Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: James Bates

It had snowed overnight so driving the city streets was tricky. My old Honda Civic slid through a couple of stop signs before I made myself lighten up on the gas petal. Hard to do, though. I was excited for my first day of school to finally fulfill my dream of becoming a teacher. After four plus years of college, I was more than ready to get started. I just didn’t expect that I’d be a substitute teacher, which was one thing. The other being I’d not be teaching English literature, my preferred subject and the one I’d been trained in. No, they’d hired me to teach chemistry instead, something I knew absolutely nothing about.

            “You’ve got a teaching certificate, and that’s all we require,” the assistant principle told me a few weeks earlier during the interview. “Plus, more to the point,” he added, shaking his head sadly, “You’re the only one who’s applied. It’s yours if you want it.”

            I wanted to teach, and I needed the money. Did I know anything about chemistry? Not a thing, but if they weren’t worried, I wasn’t either. Too much.

            “Sure,” I told him. “When do I start?”

            “The Monday after holiday break, the first week in January.”

            “I’ll be there.”

And today was the day. I checked myself in the rear-view mirror. The face peering back was okay looking, and, more to the point, had nothing weird like oatmeal or toothpaste stuck to it. A good sign. I was twenty-three years old with wispy brown hair, a thin beard, wore wirerimmed glasses, and what I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm. I was more than ready for my new career to begin. Look out world, here I come.

I put on my Covid mask, grabbed my briefcase, stepped out of the car and immediately fell on my ass. Damn! It really was pretty slippery out.

After graduating from college last spring, I’d found teaching jobs few and far between. I was told the pandemic had a lot to do with it, and I suppose that made sense. All I knew is when this substitute job opened up, I jumped at the opportunity and applied. So what if English was my area of expertise? I mean how hard could it be to figure out how to teach chemistry to a bunch of tenth graders?

I brushed the snow off my black jeans and made my way toward the front door, the door we all had to use because that’s where the metal detector was located. It took a while to get through it. The line was pretty long.

Monroe High School was located in south Minneapolis and had been constructed in the 1880’s. It was a three-story high formidable structure, built of dark red brick. The students were a mixture of cultures and religions and I was looking forward to being the teacher who would open up their young and inquisitive eyes to the beauty of Shakespeare and Dickens. Since that wasn’t going to happen, I had to rethink my goal. Maybe to just survive my first day of chemistry without blowing up myself or anyone else would be considered a win. Sounded good to me.

My classroom was at the end of the hallway on the second floor. Getting there took about fifteen minutes because the halls were packed with screaming kids all yelling and trying to make themselves heard to the people standing right next to them. Loud was putting it mildly. A thunderous landslide roaring down a mountain would be more apt. Or an avalanche. I’m quiet by nature. I like to read. I write poetry. I’m happy being by myself. It suddenly occurred to me that immersed in this din of barely controlled chaos, surrounded by screaming excitable kids, was how I was going to be spending my day. I felt my stomach acids kick in and start flooding my guts, much to my dismay not to mention discomfort.

Teachers were stationed at the doorway of every classroom admonishing students to be quiet, to quit shoving and to not run. An admirable idea that was failing miserably. One or two of them made eye contact with me and shrugged, as if to say, ‘what can you do?’ Did they know I was the new teacher? If so, I’ll bet the general consensus was “Poor, guy. Too bad for him. They’ll eat him alive.”

By the time I’d fought my way up the stairs to the second floor and down the crowed, pulsating hallway into the sanctity of my classroom, I was sweating and exhausted. And I’m a guy who runs three miles a day, five on the weekend! I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 7:45 am. Class started in fifteen minutes. Good lord, how was I ever going to make it through the day?

I guess it helped being young. After all, I was only eight or nine years older than the students. But I was still their teacher, the dreaded authority figure, and as they filed into the classroom, I could see them checking me out. I’m sure they were wondering, like I would have been if I were them, what was the deal with this new guy and, more to the point, what could they get away with.

I tried to ignore their somewhat belligerent and sullen stares and got them seated. Because of Covid I had half of the thirty-four-student class Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And the other half Tuesday and Wednesday. Then the next week the students flip-flopped their days.

I greeted them with, “Okay. Hi. Welcome to tenth grade chemistry. I’m Mr. Jordan and I’ll be your teacher for the rest of the year.” Dead silence. After the earlier clamorous pandemonium from out in the halls it was sort of unnerving, yet, honestly, kind of welcome. I pushed on. “I’m going to have you sit alphabetically by last name,” I told them holding the attendance chart out for them to see. They groaned, of course. The previous week I’d arranged the desks socially distant at six feet apart. “It’ll help me to remember who you are,” I added, as I read off their names. With names like Birhane, Kaminski, Rodriguez and Yang, it was an eclectic mixed of ten graders, I’ll tell you.

I gave them the rules of the class which included keeping their masks on at all times, raising their hands to ask a question and using hand sanitizer before and after class. “Here, I’ll pass it around for you.”

I explained how’d we do assignments using their school issued iPads for reading, and that I’d be giving a quiz every two weeks. More groans.

I remembered being that age and having basically no attention span, so I got started and said, “Okay. Now, we are going to talk about chemistry. How many of you know what an exothermic reaction is?”

A few students raised their hands. I consulted my chart and pointed, “Okay. You there. Shala. What is it?”

“An exothermic reaction is one in which heat is given off,” she dutifully intoned.

“Very good,” I said, feeling a rush of elation at seeing learning occurring right before my very eyes. This was going well.

The class laughed as Shala held up her iPad. “It says so right here.”

I could feel a rush of blood to my face and my ears turning red. Hmm. I’d have to stay on my toes with these kids. I recovered and said, “Excellent, Shala. That’s very resourceful.” I nodded to show my approval, as she rewarded my comment with a microscopic tilt of her head in return.

I was trying to appear calm, but inside my heart was racing. I felt a trickle of sweat run down my back and suddenly the seventeen pairs of eyes looking at me seemed like they were delving deep into my soul, daring me to screw up so they could laugh at my ineptitude. After all, I was brand-new and ripe for the picking.

But I wasn’t ready to toss in my chips just yet. After all, I’d always wanted to be a teacher.

“Okay. Great,” I said, pacing back and forth in front on the class, partly from nervous energy, partly to get their attention. “Like Shala said, exothermic reactions give off heat. What exactly does that look like, when heat is given off?” I paused as the students consulted their iPads. I made a mental note that next time I’d require they keep their devices closed while I was lecturing. Live and learn, right?

More hands went up. I consulted my list and pointed, “Okay. Jamal. What do you, or, should I say, your iPad, have to say?” The class chuckled a little.

Jamal read dutifully from his screen, “It says that heat is given off in the form of energy.” He stopped and looked at me. “Like light?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I said and smiled encouragingly at him. In spite of my mask, I’m sure the class could tell I was happy with the answer.

“So, like a flame?” Another student raised her hand and asked.

Back to the seating chart. “Yes, Sing Lee. Like a flame.”

I looked out over the class and was happy to see most of them were interested and engaged. It was time for the next part of the lesson.

“Would you like to see a demonstration?” I asked.

Fortunately, there was an enthusiastic show of hands and a few “Yeah’s.” I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d just sat there. Another note to myself: Don’t ask a question where you might not get the answer you want.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I went ahead. “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. We’re going to mix bromine and aluminum, a liquid and a metal, and see what happens.”

For safety’s sake, I put on my white lab coat and plastic glasses. I put on a pair of rubber gloves and used a clamp to pick up a test tube. The class watched my every movement. I poured a small amount of liquid bromine into the tube.

“Pretty color, isn’t it?” I asked. It was dark red, the color of blood.

“Yeah,” was the general consensus.

“Okay, now, I’ll add some aluminum.” I put a narrow, two-inch long strip of aluminum foil in with the red liquid and held the test tube up for everyone to see. “Check it out and watch carefully.” I looked at the classroom, pleased that most of them were eagerly paying attention. “Does anyone know what might happen?”

Shala raised here hand. “There’ll be a reaction?”

I nodded my head, “That’s exactly right. They’ll be…” I was going to say, “a reaction,” when the reaction started.

“Wow!” The class responded, and there were even a few amazed, “Oh’s” and “Ah’s.” I’d practiced the experiment before and always thought the outcome was cool, but along with that was the niggling concern in the back of my mind that for some reason it wouldn’t work. Today, however, it worked. It worked great.

The reaction formed a new compound called aluminum bromide. In its formation, heat was given off in the form of smoke and sparks. The inside of the test tube was alive with yellow sparks flickering like Fourth of July fireworks. Green smoke billowed up from the dark red liquid and began cascading over the sides of the test tube. Some of it drifted toward the ceiling where I had a frantic few moments thinking a smoke alarm somewhere might go off. Thankfully none did. As far as a simple experiment, performed by an English major masquerading as a chemistry teacher, it was pretty amazing. And a success.

As we waited for the reaction to die down, I asked, “What kind of reaction is this called, again?” I set the test tube into an empty beaker to cool. “Remember that heat was given off.”

“Exothermic,” a number of the students responded without even looking at their iPads.

I grinned underneath my mask. “Right,” I said. “Exothermic. Very good.” Wow. They’d remembered. I was thrilled.

Glancing at the clock on the wall I noticed there were only a few minutes left, so I assigned them reading to do before I saw them on Wednesday. Then I handed out paper towels and spray bottles filled with disinfectant for them to clean their desks.

When I bell rang, I waved good-bye and some of them waved back. One or two even said, “Nice class.”

I was overjoyed, but exhausted. I looked at the clock. It was 8:50 am. I had four more classes to go, plus a study hall and a free period. A long day ahead. I sat on the edge of my desk to catch my breath. It felt good to get off my feet. It didn’t last long. Less than a minute later, the first students for the next class began to trickle in, and I stood up to greet them. In spite of being tired, I was looking forward to the next session. So far so good on teaching chemistry.

Then I had the sudden thought. If I was asked to come back next year and teach it again, would I?  In other words, would I pass up the opportunity to teach English, the subject I’d been trained in, to teach chemistry, something I knew absolutely nothing about? Well, I could always learn, right? Like with the exothermic reaction experiment? I’d figured that out. So, yeah, the more I thought about, the more I thought that I could easily get talked into it. It had real possibilities.

“Hi” I greeted the students now streaming into the classroom. “Welcome to chemistry. I’m Mr. Jordan, and I’m your teacher.”

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