Missing Chemistry Lab?!

“How are you managing to do Science experiments during these Covid times?” I asked the daughter as she munched on a cookie while on a diatribe about her latest Chemistry assignment.

“Oh we do it online. You can tip stuff into test tubes with your mouse, and it shows you what happens.” she said with a shrug, and I must tell you, I paled.

Wasn’t the whole fun of Chemistry lab the hissing noises as two unlikely elements reacted? Or the joy of seeing the colors change inside the test tube as you held it up to be seen by the light? The bright copper sulphate blue, the lilac, the pinks and turning neutrally to white letting out fumes? What about the olfactory? The hydrogen sulphide that sent us gagging towards the windows with the rotten egg smells. (The fact that we made it straight to lunch after a Chemistry lab with H2and tucked in with an enormous appetite speaks volumes to the marvelous feeling of youth.)

Chem_lab

I said as much to the daughter, and she gave me the pitying look she reserves for me when she senses that I miss my school days. “It’s just Chem Lab, it will be fine! Don’t worry!”

“Should I just forget about those eggs I bought a while back, so you can experience the rotten egg smells to your heart’s content?!” I asked solicitous.

She roared with laughter at this and said, “Your cooking is Chemistry enough Mother!”

It was in part conversations like this that peppered my read of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, A Chemical Boyhood.

uncle_tungsten

His journey with the Sciences and his joyous epiphanies as he realized the neat order of things, and his poetic joy  as he traversed the Periodic table, gave me a new appreciation for the Periodic table too. In his words,

“Chemical exploration, chemical discovery , was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck in my reading, of the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens , or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent toxins or explosions.”

Chemistry, is tucked so far away in my consciousness, that I reveled in the beauty of it all almost anew. Glimpses of my committed Chemistry teachers in my youth came to me. I remember the feeling where their passion for the subject came through as they explained how the electrons revolved around the nucleus, the atomic weights, the inert gases and all the rest of it. I can vaguely begin to recognize how it must’ve felt to wax eloquent about the structural wonders in the world around us, to a bunch of mildly interested, if not completely indifferent, teenagers.

If ever there was a profession that was steeped in delayed gratification, teaching must be it. Why does it takes us decades to realize the stalwarts who did their best by us?! I tried putting all of this into words as I discussed the book with the daughter, and she said, “Yeah age makes you kooky I suppose. Must find the chemical reactions for that!” She laughed at her own wit while I  scowled. Slowly, she donned a far-off look, and said, “You know? Chem is just fine if he doesn’t keep having us go back and write out our mistakes for him so we show him why we made the mistake! Really! He is a grumpy old man and he is only twenty!”

I guffawed out loud at this – I must remember to ask about this Chemistry teacher of hers a few decades from now.

Teacher Appreciation Week

I hovered near the bookshelf – like a child hovering around the glass-pane of the candy store, Looking for that perfect piece of sweet : something familiar, good and a slight twist to wake up your cells every time.

It has been a long and stern day filled with purposeful adults, all filled to the brim with the cares of living, earning a living, and forgetting to live. My brain looked for a release, and a mode to thrive.

I picked up a book of short stories by one of my favorite authors: P.G.Wodehouse.

18-carat-kid

Eighteen Carat Kid and Other Stories: I opened the first page and was pulled in like an elephant to the early morning waters in the forest.

Paragraph 1:
There is something always going on in a private school.
Beyond breaking up fights, stopping big boys bullying small boys, preventing small boys bullying smaller boys, inducing boys of all sizes not to throw stones, go on the wet grass, worry the cook, tease the cat, make too much noise, climb trees, scale waterspouts, lean too far out of windows, slide down the banisters, swallow pencils, and drink ink because somebody bet them they wouldn’t, I had very little to do except teach mathematics, carve the joint, help the pudding, play football, read prayers, herd stragglers into meals, and go round the dormitories at night to see that the lights were out. ”

Both my parents were teachers (my father was a teacher in a residential school – public schools as they are called in India, private school in the US & UK) I sent the snippet to him, and he heartily took a trip down the memory lane and agreed in his booming, hearty voice that addressed assemblies without mikes, that there never was a dull day in his teaching career. Being a vegetarian, he did not often have to ‘carve the joint’ , but that apart, pretty much everything else was true, he said. It is always to good to hear the joy of being a teacher coming through.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I thought of sharing this essay the son had written for his 3rd Grade essay:

Topic: Imagine you are a teacher taking your class on a field trip to Baltimore National Aquarium

The Baltimore National Aquarium

At the Baltimore National Aquarium there is lots of life. This is one of the places where humans and marine life see each other as fun things.Anyway I brought my class with me because the principal wants the kids to experience new things, which I can understand. When we got to the nearest exhibit, I did a headcount of all the students. We were missing 6 of them.Thankfully, I found them near the water (where the animals are) and I gave them a good talk about not leaving the group. Then when I turned around all the other children were scattered. I thought to myself, “This is gonna be a long day.” After that, we went from exhibit to exhibit in the huge aquarium. As we were about to go to the display of skeleton from a dinosaur, we found another class. The kids merged together and the other teacher and I had the same expression: “Kids!” We sorted everything out and went to the dinosaur. I read from the brochure “This is the Shaustasourus, the largest marine dinosaur ever.” After many more mishaps we got back on the bus. For the first time, we had a full class. When we got back none of the kids thanked me for not losing them. Sometimes the world really isn’t fair, but that’s okay. I guess I had lots of fun too.

I guffawed at this piece of writing.

People who imagined the teacher’s job to be putty, are having to re-evaluate their assessments – their puddings of pie children weren’t such darlings when the Mathematics had to be taught by their parents anymore.

This is Teacher Appreciation Week in the US – really what would we do without the steady, positive influence of teachers?

Teachable Moments

I was telling the husband casually about a friend of mine. “She is thinking of taking up primary school teaching.”

“Huh?! Really?” said the son, his ears twiddling, for the news interested him. He loved this particular aunt.

“Well – maybe I should tell her the best grades to teach then!” said he.

“What do you mean the best grades to teach? ” I said cautiously for I felt a moment to savor coming on in my bones, but acted as nonchalant as possible. “Elementary school teaching – doesn’t that mean kids in your school?”

“Well, you know how it is? We aren’t all just cute kids like you think Amma! There are some grades you want to be careful with.” he said with a meaningful look in his eyes.

“What do you mean? I’ve seen you children in Elementary School – so sweet you all are!” I said – knowing fully well the reaction this would elicit.

“Ha! Okay, okay – I’ll tell you. Kindergarteners are naughty, 1st graders are okay, 2nd graders are rowdy, 3rd graders are sassy, 4th graders think everything is lame, and 5th graders are okay.”

I stifled a hearty laugh for the moment, and asked him, “So only 1st and 5th grades are okay to teach huh?!”

“Yep! Pretty much! ” he said.

I gave into a full throated laugh, not for the first time admiring and thanking all the stellar teachers of the Naughty, Sassy, Rowdy, and Think-Everything-Is-Lame children. Somehow, these magicians strive to make students of them all.

teachers

Later that evening, the daughter came moaning into the kitchen – “Gosh! There is just so much homework! I mean – these teachers think we are awesome, but we really aren’t!”

Coming hot on the wheels of the Elementary School analysis, this seemed to be something to be milked for its true worth. So I tried.

“Are you saying your teachers are poor things for trying to uplift you and so on?”

“Of course they are!” said she.

“Remember they were teenagers too once, and probably realize that teen potential is high. They do want to give you the best opportunity to attain your true potential!” I said, thinking of the stalwart teachers of the folks who make the 30-under-30 and 20-under-20 lists.

Yeeaaarrcccchhh!” she said. I am quite sure Yeeaaarrcccchhh isn’t a real word, but a guttural sound open to interpretation. After a moment she said, “I sometimes think to myself what my teachers must be like if they were teenagers today. ”

There was silence for a moment. A silence I did not break while she gathered her thoughts. This was going to be something, I knew. When the daughter thinks of smart-aleck moments, it is best for the waiting populace to take cover.
“My Chem teacher would probably be obnoxious, but not a super smart version of Sheldon. My Math teacher would be a shy but sweet kid. My history teacher would have been the low key popular kid who is friends with everybody.”

I laughed enjoying this analysis as she went down the list of teachers. And then, I asked looking as innocent as it was possible to be. “What would you think of me as a teenager?”

“HA! Not falling for that one – better luck next time Mother! Mother, who is long past her teenage years!” she said, ruffling my head like I was a cute dog, and made off for her room to tackle the oodles of homework her stellar teachers had set out for her.

As a child I was keenly aware of both sides of the coin. Both my parents were teachers, but that did not stop me from becoming a dab hand at imitating my teachers, and giving them fond pet-names when required. The father and I enjoyed the creativity there.

All in all, I know in the name of professionalism and growing up, we lose this marvelous trait of making light of things, but I wish we didn’t.

For those who enjoy light tales of children in their schools, these are all good reads and worth chuckling anytime one feels the weight of the years settling in on them.

Some whimsical poems here:

We-Are-Teachers.Com

The Peanut Mystery

Why Dr P. V . Ramachandra was nicknamed after a peanut (Kadalai in Tamil) has many interpretations in school folklore. One interpretation said he distributed chikkis -( sweetened peanut bars), whenever you visited him. But that was not true. I am not saying I made a pest of myself at people’s houses for the snacks they offered. But I am saying that that particular strain of the origin of the nickname is not true. There was always warm hospitality coupled with tasty snacks such as kodubele, vadais, sweets of different varieties at their place, but chikkis were not a staple stand-by as was commonly believed. These things were important to get right.

Another version said the name was because he had been seen buying Lonavla chikkis on the station platform even as the train huffed and puffed getting ready to leave.

Even the mystery surrounding the origin of the nickname is a mild, gentle one, like the man it was bestowed on. Kaddu or Kadalai was the Deputy Headmaster of the Lawrence School. Another one of those stalwart people who joined the school as bachelors with my father, and retired three decades later bestowing on all those who knew him care, and affection.

I thought of Kaddu a few weeks ago as I read this sparkling piece of wisdom in the Anne of Green Gables series by L M Montgomery:

Rilla of Ingleside: L M Montgomery

“Sometimes I wish something dramatic would happen once in a while.”, said Rilla

“Don’t wish it. Dramatic things always have a bitterness for someone.” said Miss Oliver

That in essence was my impression of him. Life sometimes flowed swiftly in the small community we lived in. Drama swirled in pockets of the river where the currents were especially swift. In a school housing teenaged children day in and day out, it was inevitable. I am always in admiration of those who can be serene in a whirlpool. PVR had the ability that I strive for: to be an amused spectator when possible, and when his intervention was demanded, to be as undramatic, and useful, as possible.

His energies were diverted into quiet intellectual pursuits such as philately, and extensive academic interests such as reading, writing and research. This curiosity enabled him to pursue a string of degrees in a variety of subjects. He held advanced degrees in Mathematics, Economics, History and a Doctorate in Sanskrit on the subject of Shringara Rasa. For all of these achievements, he was a remarkably humble and quiet man.

I heard the sad news of his passing a few days ago. My father sounded sadder than usual as he recalled the strength of his friendship with Dr PVR.  A mild, gentle man whose passing has once again reminded the Lawrencian community about how lucky we were to have had the influence and wisdom of personalities such as him.

See also : In Memory of Raga, Dear Athai, Monkey Pedaling , Mr Bharathan

 

RIP Mr. Bharathan

In the days of yore, kings and queens vied with each other to send their children to study in the Ashram nestled among Eucalyptus groves and blue hills. The rain filled clouds were said to induce the human condition to be inspired and to inspire alike. In that ashram lived a quiet, unassuming man the princes and princesses loved. Apparently, he could make a mere child soar like a kite, fly through a roaring fire toughening them to battle fire-breathing dragons later in life and stand upside down on a pyramid of people. It was rumored that when he threw a disc, it could slice through the air with a sound of a thundering Astra.

All year long, the disciples practised and when the kings and queens came to watch, they were amazed at what their young could achieve. The teacher was really making children jump through hoops of fire, stand upside down on a pyramid of people and running with them wearing immaculate white as they stood in formation for a gymnastics performance.

ring of fire

This man was none other than dear Mr Bharathan, our Physical Education teacher. He was a pleasant, contented man and most importantly, he was always there for and with us on the field. He was there urging you to run a little harder, bend over backwards just a little bit more than you thought possible during gymnastics, play badminton with you, or check out your bruised ankle.

He was an excellent companion on the blue-school-bus rides. He sat through the exuberance of winning a tournament smiling and listening to us singing songs of victory. He was also there for us through the quiet rides back home after being beaten badly by a rival team, with a nod signaling that all was not over yet: with strategy and more work, there was a possibility of a comeback.

He imbibed the ‘Never Give In’ spirit as only a true sportsman could. Thank You Sir for all you have done for generations of Lawrencians. We will miss you, as we practise what you taught us all those years ago in the Sports field, in our everyday lives. May your soul rest in peace.