In the grim existence of youth in an East of England secondary school Science lessons were the highlight of the week. After the hard slog through dismal Maths, French, and Geography classes, we only had science, PE and design to keep us vaguely sane. And sanity was the last thing that was going to come out of an hour on the school playing fields. Our PE teachers brought us to despair with their mechanical love of cross-country running and no-holds-barred rugby; while our school’s art and design faculty was staffed entirely of misfits, outcasts and psychotic metalwork teachers.
Science it was, then. Our school invested a lot in the sciences, with a brand new science block heaving at the seams with enthusiastic staff and an explosive store-room. It was just a shame that the subject was taught so bloody badly. The teachers were, by and large, faultless. They struggled with a daft, confusing course, and tried their best despite the tools they were handed. And speaking of ‘tools’, some o my fellow students weren’t exactly top drawer material, either.
If you got a decent teacher, you were half way there. We had three. For physics, there was Mr Wilkes – a former nuclear scientist who built nuclear weapons shortly before all that trouble came with his CND membership.
In biology, there was the pneumatic Miss Shagwell, whose short, tight lab coats (I’m sure you’re supposed to wear clothes underneath) were the stuff of many young lads’ sleepless nights battling the evil pickle.
And in chemistry, Dr Gilkes. He was… strange. Piercing blue eyes that could cut you in half. Unworldly mannerisms. He was always recruiting for science club, an activity which was clearly a front for an Illuminati-inspired takeover of the world using knowledge gleaned from brilliant young students.
His lab was The Lab of Doom, and we were his underlings, like Igor to Dr Frankenstein.
He stared at us with those cold, cold eyes as he handed us our assignments for the day.
“What are the properties of coal?”
Stupid bloody question. Set fire to it and it burns, end of story. But, in order to get an A grade in science, you had to go through the whole gamut of tests, with chemicals, microscopes, and when you really got bored, fire.
And that’s what Graham, Tim and I did, at our workbench specially selected to be able to view Miss Shagwell’s arse teaching biology to a rapt audience of teenage perverts through the partition wall. With our sample of black dust scraped up from the coal hole behind Tim’s house, we set to our task with grim determination.
Add water to coal dust. The water goes black.
Add anything you can lay your hands on to coal dust, and bugger me rigid if you don’t get a test tube of black liquid.
It was no good. This day in the lab was going nowhere fast, and only Miss Shagwell’s rear view could save us from insanity. Thirty minutes in and we hadn’t even set fire to anything, let alone cause a window-shattering explosion that would close the school down for another week while they had the structural engineers in. Tim summed up our feelings for the whole sorry affair: “Sod this for a laugh.”
We piled up the remains of our coal dust on an old tin lid perched on an asbestos sheet, and properly attired in lab coat and protective goggles, Graham trained a bunsen burner on it. Wussy orange flame, two minutes. Nothing.
Okay, highly flammable coal dust, if you want to play it that way, we’ll give you the high-powered blue flame and see how you like it. So we did. It glowed a bit, but nothing.
Now, in retrospect, the following might be seen as rather fool-hardy, but with Dr Gilkes elsewhere trying to keep the matches out of the hands of our differently-educated classmates, there was no one to tell us the grand act of folly we were embarking on.
Two bunsen burners. Then three. Full heat. Not a hint of a flame. The odd crackle maybe, but the raging inferno we expected was simply not happening. The tin lid, however, glowed white hot and started to melt.
What was happening, however, was that the concentrated heat of three burners going full throttle on one spot on the asbestos was causing it to expand. And expand it did. The only trouble with that was that the cooler parts of the mat were quite happy as they were, and didn’t have much truck with this trying-to-get-bigger thing. The hot bits were quite insistent, and godammit, their atoms were going to jig about like buggery if the cold bits wanted to or not. After a full five minutes of not paying attention to our all-to-bleedin’-obvious fate, our attention had wondered. No longer were we waiting for the raging inferno that was never going to occur. Miss Shagwell had turned to write something on the blackboard next door, and we were enjoying a rather fetching profile, resembling a contour map of the Brecon Beacons.
Actually, it was louder than that, with a ringing in the ears to follow.
There was an explosion of coal dust and white-hot asbestos that has probably shortened my life by a good five years. The tin lid scythed through the air and embedded itself in the side of my fake Adidas bag burrowed its way through the melting plastic.
Tim, Graham and I stood there in the stunned silence as twenty-five pairs of eyes trained on us. Dr Gilkes calmly strolled over and flipped off the gas supply. We looked at each other. Smothered in coal dust, we looked like the Back and White Minstrels, and the removal of our goggles just made us look even more ridiculous.
Miss Shagwell stifled a giggle an went back to her blackboard, still wobbling in a rather suggestive manner from barely suppressed laughter.
In fact, everything she did was suggestive, even, it turns out, laughing at poor, victimised students.
From the back of the lab, some of our classmates started to laugh, and if this an episode of The Simpsons, Nelson Muntz would have chosen that exact moment to go “Ha haa!”
“well,” said Dr Gilkes “that’ll teach you.”
Teach us? Teach us?! Surely that was HIS job. We nearly had our heads blown off, and as we spoke, structural engineers were being called in to remove splinters of asbestos from the fabric of the building. And worse, Miss Shagwell, the object of our youthful desires had laughed at us. Crushed. Totally and utterly crushed.
The next science lesson, I kid you not, was entitled “The Properties of Human Blood.” And yes, blood was spilled. Everywhere.