That one involved eybrows and the hair on the front of his head.

    Also the 6N sulfuric acid geyser in the stockroom in lower division Quantitative Analysis. My clothes looked OK, but fell apart in the laundry. We were both very lucky it didn’t get in our eyes. Back in the day, eye pro wasn’t a thing. The TA really should have known better than to do what she did. By then I had only taken freshmen chem and it was the first time I’d been let into the stockroom.

  8. My 7th grade pyro partner got the whole school evacuated until the LAFD got there to dispose of his “experiment”.
    Last week was testing for starch. That week was acids.
    I was timing dissolution of various metals and making the notes, while behind me, pyro had taken a liter beaker half full of starch, added nitric acid, and was trying to dry the slurry on a Bunsen burner.
    He did not come back to school.
    And them there was the time when …

  9. In HS our Mrs. Reagent was one of the best teachers in the school. She had added a second year Chem class due to popular demand. Alas, I couldn’t take Chem II due to a scheduling conflict with Physics. A cabal of Chem II Pyro Partners decided to make Nitroglycerine by mixing glycerol and nitric acid. They missed a few steps and didn’t quite get it right. School was briefly evacuated, and Pyro Parters were suspended for a time. Talking to Mrs. Reagent afterwards, she said they didn’t make nirtro, but came “uncomfortably” close. Mrs. Reagent was a very proper lady and would never use any of “those” words, but you tell she wanted to.

    • My chem teacher Mrs R. did have us make nitroglycerine. Except, to the disappointment of many, she carefully explained it was it was mononitroglycerine, whereas the explosive stuff was trinitroglycerine, and we wouldn’t be doing that.

  10. None of my stories from second-year chemistry were quite so interesting, but I do remember that I told all my friends, “If there’s ever a fire alarm during fourth period, assume that it’s for real.”

    • A wise disclaimer. I can see the emergency escape door for Day Job’s chem room from my classroom window, and I assume that if it opens and students come racing out, me and mine need to emulate them (through a different door, though.) Even if the smoke alarm has not sounded yet.

  11. Given the chemicals and possibilities involved, high school chemistry teachers probably need an extra ration of the sangfroid required to deal with teen students.

    Roger was at the back of the classroom on one of the experiment tables when there was a loud POP and Roger shouted out a definitely-not-approved-for-students expletive of frustration. Our Ms. Reagent, grading papers at her desk at the front, looked over the top of her reading glasses, and sliding past the verbal infraction asked “Roger, is there a problem?” Roger’s answer was “I’M TRYING TO CREATE LIFE!” Ms. Reagent gave a small shake of the head and went back to grading papers.

    One of our sportier students (not Roger tho) decided it would be fun to ignite the gas straight out of the spigot on the experiment tabletop. No hose and bunsen burner to regulate the flow, just open the tap and flick the igniter. Had a nice yellow flame about two feet long.

  12. There’s another reagent used as catalyst, and a couple more steps involving the HS “favorites” above. The final steps of nitrification are exothermic, and NG is heat sensitive. Lab-shattering kaboom.

    Our chem teacher had a secure storage room (full walls) and three copies of the “no duplication” key, not on the school master. Saved from ourselves.

    • The textbook _Caveman Chemistry_ ends with (if you have done all the exercises correctly) making gun cotton. I’m almost completely certain that the book is not used in any public high school in the US.

      • Writing _Fun with Florochemistry for Freshman_ might possibly be an amusing way to get blacklisted from the textbook industry.

        Question is, are there other titles that would do the same trick?

  13. My HS got a second chem teacher. His first class was more enthusiastic than attentive. The story I got was that they filed in and sat down, but did not settle down. Mr. C. filled the front blackboard with fine print, then erased it. “That’s the last time I will write out instructions for making nitroglycerin!”

    The class suddenly got attentive, and stayed that way.

    Derek Lowe, pharmaceutical chemist ans author of the blog =In The Pipeline=, has an archive category “Things I Won’t Work With”. It has a number of articles on high-energy chemistry. ” ‘No unplanned detonations occcurred.’ In my experience every detonation has a certain je ne se quois …” He injects a good deal of humor into chemistry conducted with woven-steel armor and monster molecules like the sort-of-stable hexanitrohexaazoisowurtzitane and the fearsome ClFl3, which will oxidize water, glass, and sand. And reinforced concrete.

    Worth a visit to find out what you missed by going into supply chain management. He’s also got a gorgeous hardcover out called =The Chemistry Book=.

    • For TxRed: one of the comments on an article says “Are really going to ignore that Cocaine-Soaked Cobras is an excellent name for a rock-and-roll band? I can’t even!” (Derek compared the ‘easy’ handling of some azides to the drugged reptiles.)

      • That would be a great band name. Marko Kloos has said that if he forms a band, it will be The Egregiöüs Ümläüts.

  14. Not me specifically, I spent my life from 12 to 57 living in one farm or another. There was the time we found a box of stolen dynamite under one of the orange trees sweating in the summer heat. I’ve never seen a sheriff’s deputy reverse course so fast. The high pitched “I think I better move my car.” was another give-away. We’re still not sure how many times we had passed it with the tractor. My brothers and a friend did almost blow up the garage with themselves in it. They were playing around one day, making fire balloons using the acetylene from the oxy-acetylene rig. It was breezy that day and the balloons would not stay put. One of the three got the bright idea to put a little sand in each balloon to hold it in place. It worked great the first couple of times, but while filling the next one, BOOM. Both Dad and Mom were so mad (and scared) neither of them could trust themselves not to kill the boys. I’m not sure they ever did chew them out. Surprisingly, there were no physical injuries, not even ear damage. Older brother grew up to be a pilot in the ANG and had no problems passing the hearing tests.

    • Two stories…

      Not much interesting at school, but at home? Oh yeah – and this was WITH (alleged) adult supervision. It was Pa who one fine Summer afternoon decided we might as well see what happens with balloons of various gasses and a setup for if not remote, at least not overly close ignition. I think we started with hydrogen (this was long enough ago Red Devil Lye was readily available). Not sure what all we went through. Obviously propane. Possibly butane. Might have even been something else as well. Then we looked at the oxyacetylene rig and.. the acetylene was last. It was also the end of that run of things. No injuries, but the small scale reaction was disturbing enough that we agreed that we would NOT be repeating that one.

      This is second-hoof, for which I am grateful. $WeBuildScales had rented space in a building off-site as the space was needed for some project. It was all very mundane, and should have been dull. One morning the folks working there arrived to find a fine coating of dust over everything. Turns out some ‘geniuses’ had discovered that acetylene is not quite as heavy as air. They amused themselves by filling trash bags with the gas, and letting them go outside up into the evening. But this was late enough in the year that the humidity was Quite Low. Low humidity. Acetylene-air mixture. Just a tiny little spark of static… yeah, “It went BEWM.” Supposedly, they found out who was involved by asking about people having ears/hearing checked that evening.

      • Are you sure you aren’t related to my family? It sounds a lot like my brothers (see comment above).

        • That’s what reminded me of those stories.

          For your benefit, I make no claims of relations.
          If it matters, the first took place… somewhere between Wausau and Tomahawk, Wisconsin.

      • Odd, in high school we used to turn the acetylene on and fill the cracks between the fire bricks on the oxyacetylene welding booths in metal shop, with acetylene. Because it was heavier than air and would settle down into them and stay there. Then when the next student came over and went to do their gas welding, when they lowered the torch head to their project setting on the bricks. . . there would be a boom! and flame would shoot out of all the cracks.

        You could always spot the perpetrators, because they were the ones who didn’t have two feet of air between their feet and the floor when the gas went off.

        • Curious indeed. The density as I look it up is only slightly less than air making it a poor lifting gas even aside from its explosive tendencies. I wonder if some contaminant allows/keeps a portion down as some goes up. I have ZERO plans to run any such experiments to determine things further, however.

  15. Story from a relative who did a stint in the Corps of Engineers: After a certain overseas operation that involved a lot of excavating and landscaping he was told to clean up the place. He discovered a cavern full of dynamite that had … grown stale. In other words, nitroglycerin was weeping out of it and crystalizing.

    In situations like that you step outside softly and pray you don’t sneeze. After getting away from the mess, he went looking for someone who could tell him what to do. But before he could do more than say “I’ve got a pile of dynamite,” some buttinsky interrupted him to say that -his- unit was responsible for explosives.

    Almost like magic a transfer order appeared and my kinsman hid his delight as he ‘reluctantly’ signed off on the order. And for all I know, the buttinsky was happy to get possession of the mess before it blew someone up. Not that I know very much.

    • I got to help dispose of some stuff that had not crystalized yet, but was weeping. We had a LOT of fun at that airshow. 😀

      • There was only a thin ring of crystals around the ground glass stopper of the picric acid bottle under the sink in the lab so it wasn’t too dangerous. I worried about it but the lead tech didn’t.

        • Some of those “Things I Won’t Work With” articles have mention of that problem … for compounds far more energetic. Like one that detonated from the light source inside an IR spectrometer. IIRC they destroyed -two- expensive IR spectrometers before they got a technique that would work.

  16. …This was my fault, wasn’t it? ^^;;

    Anyway, y’all had more interesting chemistry classes than I did. The most we did in chemistry was make mayonaise, and I was the only one who actually got a grade because I was the only one who actually did the project, beating up the mayo. The other chemistry teacher I had spent more time trying to get kids into his pseudo-7th Day Adventist cult (he succeeded in getting one kid brainwashed.) But that’s a blog post story for a different day, maybe. It’s a bit awkward to tell because it makes me sound like some kind of awesome hero versus this evil villain, when … really, I was just the hard headed nerd kid he couldn’t dominate or manipulate.

  17. > Pyro partner, seeing my very long pony-tail, and the open flame, couldn’t resist finding out what would happen when flame met hair.

    I’ll assume this was someone who probably wasn’t overtly crazy or destructive. Just poor impulse control.

    This is one of the things many self-defense classes try to cover, but most students don’t listen. People you’ve known casually for a long time, who never acted weird or tripped the “beware” toggle, suddenly pull out a weapon and start going to town. And afterward, they may not even have a coherent reason for it, assuming they aren’t cut down by a bystander or the police, or suicide.

    Not just that sort of thing, but people who will commit acts of life-changing stupidity, that nobody would ever have expected them to do, and can never explain why.

    Barring occasional demonic possession or mind-control rays, they have some kind of glitch in their wetware. “Two plus two equals hair dryer”. And they jump mental tracks and go off a-viking.

    Defense courses usually cover the “chicken dance”, where it’s common for a bad guy to work himself up to an attack, but nutters aren’t always so kind as to give warning.

    Not that you should live in a state of paranoia, but *any* kind of plan is better than being a sitting target after you’ve observed that the extrement is hitting the ventilator.

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