High School Differential

High School Differential

Yeah, I went to high school. It’s a law or something. And just like all high schools since Plato’s Academy, it was full of cliques. Instead of epicures and stoics, we had jocks and greasers and stoners. Negroes hadn’t been invented yet, and Hispanics were just a glimmer in the eyes of wild-eyed visionaries in those frozen days in the mid-’70s in the Midwest in the middle of puberty. And what was I? I was in the Fourth Estate: a lowly geek. Of course, you wouldn’t claim it at the time, not if you valued your nuggies, but today, in the new millennia, it’s cool, even if your stock options are underwater.

How do you achieve geekdom? Well, either you’re born to it or your not. While others struggled to understand the intricacies of Columbus or the quadratic equation, my miserable socially unacceptable cohorts knocked off four years of homework in the first week, then went off to hide as best we could. If you believe the movies, everyone in high school is getting laid, but that was basically a myth in 1970. Oh, sure, a few quick studies in the Book of Lust disappeared mysteriously in senior year, only to show up clerking at the Red Owl a few years later with a bunch of bratty kids you hope never moved in your neighborhood. But most kids, cool or not, didn’t get any until prom night — if then. Meanwhile, the jocks had pep rallies and the Big Game (one a week, all year long. Amazing). The greasers souped-up cars and wrapped them around telephone poles, and the stoners had Pink Floyd. Everyone picked on the geeks. But what did the geeks do for entertainment?

Well, most of us taught ourselves slide rule (very handy) and a few brave souls knocked off calculus in their junior year, on their own. Nowadays, it’s de rigueur to tote a 15-pound calc book around in your AP class, but that book is about useless and the instructors slightly worse, and really, calculus isn’t THAT difficult. If you’re a real geek. But the real fun required becoming a chemistry assistant. Today, chemistry is taught without actual chemicals for fear someone will make a flame and burn themselves and sue. Back then, not only were there really dangerous materials, but the older chem books were more like cookbooks, and they were quite explicit. Nitroglycerine? That’s for amateurs and wannabes. Try picric acid, nitrogen tri-iodide, or thermite. Just go look ’em up, and keep the quantities small. If you’re smart enough to make this crud, you ought to be smart enough to use it carefully or take the consequences like the wimp you are. Hell, I’ve got sulfuric acid burns on my wrist I never told anyone about because sometimes you have to just be tough – not tough enough to go out for sports, but tough enough to not admit you screwed up and damaged yourself. Back in the ’70s, chem assistants had a key to the stockroom. Bottles of aluminum dust, thorium oxide, chloral hydrate, you name it. If this sounds like Greek to you, you don’t know what you missed.

Sure, we had to help freshmen not burn themselves, but we found a project that got us off that skank assignment and on to better experiments. Like most chemistry departments, there was a huge jar of waste Silver Chloride and other residue chock full of precious metal, in the days when the Hunt brothers nearly cornered the silver market. We were asked to turn it back into Silver Nitrate without using cyanide. A tough job, since not many things actually dissolve Silver Chloride, but we found one that involved ammonia, copper, and nitric acid that generated very impressive smoke, required very impressive arrays of glassware, smelled bad, and worked very, very well. I’m still proud of it, write if you want the details. Net result – $450.00 worth of AgNO3, and no more questions asked.

Having gotten the keys to the kingdom, my friends and I had the run of the place plus permission to get out of study hall (closed campus, you know). My buddy Scott decided to teach himself glass blowing, which the chem teacher was quite good at. Not wanting to attract attention, he decided to work in the back corner of the lab at lunchtime when nobody was around. I happened to be in the library at the time, half way around campus. The “boom” got everyone’s attention. I ran down to the lab to find him wandering around in a daze. Since the gas torch was in the front of the lab, he filled a plastic bottle with acetylene and oxygen, with the idea of lighting it and squeezing it out of the bottle to make a portable torch. This is a singularly bad idea, because the flame propagates back into the bottle and everything goes at once. It’s actually how they do a lot of movie explosions. He survived. We all became smarter.

I could go on, of course – flooding history class with toxic waste by mistake, getting out of class early by changing the clocks EXACTLY the right way, accidentally setting fire to the toughest guy on campus’s locker, staining the side of the building waaaayy up high, you know the drill. But eventually the torture ended, both for the geeks and for the jailers. I’ve evaded the rah rah reunion people – I had a female friend write them a letter saying I had been killed in the Gulf War, so no more annoying junk mail. In retrospect, I still think high school sucked. But then, what do I know? I was the smart kid.

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