By Peter Marsh
Bag of white sugar; bottle of battery acid; hairbrush and clean shirt for recess time; pens, pencils, notepad. I zipped up the shoulder bag containing everything I needed for my first day at Toussaint College.
Yesterday I had arrived in a new country four and a half thousand miles from home, yet the longest and blindest step was still to be taken. Today, I would meet my students. Today, I had to look like a teacher.
Before I left the UK I had spent an afternoon at my old school getting advice from the professionals. I had even taken notes.
“Start strict, relax later,” Teacher A advised.
“Be firm, be fair, be friendly,” urged Teacher B.
And just in case those were not challenging enough, Teacher C added, “Be demanding, but be understanding.”
“Pupils will do all they can to test you, to seek out weaknesses,” said Teacher D.
Teacher E had deemed all the advice of his colleagues irrelevant to a Caribbean island because, he reasoned, “They’ll all be spaced out on ganja and head-banging to Bob Marley.”
I closed the notebook and comforted myself with the thought that, if all else failed, there was a direct flight every Thursday back to Heathrow.
I took a last look in the mirror, plucked away a dab of toilet paper from a shaving cut, and checked that my shirt was tucked evenly into my trousers all the way round. My hair was combed. My shirt collar was straight. My trousers had been pressed overnight under the mattress. My shoes were correctly laced. All that was missing was a sun hat, which I must have left in a rum shop the night before. No matter. I locked my front door, and waited for the minibus that would take me to my new career at Toussaint College
Outside the staff room, Ron, the headmaster, broke off a conversation with a young woman – probably another teacher.
“You’re starting period one with form five math. Period three you got form five chemistry. Do you need anything from the lab?”
“Just a beaker.” I tapped my shoulder bag. “I’ve got the rest in here.”
“Experiments eh? Boy, they’re gonna love that. Say, Miss Checkley,” he added, turning to the woman. “Did you meet Mr Marsh? He’s joining us for math and science.”
“Verna, my name. How you liking Petite Guadeloupe so far?”
“Lovely, but I’ll be glad when today’s over.”
“You know, meeting my students. I don’t know what to expect.”
“Oh, you ain’t needing to worry about the students, Mr Marsh. They nice student and very keen about learning. Especially maths and science.”
This was something else I’d been warned about – established teachers being glib about discipline issues that had become second nature to them. “When an old-timer tells you the pupils are no trouble,” Teacher F had warned me, “redouble your guard.”
Ron interrupted my ruminations. “Your class is waiting to begin.”
I followed him along the balcony to the classroom at the end.
“They’re very quiet,” I said. “Is that ominous?”
“They’re waiting for you.”
We went in. There were about thirty desks in the room, but only six students, all in the front row.
“I want to introduce someone who’s going to be very important to you this year,” he began. Only one of the students – a boy seated in the middle of the row – was watching him. The other five had their eyes pinned on me. “Can you guess who this is?” The boy in the middle raised his hand. “Yes?”
“I think he the new maths teacher, sir.”
“Ralston got it in one. This is Mr Marsh. He’s from England and he’s a trained mathematics, physics and chemistry teacher; now that’s something we don’t often see here in Petite Guadeloupe, so we can’t afford to lose him.”
The boy in the middle had shifted his gaze to me.
“So I’ll leave you to get started,” said Ron. “And good luck.”
He was facing the students as he spoke, but I knew only too well who the good luck was meant for.
The door clicked shut behind Ron. I turned to my six students and, like a parachutist on his first jump, launched myself into my teaching career.
“Start strict”, said Teacher A.
“You’re in this room to learn Maths,” I began. “If you’re here to play, that thing in the corner is called a door and the playground’s outside. Got it?” Nobody spoke. Nobody even moved. “Got it, loud and clear?” The boy in the middle made eye contact, nodding almost imperceptibly. Good. It was working.
The students spoke only when I called on them. They began and ended every phrase with ‘sir’, and they worked so hard that even when Ron blew the whistle for the end of the period, they affected not to hear it.
But I was wise and knew this was no time to relax. Teacher G, you see, had told me about the teacher’s honeymoon. “Raw young teachers think everything is going well for the first two weeks,” he explained, “when what is really happening is that the students are subtly measuring you up for the instruments of torture.”
Moreover, Teacher H had warned me about the class creep: “That ever-helpful student who orchestrates chaos while hiding behind a veneer of polite studiousness.” Well, he was easy enough to pick out: that boy in the middle – a glance at the cover of his exercise book told me that he was called Ralston Thomas. The very name said “class creep”.
I called time, collected the work and, dismissing the class, returned to the staff room.
“How your first lesson go?” asked Miss Checkley.
“Hard to say,” I replied. “Could have been worse, I suppose.”
As I headed to the lab to prepare for period three, I heard the staff room door open again and Miss Checkley’s voice call after me: “Mr Marsh. Check your belt.”
I felt the back of my trousers. Disaster! I ducked inside the lab and locked myself in. Despite all the attention I had lavished on the other details of my appearance, in threading my belt I had missed one of the loops. Oh, the nicknames that this would earn me! I cursed the momentary inattention that had cost me all hope of ever gaining my students’ respect.
With this gnawing at my consciousness, it was only with difficulty that I managed to set up the demonstration that was to be the finale of the coming chemistry lesson: concentrated sulphuric acid and white sugar. The acid dehydrates the sugar, converting it into a spongy mass of charcoal, which rises up the beaker like a nightmare cake. My object in performing this demonstration was to get attention rather than to make any academic point, and I had chosen this one because battery acid and sugar were the only chemicals available on Petite Guadeloupe capable of reacting together in any remotely interesting way. I had hoped to try it out before the lesson began but, by the time I had found a clean beaker and a spirit burner, and visited the shop across the road for a box of matches, the whistle had blown for the end of period two, and my students had begun to line up outside the lab.
The chemistry class was bigger than the maths one – fifteen students, including all the six I had met during period one. Ron came in and repeated his introduction. As he handed them over to me, there was a patter of applause from these six – a sarcastic tribute, no doubt, to the improved state of my belt. They continued, however, to feign attentiveness, and to seem earnest about the exercises I set them.
Ten minutes from the whistle, I introduced my pièce de résistance.
“The time has come for you to see a real chemical reaction actually happening,” I said.
I set the beaker on the bench and, tearing a small hole in the plastic bag, let a little sugar fall into it. “Of course, not all reactions are as spectacular as this one,” I went on, uncorking the acid, “but this shows you the power that a knowledge of chemistry gives you over common materials. Just ordinary sugar and battery acid. Now, just watch this.”
I poured a little of the acid into the beaker, and stood back.
“This is what a real chemist can do,” I said, swirling the beaker at arm’s length, “It takes a while to get started, but once it starts…”
The students continued to watch, transfixed, but they must inwardly have been wondering whether real chemists really get their thrills watching sugar dissolve in water.
“Cookery is a branch of chemistry,” I improvised. “What do we do when we want something to cook? Yes, Ralston?”
“We heat it, sir.”
“Very good answer.” I reached for the spirit burner and struck a match.
“But I thinking, sir, maybe you better not use the heat today.”
I glowered at Ralston with all the sternness I could muster. The challenge to my authority was beginning. The honeymoon had been short, but I was glad it was over.
“The match, sir!”
“Leave this to…” I stopped abruptly to stub out the match, which had burnt down to my fingers.
“Leave this to me, and we won’t have any accidents. Got it?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
Striking another match, I lit the burner and held the beaker over the flame. “I have done this before, you know,” I lied. “Hundreds of times.”
Something was starting to happen in the beaker, but something was happening in the class, too. Ralston was handing out paper tissues to his classmates. What was that creep up to now? I was reluctant to abandon a good demonstration, but to tolerate such flagrant insubordination would have been professional suicide, especially in the aftermath of the disaster with the belt.
I set the beaker down on the bench. “Now let’s get one thing straight,” I barked.
At this point I must have sniffed menacingly for dramatic effect, because I had the sickening sensation that a plumber’s rasp had been drawn sharply through my respiratory passages, jamming my voice box, and bringing blinding tears to my eyes. I heard the door open, and the class making a swift exit. Somebody came behind the teacher’s bench, snuffed out the burner and led me out into the fresh air.
Opening my eyes to the daylight, I saw Ralston, of all people, slinging the contents of the beaker into a drainage gully, and offering me the last of his tissues. “Take deep breath, sir,” he urged. “Get the HCl out of your lungs.”
The whole class were coughing and wiping their eyes. Whatever had gone wrong with my experiment, it was good that Ralston had got them, and me, out of the room quickly, but his ignorance was grating on me almost as much as his arrogance. “You’ve got a lot of chemistry to learn,” I said. “HCl stands for hydrogen chloride. Did you know that?
“I think so, sir.”
“So how are you going to get that from sulphuric acid?”
“I ain’t so sure, sir.”
“H2SO4, you know. Maybe it was sulphur dioxide. Sulphur trioxide even. But hydrogen chloride? Impossible!”
“Well, I ain’t know so much about chemistry, sir. I only guessing, really”
Miss Checkley had meanwhile come out of her classroom to see what was going on. She wafted the air playfully. “Mr Marsh, you making nasty smell today, man.”
“Sorry, Miss Checkley. There must have been something funny in the acid.”
“I think it good acid, you know, sir,” said Ralston. I looked at him sharply. “I mean for car battery, maybe not so good for chemistry lab,” he slickly added.
From the balcony over our heads, Ron blew the whistle. I dismissed my class.
“You feeling right now, sir?” asked Ralston.
“Yes, thank you very much, Ralston. I’m feeling fine.”
“That is good. Thank you for an interesting lesson, sir.”
Ralston went to his next class.
“He such a nice boy, Ralston,” said Miss Checkley. “A real student too, you know. He getting book on all the subject from his family in America.”
“Bit of a know-all, I’d say.”
“He very conscious of his ability. Oh, and that remind me. You find the thing I leave for you in the lab?”
“A parcel. I show you.”
We went into the lab.
“So what you been cooking here?” Miss Checkley studied the bottle and the bag next to it. “Battery acid and salt?”
“Not salt. Sugar.”
“But Mr Marsh. That is salt.”
She put her finger through the hole in the bag, and licked it. “You try it. It salt.”
“I believe you. But how did you know before you tasted it?”
She laughed at my naivety. “The price showing, Mr Marsh. Thirty-five cent for half pound of salt. Forty-five cent for sugar.”
I looked. Sure enough, there was a large “35” felt-tipped on the otherwise unmarked bag. “So that’s what happened.”
Vague memories of high school chemistry taunted me. “Just a minute. Conc sulphuric acid and sodium chloride…”
“You losing me, Mr Marsh.”
“Battery acid and salt… hold on a tick… give hydrogen chloride. If you heat them. Of course! It’s the standard preparation.”
“So, you solve the mystery of the nasty smell?”
“I’ve solved that mystery, but… Would Ralston know the prices of salt and sugar?”
“Of course. He always helping in his father shop.”
That damned creep had known what he was talking about after all. So why hadn’t he pointed out my error in front of the whole class? What was he setting me up for?
“You still puzzled, Mr Marsh?”
“Nothing. You had a parcel for me?”
Miss Checkley took a small packet from under the front bench and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside, neatly folded, was my sun hat.
“How did you get this?”
“Ralston say his father find it in his shop, and tell him bring it for you.”
“Then why didn’t he do as his father told him?”
Miss Checkley lowered her voice. “Don’t tell him I tell you this, but he tell me he finding you very strict, so he give it to me.”
“That makes no sense at all.”
“It make sense, Mr Marsh. He ain’t wanting to embarrass you showing he know you passing your time in a rum shop.”
“He told you that?”
“He tell me not to tell you. He a very mature boy, you know.”
Ron’s whistle blew for period four.
“Excuse me Mr Marsh. I have to teach just now.”
I began to mop the bench. From the next room I could hear Miss Checkley’s voice, teaching. There was no other sound.
I dabbed a finger into the bag and licked it.
I’d got a lot of chemistry to learn.