The Skeptical Alchemist
Do Not Do Any of the Above
It was the same trick he played every year. He wasn’t the only one. In freshman biology, the teacher gave out a list of directions they were supposed to “read to the end before beginning,” but none of them did—they began following them instead, only to find the last direction was “Do not do any of the above”—they’d circled their names with squares for naught. On the first day of sophomore English, Paul DiFarco wrote the word “Fuck” on the board, supposedly to teach them etymology (There’d been rumors about him, whose belly made a soft, hairy bridge between his t-shirt and his pants, and some of the girls.) The Algebra I teacher said he’d gone to Duke and married an Apache, when in fact he’d gone to Bowling Green and married no one. You’d think they’d be wised up by now, but these kids, these imminent A.P. Chemists, the crème de la crème (according to a principal who hadn’t lasted long), by the end of the class, if experience foretold—each and every one of these quiet filers-in, with their passionate views on college-ruled versus wide-ruled paper and their calculators bought new each year, or held onto because they’d been “really expensive,” these volunteer tutors and amnesty activists—every single one of these bright American futures would have falsified a lab result.
Rick stood outside his classroom with Darcy Whitfield, who’d been a student at the school just six years ago (although he didn’t remember her—she’d taken A.P. Physics, not Chemistry, and was kind of plain-looking.) The kids who ran morning P.A. announcements played a song about how the singer was free to do what he wanted “any old time.”
The kids who ran morning P.A. announcements played a song about how the singer was free to do what he wanted. Darcy, who was going to teach Intro Physical Science, and had no idea of what a crummy assignment that was, said, “Are they always like that?” She talked to him like he knew what he was doing, and he did. He had fifteen years.
“Like what?” His contingent continued to dribble in, a more sorry, straggly bunch than last year’s kids. Last year’s kids had been mostly from North Stamford—these looked distinctly Southern. Rick lived in South Stamford himself, and knew the difference. A stringy-haired girl wearing what looked like her father’s clothes—a gigantic button-down shirt over even larger khakis—stooped to talk to a much shorter boy, Chinese, in sandals that probably got him called gay. A blonde kid tugged on a red, pierced earlobe with one hand and unconsciously stroked a backpack strap with the other.
Darcy said, “They all look so sleepy, I don’t know, apathetic. They’re not excited. Wake up!” She said the last part more loudly than she’d said the rest. Two girls in basketball jerseys whirled in their direction, saw they were only teachers, whirled away. “Maybe we have to actually say that sometimes.” Her short hair ruffled itself, as if an invisible hand were patting her head. She was going to have a lot of ideas. She was going to bring extension-course brochures to faculty meetings.
Rick said, “They usually want you in there once a good number have gone in.”
“Oh. Right. God.” She looked confused, even scared, for a moment, and he liked her more than he had before.
He rubbed his hands together as he entered the room. “All right, most of you know me, my name’s Mr. Shlovsky, I’m not putting it on the board, it’s spelled how it sounds. I’ll take a roll call—I only do that one first couple days, to get your names. After that, it’s on you, you want to skip, skip—and we’ll get going. Okay?”
A few of them nodded, a few looked at each other, a few said, “Okay,” weakly—these kids had been yelled at by parents in foreign languages. At least it didn’t look as though any of them had been hearing any rumors about him.
“It’s just an easy density lab. A sugar-water solution. If you do it right, the density actually increases as you add more solution.”
“I have small question.” It was blonde kid—Rick looked down at the attendance list—“Yeah. Vladislav?”
“Vlad,” the kid said, with some hope in his voice, looking around—a nickname, like an American: now the girls would like him. “I am hearing before that density is constant if compound is constant.”
There was always one, and this year, it was this one, with his chick-yellow buzz-cut, probably homemade, and the large white pimple floating like a moon beside his nose.
“That’s true for most compounds, yeah, but this is a weird one. It’s so simple, you’d think it wouldn’t be, but—have you worked with it before?”
Vlad shook his head. A finger drifted up to his red earlobe.
“It’s a funny one. You’ll be surprised. So: the density should go up by about five milligrams every ten milliliters. You all know how to do lab reports, right?” They nodded with pride and a little umbrage—they were A.P. students, weren’t they?
He put Paul Simon in the tape player, telling them the story about how he once put subliminal messages on a tape to test a class. He had whispered “water” over and over again, in a voice too quiet for them to make out with the conscious mind. Nothing happened for five minutes. “And then twelve hands go up: ‘Can I get water?’ I can’t let them all go at once, so I see they’re opening the faucets, just throwing water in their mouths, they don’t even use the beakers.” They laughed. Kids loved that story, it didn’t matter what year it was.
Some of the PTA ladies had set up his room for him, like they did for the teachers who were coming back from maternity leave. They’d mounted his periodic table, but hadn’t thought to tape down its laminated edges, which were already curling. There wasn’t any tape in the desk; someone must have taken it during his absence. Only a teacher would steal tape. Still, it was good to take another look at the tough red alkali metals, the sunny halogens, while the kids worked behind him. A liberal-arts type would see in the table some kind of progression, ending in the noble gases. Most of the kids he’d taught had grown up into liberal-arts types, much as Rick had warned them that after another war or two, only hard sciences would remain. (And that had nothing to do with his so-called troubles—that was the truth, which predated and outlived them.) He turned up the tape player.
The tall stringy-haired girl—Melanie was her sad name—said, “I like, love Paul Simon.”
“I like him,” Rick said. “My thing’s rock, but he’s okay.” She looked a little embarrassed, a little respectful—his tricks only worked on kids like her. “All right,” he said, clapping his hands. “Let’s not waste time,” and Melanie swallowed and lifted the lab report sheet in front of her face. He wished he could switch off the part of himself that let him see those things—it made him a worse teacher, a sad sack, lumpy with these kids’ feelings, when he should be—Occam’s razor, something like that.
He began his rounds. At the first table, a very pale girl with a body like a duck, a nose like a puffball mushroom, and a terrible name—Francine—was bossing around her barely visible, chubby friend. At the next table, a couple of Indian boys in track shorts were arguing and laughing—“I’m pouring, your hands are too fine and delicate.” They stopped when he got close. What did they think he was going to do?
“The Impaler,” Rick said at the third table. Vlad had opted to work by himself, which was something Rick shouldn’t allow, but he couldn’t get himself to do anything about it.
Vlad said, “It is still —”
“Just keep going.” He made his way back around to Melanie and the Chinese kid with the J-name.
“Are we measuring the weight wrong?” Rick looked over her shoulder at her notes. He gave her the light frown, the squinted eyes—coachly straightforwardness. “If I was you, I’d go back a few measurements. Yeah, just see.” Melanie gave him back a look that was an apprentice of his and began erasing results.
The file cabinet trembled when he opened the top drawer to drop in his first month’s lesson plans. (The PTA had emptied the cabinet last year, shipped the contents to him in a box with a get-well hippo card taped to the top.) How many other teachers already had their months planned out? Only the first-years, he bet. Organization actually was the key to life, he’d realized a week ago: once you were organized, you couldn’t really go wrong. Alice hadn’t been as happy as he’d thought she might be when he’d told her, but he’d written the lesson plans anyway.
He closed the drawer a little harder than he needed to and the whole thing shook all over like a cow. “All right. Most of you finished? Density went up?” Raised hands, glances around, small smiles.
One of the Indian kids said, “Ours didn’t get to 215.”
“All right.” He nodded a few times. “All right. Anyone get anything different?” He’d wondered about Vlad, but Vlad was staring at the clock. Scratch any honors kid and you’d find a regular lazy one underneath.
“Kids. In the absence of a change of state, pressure, atmosphere, or composition, density does what? Someone?”
Francine raised her hand. “Remains constant.”
“Good. So, today, your density should have”—he extended his arms to them—“What? Remained constant, kiddoes. What’s the density of a glass of water?” A few half-hands went up. “What’s the density of an ocean of water? What’s the density of you?” That Melanie looked like a toddler who’d fallen, right after it realizes it’s supposed to cry. It wasn’t as fun to give this speech as it had been in previous years. He would have stopped, but he couldn’t think how else to spend the last ten minutes of class. “Kiddoes,” he said again, but even calling them “kiddoes” was a kind of betrayal, he suddenly saw. But if Alice could have heard his thoughts, she’d have been rolling her eyes. Thinking about that helped him to go on.
“Kiddoes,” he said again, making it worse, “Today, under just the slightest bit of pressure, every single one of you falsified lab results.” There was more, and he said it: if he were a certain kind of teacher, if they were in a different class, he would have failed them for the quarter, he could have added a note to their record, which would be sent along with their college applications. The track guys looked at each other as if this had actually happened, and they each counting on the others to figure out how to tell their parents. It was time for the joke. “That’s why this is a density experiment—you’re dense. I mean, you’re not dense, you’re smart kids, but, in some ways, you’re really, really dense.” His delivery, or something, had changed since last year, and they didn’t laugh, although the chubby girl, understanding he wanted them to, smiled.
“It’s your frontal lobes, you know, they haven’t fully developed yet, and that’s the part of your brain that has to do with ethics, you’re still stuck at this stage of, ‘I’m not doing it because I might get caught,’ not ‘I’m not doing it because it’s wrong.’” Their pinched faces—they were all pale somehow, even the Indian guys—The Scarlet Letter popped into his head, the only book he really remembered from his own high school English class, because it was sort of sexy. That’s what they looked like, like the townspeople, judgmental, malnourished, and he was glad he’d scared them, why shouldn’t they be scared? “The world’s a rough place, and you have to have some, some integrity, to keep you going.” He’d gotten a good tone going, it was his gruff voice, and he nodded seriously at the kids before giving them their next assignment: to address, using accurate scientific terminology, the question, “How I screwed myself.”
A few of them exchanged glances, but no one was going to venture any kind of response—these kids were too beaten down already. They weren’t ready for college, they weren’t ready for high school, not for this high school, at least, maybe for one in a meadow, where they wove things, and everyone’s woven thing was pronounced great—they were like him. They bent to their work. He’d forgotten to give the last part of his speech, about college, “getting in isn’t the be-all.”
A minute before the bell was due to ring, he collected their papers, even though most of them weren’t quite done, and kept on writing right up until the moment that he came around to them. “I’m not the Grim Reaper,” he said. “It’s not going to be worth a lot of points.”
When he returned to his table, he said, “Look. Everyone look up. The point is, you never falsify results. Anyone Christian here?” The Chinese kid and a few others raised their hands. “Jewish?” He raised his own hand, and so did Vlad—of course. “You ever heard, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’? That concept is central to two world religions”—one of the Indian kids raised his hand, Rick waved him off—“and to science, of course, don’t call the ACLU on me. Just remember whatever your result is, even if it doesn’t fit, write it like you got it.” They nodded. “But don’t be embarrassed. It tricks—” The bell rang, and they stayed in their seats—they knew they were supposed to wait for the teacher’s dismissal, although a few stacked their papers. “It tricks everyone, every time, and I’ve been here a long time.”