In primary school the nearest thing we got to science were schools TV programs which told us how beans grew or how a printing press worked.
In grammar school we got to do the real thing. On a Friday afternoon in the first week of September 1985 we were made to congregate in the lecture theatre while the three science masters Flanagan, Thompson and Quigley decided who was to be in which class. It was an old-fashioned lecture theatre with wooden fold-up seats of the type you would have found in cinemas years ago. As we quickly found out the hinges of these seats were badly in need of oiling. It started with an accidental squeak. Then a few sneaky squeaks which were meant to sound as if they were made accidentally. This had a snowball effect. Before long there was a chorus of 60 chairs squeaking in unison and 60 amused 11 year olds. We were soon told in no uncertain terms to stop it. Along with about 25 other lads I was placed in Mr Cedric Flanagan’s science class. He was another one of those teachers who didn’t have a nickname, but was simply known to pupils (among themselves that is – not to his face) by his first name. There was unlikely to be any confusion here as there weren’t many Cedrics in the West Tyrone area.
“Does anyone have any experience of science?” he asked as an introductory ice-breaker in our very first science class.
“My brother’s got a chemistry set.”
Another lad went one better and boasted: “I’ve got a chemistry set”.
And even better still was the classic line: “My brother squeezes stuff out of worms”.
“What kind of stuff?” Cedric asked.
“I don’t think I’d like to meet your brother!”
“You already have, he’s in 2B.”
About a year later the worm-squeezer’s brother came up with another classic, this time in Tim Thompson’s science class. “Some fella up by Ballygalduffy drank a bottle of etherium hypochloxite. And then he vomited this blue stuff.”
A short pause followed.
There was an eruption of laughter at this rather macabre tale.
The last section of our1st year textbook, the infamous Chapter 10 was on reproduction. On receipt of the book everyone naturally made a beeline for the back pages.
“Any questions?” Cedric asked.
“Sir, will we be dissecting rats?”
“Not this year.”
Micheal was persistent and would ask at the beginning of each subsequent class:
“Sir, will we doing an experiment today?”
When we eventually got to do an experiment it amounted to boiling ink in a test tube.
The science labs contained many collectable trophies like crocodile clips, pieces of wire and test tubes, which were of no practical use in the “outside world”, but still got nicked just for the sake of being nicked. The teachers knew this was going on, but there was only so much they could do to stop it.
Tim Thompson, the science department’s answer to SeanConnery was wise to what was going on and had had the foresight to count the crocodile clips in advance of handing them out. After an experiment involving electrical conductivity and circuit boards a number of crocodile clips had gone missing.
“We have six croc clips missing. No-one’s leaving here till they’re found” he said firmly.
At this point the bell for lunchtime went off. Suddenly the missing clips all mysteriously and inexplicably reappeared in the oddest of places just like the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Knock or Lourdes.
“There’s one here, sir” said one boy who had “found” it in the sink.
“I’ve just found one on the floor, sir” said another. Others miraculously “reappeared” under textbooks and on stools or desks.
Occasionally potassium permanganate, copper sulphate or borax would go walkies. Rumour has it that some of the more entrepreneurial pupils would attempt to flog them in the seedier snooker clubs and bars of the town, passing them off as crystal meths or some new wonder drug which had just arrived in the sticks.
My chemistry teacher in 4th and 5th year Pat Quigley, a small, bespectacled round-faced man was known to the pupils as Penfold due to his resemblance to an anthropomorphised cartoon hamster of that name from the children’s TV series Dangermouse. It wasn’t so much that he was a soft touch. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he was a bit doddery and had the air of the absent-minded professor about him. But was basically a decent sort – as a contemporary of mine put it in a social networking site – “that poor man took some abuse. A civil oul critter”.
It was a Friday morning. He had his back to the class while he was setting up the experiment, which we were standing around watching. It was something to do with electrolysis involving (if I remember correctly) an electric circuit board and copper sulphate, the blue solution into which you could dip your locker key and it would comes out with a copper-coloured sheen which soon wears off. There happened to be a box of crocodile clips on the table. When his back was still to the class one wag decided to discreetly attach one of the clips to Penfold’s jacket tail without him noticing. This caused a few silent smirks. Another wag decided to do the same and similarly got away with it. Before long there were five crocodile clips clipped to the tail of his jacket which he was completely oblivious to as he talked us through the chemical reaction and its significance to the scientific world while he continued to test the apparatus. By this stage it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold in the laughter.
“So the copper will now react with the sulphate solution to produce… Loughry, what are you sniggering at?”
He continued “And as we can see… Brannigan, what’s so funny?”
“Oh…just a private joke, sir”
Double chemistry immediately preceded lunchtime. The bell went and as we exited the lab and buggered off to lunch with a spring in our step in joyful anticipation of the weekend ahead poor old Penfold must have walked through the corridors and possibly even entered the staffroom before someone (presumably another teacher) politely pointed out to him the presence of the clips attached to his jacket. An inquest followed. Even though I was wholly innocent of the charges I was summoned for interrogation along with a number of other prime suspects. This was probably because I’d got into his bad books a few weeks earlier for not paying attention in class and was therefore a potential troublemaker. This was my Achilles heel. I had a short attention span – and still do to an extent. Even now when I’m attending conferences or training courses I tend to drift into a different world and begin to daydream just as I did in class (particularly maths classes) many moons ago. It was my short attention span plus my tendency to be easily amused which most often got me into trouble.
It had been during another chemistry class about a year previous to the above episode that our regular teacher was off on a course, so we had a supply teacher supervising us. As he couldn’t be arsed teaching the class we were basically told to get on with whatever work we had to do. The thing was this supply teacher looked like he’d been on the piss all night. He had bags under his eyes and his tie was loosely tied with the knot halfway down his shirt. His face which had a permanently spaced-out expression was as white as two albino polar bears fighting in a snowstorm. It also looked like he’d been snorting coke or smoking whacky-baccy and was considerably the worse for wear. When one lad Micheal Ferry pointed out that this doped up, hung-over supervisor reminded him of Danny Kendal, a spaced-out boy from Grange Hill – and there was indeed a physical resemblance – this was it. I could hardly contain myself for the duration of the class. I was desperately trying to suppress the laughter which was bursting to get out of me. Every time I made eye contact with this baggy-eyed Danny Kendal lookalike I found it all the more difficult not to laugh.
“Wipe that silly simile off your face, it’s annoying me” Danny Kendal finally said.
Not half as annoying as that man with the hammer inside your head who keeps banging away I thought.
Even thinking about that incident now after 23 years I still burst out laughing. In the most awkward and inappropriate of places…