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Friday, March 23, 2007


You remember it. Anyone more than twenty years old must remember the hairdo. It was the late 1980’s and every teenage girl sported it at one time or another. At that time, the best stocks to own were shares of hair spray companies. The girls wore bangs, lots and lots of big bangs. Rising early every school day, young women washed their hair, blow-dried it, scorched it with a curling iron, teased it to the point of embarrassment, and made major contributions to the depletion of the ozone layer.

Being concerned with the safety and well being of my students in the science classroom, every new term I carefully and painstakingly instructed my students on the proper behavior and dress requirements in the laboratory. One of the most important rules is to tie back long hair. The bangs of this popular coiffure (which reminded me of the mushroom cloud that emerges after a nuclear explosion) sat precariously on the foreheads of countless freshmen female physical science students. Even if the student pulled her long locks back with a banana clip, the long stiff bangs were impossible to contain.

All the students awaited the physical science activity that introduces them to the Bunsen burner, some with unbridled eagerness and some with great fear and trepidation. I preferred the latter. We prepared for the event by practicing the hook up of the burners and equipment with the main gas line shut off. It took a whole class period to share the finesse involved in the art of obtaining an igniting spark from a flint striker. Before proceeding with the activity, each lab group had to obtain permission with an inspection of their set-up. We were ready.

There was Jane, one of the most academically gifted students I had in a long time. Every test and quiz paper she completed was perfect. She mastered the most complicated concepts in chemistry and physics effortlessly. However, she had no desire to master the practical application of those same concepts. Jane was perfectly content to observe her lab partners manipulate the equipment with skill and confidence. Oh, and Jane had the hairdo. Even when decked out in full lab regalia, Jane’s bangs radiated out several inches past her safety goggles.
It came time for the Bunsen-Burner-Lighting Quiz. I circulated among the lab tables and checked off a student’s name when she successfully demonstrated skill in connecting the burner, lighting it, and adjusting the flame. A well maintained and adjusted burner burns cleanly and with no odor. While I observed students at one table, partners at other tables practiced and helped one another. With coaching from her partners, Jane was attempting to light the burner for the first time.

An unexpected odor caused me to look up from my clipboard with a start. "Something’s burning!" I yelled. Instinctively students stopped in their tracks and started looking for papers burning on the lab tables. Most had the presence of mind to turn off the gas. All the tables were clear of unwanted combustion. Then I heard Bill, Jane’s lab partner, scream "FIRE!" I turned to see Bill backing away from his partner and Jane yelling, "Where? Where?"

In a split second I assessed the situation and calculated steps to the fire blanket and the extinguisher. Both were too far from the action to be of any help. You see, Jane was six feet away from me and her bangs were ablaze. Apparently, after obtaining a flame on the burner, she positioned her head down to get a better look at the flame adjustment valve and got too close. Her hairdo was a Bunsen burner flame magnet. Without hesitation, I dashed to her side, ripped my papers from the clipboard and used them to beat out the flames on the cowering coed. Gritting my teeth, I went after them like an arachnophobe after a house spider. It's amazing what you can do when the adrenaline is flowing.

For the first time in her life, Jane was clueless. She stood there stunned that her teacher would repeatedly smack her in the head with a stack of lab reports. When I collected my wits, I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and explained, "Your hair was on fire, honey!"
"Oh my God!" she wailed as she groped for her bangs that were no longer there. The tears began to puddle up in her safety goggles and she bolted from the lab running toward the restroom to assess the damage. Jane’s mother was at the school in no time flat to take her home.

That night I worried about Jane’s condition and state of mind but soon her mother called to thank me. "For what?" I asked.

"For acting so quickly." She explained.

She was convinced that if I had taken the time to fetch the authorized safety equipment to put out the flames, Jane would have suffered terrible burns to her scalp. The next day Jane appeared with a new, shorter hairstyle. It framed her face and drew attention to her beautiful eyes and cheekbones. Jane appeared unscathed as she accepted compliments about her new looks from her classmates.

I forgot all about it for years until this past summer when I was cleaning out a closet in the basement. I rediscovered a stack of old Souvenirs and decided to use the yearbooks to refresh my feeble memory. There I found in the pages of the old volumes, hundreds of mug shots featuring the hairdo. When I flipped back to the autograph pages, the memories began flooding back. There were several notes reflecting on the event, but the kicker was the one that read,

Dear Mrs. I.,
It was great having you as a teacher in physical science this year. I learned a lot. Have a good summer.
Bill-Class of 1990.
PS. I’ll never forget the day Jane’s hair caught on fire and you put it out. For an old lady, you really move fast.

It had to be the adrenaline.

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