Then and Now…but mostly Then
September 1971- Thirty-eight grade 10 students. Their first day of high school. Controlled chaos and giddy voices; stools tumble from the four lab tables. Chemistry 10. You look out at them in dismay. Do the math. Thirty-eight students and four lab tables; each table has to accommodate 9.5 students. That means some will sit with their backs to you and the chalkboard.
Except there is no chalkboard. At least not one that is attached to anything. What there is, is a “portable” board that is fairly heavy and supported on castors. The writing surface is a green-coated material mounted on rollers so that you, in theory, can write and pull the surface down as you need more space. Practically, gravity pulls the board down and you end up writing closer and closer to the floor, in a downward arc. Short skirts, fashionable still in the 70’s, are a bad choice.
There is no class list and you get students to ‘sign up’; later you can alphabetize the old-fashioned way. The convenience of computers for tasks like this are is in the future. Handing out the textbooks is an event, all on its own. Navigating between stools and tables is a challenge. The students, in first-of-the-year enthusiasm, test out the water faucets. O, yes, there are four to a table and they drain down a middle gutter to the end sinks. They also spew water forth with amazing force. Then there are the gas outlets. Yes, in the 70’s there are working gas outlets. You allow students to use Bunsen burners. There is a gas shut-off under the sink at the front of the room. It’s a little scary but the system of shut-offs that is part of the gas supply to the three labs, chemistry, physics and biology, is worse.
There is a prep room full of terrifying stuff. The previous teachers had accumulated a lot of “interesting” chemicals that are kind of dangerous. Ethyl ether, when it crystalizes- BOOM. At least that’s a possibility. Picric acid, it could explode, too. Benzene, a known carcinogen. And of course, the strong acids like hydrochloric and sulfuric. You learn that Fortrel (a popular spongy polyester from the 70’s) and sulfuric acid are a bad combination. While waiting for the bell signaling the end of class, you lean against a counter. From somewhere, there is an oily film of concentrated sulfuric acid and when it hits your Fortrel-embossed, peach dress, the back dissolves into syrupy strings. A sixth sense alerts you and when you wipe the skirt’s back, you realize your skirt has dissolved. Pop on your lab coat; it makes you look professional.
Report card time rolls around. There is no calculator so you add tests, quizzes and lab marks for each student and weight and average them. Sigh. By this time you are married and your spouse is a teacher. After careful consideration, you order, for $69.95, a calculator from Sears. There are no liquid crystal numbers and there is no floating decimal. It does the four basic operations- adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Cue the negotiations for the spouse who will get to use it first.
Photocopying? Surely you jest. Tests and quizzes were copied using spirit masters. You write or type onto the master and purple coating is transferred to the sheet you use to make the copies. You attach your master to the cylinder of the copier and use your own muscle power to turn it past the alcohol supply and to pull the copy through. Copies aren’t perfect and the dissolved purple often becomes a part of your clothing or make-up. You collate and staple by hand and don’t notice your purple cheek until you get home. Your master has a limited lifespan. As the purple “fades” so do your copies. Some days you wish you could just drink the alcohol.
There is a Gestetner which makes great copies with BLACK ink. You discover its downsides. The stencils have to be cut so that the ink will “squeeze” through onto your copy. An electric typewriter is best for producing these masters and if you get your test or handout in to the secretary in time, she might type it for you. To operate the Gestetner machine is tricky. Its black ink is permanent. You teach science and chemical formulas have subscripts and superscripts. Diagrams have to be traced and often the outcome is less than perfect.
Ah, experiments. You turn 38 students loose with reagents and other solutions. You assume they can follow directions. Beakers shatter on the floor. Bunsen burners whooooooosh toward the ceiling despite your careful demonstration of their proper use. All students act as though they have servants at home. You find that it’s a trial to get them to clean up after themselves. You call in the lab write-ups and stock up on Kleenex. Were they even looking at their lab manuals?
Your lessons are prosaic. If you want to use an AV aid (audio-visual), there are several steps. First get the CAMS catalogue and search for suitable films. Get out your syllabus and try to guess when the film will arrive and where in the course you will actually be when it does. Make sure you have some scotch tape. Temporary film splices using tape can be made. Sign the film projector and screen out. Wait for the cylinder to arrive in a couple of weeks at your school library.
Showing the film is an adventure. You find that the projector is temperamental and there is no manual to explain how to thread the film. It’s trial and error; sometimes mostly error. When you finally get the film ready, images jerk into life on a slanted, teetering screen. Some students enjoy your struggles and the rest occupy themselves with the faucets and gas outlets. Others test the aeronautical properties of paper planes. You sit down to “enjoy” the informative documentary only to have the film break.
Thirty-eight grade 10 students crowded into a lab with uncomfortable stools, around fixed tables with distractions like water faucets and gas outlets. You are young and enthusiastic but not the most skilled yet. Together you make your way through Chemistry 10 using a text book that contains concepts lifted from university syllabuses. Classes are 40 minutes long and the physical barriers to seating those 38 students mean you lose three or four minutes every day.
Yet these students in less than ideal conditions go on to university, start their own successful businesses, or find careers in the trades. Adaptable and bright, they manage and so do you. Sometimes you fail and so do they but no one is crushed by defeat. Thirty-eight students in a 70’s science class find their way.
I've been married a long time and often write about everyday events.