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Saturday, 1 October 2022

School Chemistry

New month old post. First posted 14th November 2014

There was once a time when things at school looked promising. I was doing well in most subjects, especially science. My diary remembers I was top in biology, had got 20/20 in a chemistry test, and had enjoyed a ‘fab’ physics experiment: the water equivalent of a copper calorimeter. Yet I only scraped through ‘O’ levels and messed up ‘A’ levels completely. What went wrong? 


I was spellbound by the science labs the moment I went to grammar school. They had a permanent smell of pungent chemicals, coal gas, rubber tubing and wood polish that hinted at mysterious secret knowledge. What went on at those dark ancient benches with sinks, gas taps and glass-stoppered bottles etched with intriguing names: tincture of iodine, nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lime water? Could they make explosives and powerful poisons? Could they turn base metals into gold? Did they have the philosopher’s stone with the secret of eternal life? Perhaps if you paid attention, you might have these things too.

In a room tiered like the Royal Institution, you looked down from beautiful oak benches upon Dr. Page as he heated potassium chlorate and manganese dioxide to make oxygen. It bubbled up through water into an upturned jar. He became a wizard, an alchemist, showing how it reacts with other substances. “Magnesium burns with a bright white light” he said, conjuring a dazzling ball of light too bright and too white to look at.

In biology, my dysfunctional memory absorbed the names of anatomical structures and physiological processes: xylem, islets of Langerhans, osmosis, mitochondria, mitosis. In physics, I was captivated by the sheer ingenuity of the procedures. In mathematics, the interactions of shapes and numbers seemed as exquisite as any art form.

And what a cheat! We listened to a weekly series of science programmes on the wireless. I might have been the only person in the class with a tape recorder. I showed my mother how to record the programmes at home and, after listening a second time, handed in outstanding essays.

But things began to go downhill. I have excuses, such as forgetting to revise for the summer science exam. “Position in class 2nd, position in exam 25th, a disappointing exam result” said my report. It put me in the second stream for science, where people messed about and I made the mistake of wanting to be liked. Things got harder too. Chemistry progressed from observation to experiments, quantitative measurement and atomic models. And we moved to new labs with benches in rows rather than islands, where teachers couldn’t see what was going on at the back.

The once admired Dr. Page, little and thin with an odd toothy mouth, small bony face and permanent worried frown, was not well equipped to deal with continuous low level disruption. An orchestra of clicks and pings from cupboard door catches and drawer label holders would start up every time he turned to write on the blackboard, only to be met by silent, innocent faces when he angrily spun back.

Occasionally he would catch someone still smirking, attributing blame by shouting their name: “Bullard!”, “Gelder!”, “Dunham!”. Geoffrey Bullard perfected the ability to click a cupboard door with his foot while the rest of him remained motionless, his face expressionless. He could continue this covert clicking after Dr. Page had spun, causing someone else to laugh and get the blame.  

Harvey Gelder started a league table of called out names. Geoffrey Bullard went straight to the top when he caused uproar by catching a wasp and dropping it into a bottle of sodium hydroxide. It didn’t half fly around fast inside the bottle.

It wasn’t long before everyone at the back had points except for Maurice Jupp. He remained bottom of the league until almost the end of term. The day arrived when, under conditions of intolerable harassment, Jupp was spotted not sitting quietly and had his name called out. We all stood up cheering and applauding. We had to stay late that day.

Jupp’s downfall was brought about by water. The bench water taps could not have been better designed for mischief. They were of the typical laboratory downspout design, and could be turned on just enough to drip so that a well-timed finger could flick drops of water at the head of the person sitting in front. Or, the top of a fountain pen, the kind with a small hole in the side for equalising air pressure, could be pushed on to a tap to squirt a powerful jet of water at someone sitting yards away. The rubber teat from a teat-pipette could do the same job if you made a tiny hole in it, except the spray was so fine that the recipient might not notice until the back of his jacket was soaked through. And a teat without a pin hole pushed on to a dripping tap would slowly expand like a balloon until it became a water bomb primed to explode. There was not a lot you could do about it. Pulling off the teat was suicidal. The best thing was simply to turn off the tap, hoping you had correctly remembered which way was off, and trust that the thing remained stable.

Hardly anyone from the back of that class passed their ‘O’ level chemistry.

25 comments:

  1. Interesting story, is this you in school? I didn't like anything science, so only took the bare minimum and didn't do well with it. The smells got to me a lot. I had a horrible biology teacher that was a mean snake and later arrested in fact for doing inappropriate things in public.

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    1. The story happened pretty much as described, although I have changed the names. So much seems to depend on whether or not we like our subject teachers.

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  2. Kids who habitually sat in the back row of seats in any class were usually more interested in goofing off than in learning the subject. Keeners like me always sat in the front row, I'm afraid.

    I liked biology and took it through high school and as my science elective in university. I only took one year of chemistry in high school and never even attempted physics. They held no interest for me.

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    1. The kids who messed around seemed to make a beeline for the back. It was nearly all boys in my class - all but a few of the girls dropped chemistry at the first opportunity. Pity really.

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  3. This is sad.
    Don't you still have silly ambitions or dreams? The past is past, most school teachers are useless. Forget them and move on.
    Watch YouTube, there are some opinionated idiots on there telling one silly things but at least you can click off. Move on and find another. Not a choice we had at school.

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    1. I don't have regrets or longing for the past. I did move on and things turned out well. I do find it interesting how things have changed and how we got to where we are.

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  4. Though you and I had somewhat parallel lives, I am afraid that the only science that ever grabbed my interest was biology. I ate such knowledge up like hamburgers. Chemistry and physics were as alien to me as naked mole rats. I was always top of the class in both Geography and Art and one of the top three or four in English. Your description of school labs brings back stressful memories. I may need counselling.

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    1. I have to concur with the last 2 sentences from Yorkshire Pudding !! Even though I grew up at opposite ends of the globe!!

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    2. Oh dear! Should have put a warning: this post describes scientific experiments. When I re-took A Levels in my twenties, it was Geography and English Lit. Of the sciences, I think Biology the most useful for understanding everyday life - children's illnesses for example.

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  5. Our chemistry teacher was a little smarter. He knew all the boys were interested in making "rotten egg gas" (hydrogen something) so our very first lesson was exactly that. Half of the class had to run outside gagging. Once we had cleaned up the benches and beakers he cautioned the boys that any class disruptions would mean instant failure on any and all tests. I wish we had been given more chemistry lessons as I liked it, but there were only a few that year and after that I was 15 and my school life was over.

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    1. Once got a whiff of chlorine - my own fault. I really was bad.
      We were lucky in being offered full courses in all three sciences, even though as you can see I did not take advantage or benefit much.

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  6. I wonder whether any of those people who designed the new labs ever sat through a lesson in one of them. They probably thought they were doing the right thing but never considered what kids are like.
    When I was at school, like YP the only science subjects I found interesting were biology and geography. Our maths teacher also taught physics, and he clearly stated his opinion that those students who could not instantly grasp his explanations did not deserve any further attention; instead they better change school and go next door where school would finish at the age of 16 with the German equivalent of your O-levels. That was my excuse for not even trying anymore.
    I remained top of the class in languages (English, French and - of course - German) throughout, but did indeed go next door after I totally flunked chemistry in year 10. Puberty fully hit at the same time, providing me with new priorities.

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    1. The lab layout was probably a space efficiency issue, but the old ones were very much like the ones in the photograph I found.
      So many of us at school either lacked confidence or were under-achievers, or both. School could have been fo much better, but any attempts to improve matters tended to be thwarted by peer pressures.

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  7. Chemistry and Physics were totally baffling to me. I did enjoy Biology and was the only one in my year to achieve 100% for Biology at O Level.
    Languages were more my thing. Handy for holidays.

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    1. Apologies for the belated reply - the original disappeared. I wasn't a natural at languages.

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  8. I had a similar experience. Loved chemistry at 11 with a superb teacher called Miss Palmer who looked like an old fuddy duddy but was actually a load of fun. We carried out experiments all through lesson, no note taking, learned for ourselves with her guidance and made discoveries. I don't recall having a text book, it was just pure hands-on learning. She told us never to breathe a word of any of the experiments to the nuns especally when she dropped a glass flask of mercury on the floor and we had to try to clear it up. Every lesson was exciting and I even enjoyed the homework of writing it all up. In the following year the school employed a Scottish male science teacher who dictated all our notes, kept experiments to the minimum, and all but a few totally lost interest and we couldn't understand his accent and he smelt of cigarettes. I failed the mock O level and was not put in for the exam. If we had kept Miss Palmer all the way through I have no doubt that I would have passed O level Chemistry.

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    1. As responded to an earlier comment, we were so influenced by how much we liked particular teachers. My own kids were too, e.g. doing well in languages - teacher changes - languages suddenly disliked. Your second science teacher sounds hopeless. Multiplied over and over across large numbers of schools wastes enormous potential.

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  9. What does the "O" stand for in O level and the "A" in A level?

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    1. As I recall 50 years on, O for ordinary level, A for advanced level.

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    2. Thanks, Will. Yes, Ordinary at age16 and the more specialised Advances and 18. In my day you took around 8 O levels and 3 A levels, with 3 needed to get into a good university and 2 into a Polytechnic or teacher training or a profession.

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    3. Exactly what I thought they were. Yay me! I have knowledge. ha ha.

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  10. I missed out on the sciences, after nearly dying from the flu at that time. Six months it seems to me at boarding school whilst I was nursed by the nuns. Education went down from there with a move when I was 15 to London. Occasionally I often wonder what my life would have been like with a 'proper' childhood. Instead I started working and only did Os and As at a later stage. No regrets though, continuous education is something we should be glad of.

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    1. Like you, I feel sure I got more out of university by going later. I sometimes like to dream that if I'd got my act together at 18 I might have got to Oxford and become Prime Minister (: Ha! Wouldn't have been any worse than the one we have.

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  11. I had to force a guidance counselor to allow me to take Chemistry in high school by getting my father involved. She was very mean-spirited--told me and others we weren't smart enough--a lousy counselor. Luckily, I was blessed with a kind and gifted Chem teacher. He was much older than most teachers and had, earlier in his career, worked for Linus Pauling. Mr B took mercy on my indifferent mathematical/science skills which had been hampered by attending seven different schools in three countries over ten years. One day, I was struggling to learn how to use the slide rule (remember that beast?--pre-calculator days). He spent an entire class period helping me learn its mysteries while giving the rest of the class fun experiments to work on. Over the course of the school year, he provided me steady, strategic guidance that allowed me to finish the year with an A in chemistry. I've never forgotten his kindness--the best of teachers.
    Of course, me being me, as soon as I had my grades at the end of the year, I promptly dropped by the guidance office to show them to the nasty counselor and politely told her she might want to rethink her career. :)
    Mary

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    1. One of those great "I told you so" takes. I know someones else who worked with L Paulin and had only good things to say of him, and it rubbed off on all around him.

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