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copyright 1999, Lois Wickstrom 

Pink Hair and Blue Bubble Gum

by Lois June Wickstrom

(originally printed in American Airlines Magazine)


While I wrote an equation on the chalk board, a paper airplane grazed the back of my head. I didn't turn around to glare at the students -- I knew I'd never catch the culprit in an advanced chemistry class-- smart students have discovered that today's schools won't punish them. These students devote their energies to making a party out of school. They also brush their hair, put on makeup, blow bubbles with blue chewing gum, and sell candy bars during lessons.

I continued explaining the chemical reaction that was producing bubbles in the beakers on the counter before me. Something odd had occurred while my back was turned -- the beaker on the left was supposed to be fizzing faster than the one on the right -- but the reverse was happening, right before my eyes. Teaching does make you question the universe, but I opted for the simpler explanation -- someone had switched the beakers while I was recovering from the paper airplane encounter. I added a sentence to my lecture, "Chemical truths cannot be changed or switched around."

When I was in high school, I fought for lenience. How could it matter if girls wore pants? Or if boys wore mustaches? Why did teachers send students to the principal's office for the most minor infractions, some of which looked like accidents?

So, at first, it pleased me to see students with dyed pink hair, who sported zippers and safety pins in their ears. I enjoyed the wide range of clothes these students wore from high couture to Salvation Army, or even Army surplus.

Then I discovered that this new lenience extended to discipline as well as dress. When I sent a student to the dean's office for refusing to wear safety goggles during lab, I was told to simply give the student an F for the lab. The next day there was a notice in my mailbox from the principal: our school goal was to increase student grade averages.

Morning students stole copies of my tests to give to afternoon students during lunch. Twice I caught the president of the student honor society cheating, and encouraging other students to cheat. He complained to the administration, and I was reprimanded by the Honor Society advisor for "picking on him." The worst thing I did was to catch the daughter of the chairman of the high school fund raising committee cheating.

Because of busing, I was forbidden to assign students to come before school, or to stay after school. And because of split lunch, I couldn't make them give up lunch period, either. I could give them extra homework, but if they didn't do it, all I could do was give them F's, and their parents called me to tell me that their children had to pass chemistry, and the principal told me that advanced students deserve good grades.

One day during lab, I was distracted by the clatter of M&M's rolling across the floor. The next thing I knew, students were crying, "I smell gas." I ordered all students to turn off their bunsen burners. Still the smell of gas spread. I was about to order the room evacuated, when I discovered that the gas jets on the demonstration table had been turned on all the way.

The students had all passed a safety test and knew that leaking gas can cause an explosion strong enough to blow up the end of the school building. The guilty student was suspended for 10 days, but when his parents came in, the suspension was reduced to 5 days. His classmates blamed me for the incident. The dean told the students that I'd been exaggerating when I talked about the explosion possibilities.

The behavior of both students and administrators shocked me. They seemed uninterested in learning. I had been teaching since age twelve, when I found it was fun to help others learn to swim. As a teenager, I was a head-start aide, and taught crafts at the Girls' Club. As a graduate student, I taught both college English and Chemistry. I love helping people catch onto new ideas, expand on old interests, and grow in intellectual

understanding and achievement. However, I quit teaching high school chemistry after one semester.

All the students I'd taught before had wanted to learn. The high school students had spent their class time testing me, and I couldn't handle it. New teachers frequently react the way I did, which contributes to the severe teacher shortage.

Schools have been exerting great efforts to be nice to students, and soothe parents of undisciplined children, instead of becoming places that teachers want to work. I would like to see the traditional discipline of just a generation ago reinstituted before the nation suffers, even if it means no more punk hairdos.