August 27, 2004

Smitty's Sodium-and-Water Fun-Time

PZ Myers passes on a story about an undergraduate who drank liquid nitrogen. This, it turns out, is a very bad idea. (No surprise.)

The story made me think a bit about my intermediate school science teacher, “Smitty”. He was an ex-military guy who acted the part, with us as his boot camp privates and himself as a drill sergeant who was drawn from one-third “Beetle Bailey”, one-third “Gomer Pyle” and one-third “Full Metal Jacket”. Most of the time he seemed to be hamming it up, but every once in a while, it seemed to trip over into real (and rather scary) anger over some screwed-up experiment.

The reason I think of him in this context is that once a year he would order a large block of sodium, perhaps about as big as a small brick, maybe 80-100 grams or so (my memory may be exaggerating, but not by much) and wearing goggles and gloves drop it in a tall bucket full of water with tongs and run.

This seemed very cool when I was in the 7th grade. The ceiling in his classroom had extensive pitting from the resulting annual explosions and spraying of acid. (This is why I’m sure the amount of sodium was considerably bigger than in that animated .gif I’ve linked to: Smitty’s demonstration was violent enough to spew the results straight up about ten feet.) We all huddled in the back of the room watching the reaction and the acrid fumes with wide eyes and a certain degree of nervousness and then afterwards we helped to clean up the acid by “skating” on the floor on top of rags that he provided. (He picked up the rags himself with his tongs and discarded them.)

I recall hearing some years later that the local fire captain got wind of this and angrily ordered it stopped. When I think on it myself, my feeling is about one-half, “My god, it’s about time, are you insane for letting that man do that?” but also thinking, “Come on, nobody ever got hurt and it was interesting, as well as a pretty good demonstration that some adults can be as crazy as bedbugs.” Even as kids, we knew this was not entirely wise, a feeling that I've had confirmed by a bit of websurfing this afternoon.

My mixed emotions about this memory echo some other ambivalences. The perennial debate about dodgeball, for example. I find myself pretty sympathetic to the impulse to ban it, having been slammed in the head continuously from 4th to 6th grade. As far as I was concerned, the entire structure of the game was about isolating and humiliating the students who were low in the popularity hierarchy: there was nothing fun or athletic about it. On the other hand, maybe that’s the usefulness of it.

Those hierarchies are going to exist anyway: dodgeball left me with no questions about where I stood with the popular kids. It’s not as if getting rid of dodgeball would have gotten rid of being called “scientific martian” (my personal favorite insult directed at me) or being pushed into metal fences or having my head shoved into the sand or any of the other fun recess activities I recall so fondly. Nor do I have any especial warmth for the pro-social gobbledygook that the professional educators who crusade against dodgeball offer, as if all sports and games for kids should be non-competitive, esteem-building and so on.

I think about this with my 3 year-old daughter starting preschool next week, too. We threw her in the deep end of the pool today, so to speak, by leaving her alone for a “trial hour” at the school. She did great, by all accounts. We’ve already seen that she’s going to run into disappointments, as all kids do—she wanted to play “superhero” with the kids the first time she was at the school playground (we stayed to observe) and one of the other kids told her that was stupid. Considering that my daughter yesterday told my wife and I to sit down in a group after playing hide-and-seek with her so that she could retrospectively analyze and critique our hiding choices (I kid you not: this is almost exactly the language she used), I don’t think this is the last time some little punk is going to tell her she’s stupid. If it happens enough, I know I’ll have a hard time just letting it happen, regardless of whether you learn important social skills by being forced to co-exist with pinheads.

My mom eventually became a more classically interventionist parent of the kind that is common today with the schooling of my younger brothers, after pretty well letting me negotiate my perils on my own. I don’t know if that benefitted them. I don’t know that it was better or worse that my 7th grade science teacher was able to casually carry out a nutty experiment that plausibly could have led to serious injury for himself or his students, or that it’s a good thing that today probably no intermediates school science teacher in the country could get away with doing the same. I don’t know that it’s better or worse to play dodgeball. I know that things have changed, but I don’t quite know how to add it all up.