One of the most great-hearted people I have ever known is a teacher named Jack Sell. Jack was teaching chemistry at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas, when I arrived there, fresh out of college, to take the other chemistry position.
Jack was beyond a doubt the most generous person I have ever known. He simply could not do enough for me. Unlike many teachers who have taught somewhere for a long time and are overprotective of supplies and equipment which have taken decades to accumulate, Jack went out his way to make sure I had everything I needed.
More than that, the road to success as a chemistry teacher is one rough ride, and Jack had been tootling down that road for more than 25 years when I first met him. He knew exactly where the potholes were — and how to avoid them.
He could have taught me a lot if I’d had the sense to listen.
And he tried, God bless him. He really tried.
Trouble is, you can’t teach a mule — or a mule-headed new teacher — anything unless you get his attention. With a mule all it calls for is a two-by-four across the head.
But with a mule-headed new teacher. Who knows?
Let’s just say it calls for something drastic.
What aggravated Jack’s problem was the fact that although I was fresh out of college, I was by no means new to teaching. Not only had I taught for more than 11 years in the Air Force, but I had spent seven of those years teaching others how to teach.
That kinda sorta gives you an attitude. Since you have taught several hundred people — in my case over a thousand—how to teach, you figure that you, yourself know how to do the dumb thing.
And you’re right! Sometimes.
But not when it comes to teaching chemistry. In truth, I think that Jack was pleased at first that he wasn’t going to have to break in another raw recruit.
And he may even have been a bit amused as he watched me that first summer as I worked to prepare my lab for the forthcoming school year.
But as the summer grew shorter and the start of school loomed closer, he began to look worried.
Even to me, and I wasn’t paying much attention.
Several times before the first day of school, while he, and I, and Bill Tolar, the physics teacher, talked together over lunch, I could see that Jack had something he wanted to say, but either he never said it, or I was talking so much I didn’t hear it.
Most likely the latter.
However, on the very last day before the kids arrived, Jack looked at me very seriously. “Tom, be a little careful when you start teaching in your lab.
“When you teach chemistry, things are ... uh, are prone to happen that you didn’t exactly expect.”
I don’t remember what I said. Something dumb no doubt.
Now just in case you’ve never taken high school chemistry, or if you took it in a small school where lab work wasn’t as much a part of the course as it was at Thomas Jefferson, I’ll take a moment out here to help you understand why I should have walked through that classroom door the first day dead scared.
Consider a classroom with five lab benches at which 30 healthy, active, resourceful teenagers siting within arm’s reach of 10 reagent trays, each one containing eight fragile glass-stoppered reagent bottles: One each of concentrated hydrochloric, nitric and sulfuric acids. One each of dilute hydrochloric, nitric and sulfuric acids. And one each of sodium hydroxide and ammonium hydroxide.
And that’s just for starters. Port Arthur Independent School District being one of the three wealthiest school districts in Texas, I had roughly a quarter of a million dollars worth of other corrosive, poisonous or explosive chemicals in my five storerooms out back, a good portion of which I planned to trot out for the use of the students as the year progressed.
Add to that the fact that it is impossible to see through the kids seated on high stools at the first lab bench to see what the ones at the other four lab benches are doing.
And the fact that concentrated sulfuric acid, for example, if spilled on a human being in any quantity, will destroy skin and muscle so fast there is no chance — none whatsoever — of preventing severe damage and permanent scarring.
Or the fact that a splash of concentrated nitric or sulfuric acid into an eye will almost certainly result in blindness.
“But what about goggles?” you ask.
Nice. Some protection from a minor accident. But mainly worn for the sake of avoiding a lawsuit. Only full face shields, which we did not use, offer true facial protection.
And as for beautifully unblemished young arms and legs ...
Consider the stupidity of waltzing into that situation on the first day as cool and calm as Lawrence Welk cranking up the band.
“A-one, and a-two, and a-three ...”
I should have been shaking like a dog trying to pass a coconut.
Eight years later, when I was leaving Texas to come here to Arizona at last, Jack, and I, and Bill sat drinking coffee and chuckling over that quiet little first day comment of Jack’s,“things are ... uh, are prone to happen that you didn’t exactly expect.”
By that time I knew what he meant.
Oh boy! Did I ever!
After the first few days I was all ears whenever Jack spoke.
And then some!
I’m not going into the details of how I became a believer. No thanks!
Oh, well. Just one small example of how high school kids train chemistry teachers to be a bit — shall we say — cautious?
One fine day I heard a loud crackling sound, looked up, and saw a two-foot ball of orange flames where a student’s head should be.
His father was the assistant superintendent of schools.
That was a learning experience.
Good old Jack! Never once did he say, “I told you so!”