punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Mad Lab Assistant

Years ago, in 1987, I was a lab assistant to an Earth and Science professor named Jim Sproull. I worked there as part of a college accreditation, but I got a lot more out of it than mere marks on paper.

Jim was a funny fellow. He had an odd sense of humor, often hidden behind a strict exterior that he only let down with certain people. He was skinny, well dressed (always in a vest and tie), had glasses, and a well-groomed mustache. He primarily taught Honors students in a high school, but he also taught a few remedial classes. I worked with him during his honors classes, and had a great time with it. Sure, I had to do the "hard work" of preparing class materials, grading tests, and cleaning the equipment, but it wasn't really that hard of work, and I spent time with an interesting man.

I was already a science buff, so we were a pretty good match from the start. I had been told that he was "mean," "cold," and "totally businesslike," but once I got to know him, I knew why certain people called him that. He was head of the science department at the school, and all the teachers pretty much didn't like him. They said he hoarded equipment, made them sign in and out for everything, and always questioned why they needed whatever they asked for. "It's an elected job," I said. "Why don't you elect someone else?" "Oh," they'd reply, "because no one else wants to do it."

Uh huh.

Jim was responsible for everything, so I thought it was fairly reasonable for him to ask for the things he did. He never badgered any of the teachers. I mean, if a biology teacher came to him needing the TV/VCR combo for a class, he'd ask, "What film are you showing?" and They'd say, "The Life cycle of Frogs," and he'd say, "Okay, for how long?" Some teachers said, "I don't know," which annoyed him. "What do I tell another teacher who needs it? I don't know when so-and-so will be done with it? No, because they'll got borrow it from him, someone will borrow it from them, and no one tells me, of course, and then I don't know where any of the equipment is." Sometimes I had to do those errands, like go to the biology teacher to "get back" (or as they called it, "repossess") the equipment. A few times, I'd get, "Oh, Steve from Physics has it now." So I'd go to Steve, and he'd say, "I am not done with it yet." Then I'd have to go back to Jim and report this. Jim was never happy, and sometimes he'd leave class, with the sign-out clipboard, and either come back with a signature, or the equipment. Luckily, most teachers played by the rules, but they still complained about them.

Sometimes, and this was so funny to me at the time, teachers would try and bribe me to get equipment without Jim knowing. First, some would try the "I am a teacher, do what I say," routine, which didn't apply to me because I wasn't obligated to answer to anyone but Jim. Some tried to bribe me with candy, which was pretty laughable; even they couldn't take it seriously. "No, Grig, wait! I have some fudge! I... oh, just have some. [in defeat] I'll sign out for the projector after school."

Jim was pretty strict with his students, too, but the Honors kids knew ways around that. Especially the girls, for some reason. Jim teased them a lot. There was this one girl I recall named Wendy who was very smart, but a bit gabby. In the first week of class, they were doing a meteorology lab, and Jim had a question where the answer was the name of the weather station in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada. It's pronounced "Win-eh-peg," but Wendy said "Win-ee-peg, which, for some reason, seemed REALLY funny to Jim. For the rest of the year, he'd always have a disclaimer whenever the Winnipeg Observatory came up (which was often), "And in Winnipeg, or as Wendy calls in, Winn-EE-peg..." Don't feel sorry for Wendy, she gave it as good as she got it. "My name is pronounced Wend-eh." So Jim had a sort of spoofed "balance of power" with those kids, who bent the rules, but never broke them.

In the back, we had a huge curio cabinet filled with minerals for the geology labs. The first lab was always "Guess this mineral." Jim always told his students, "Don't go back there to find out their names, because I have rearranged the labels on purpose." This was actually a lie, a secret I held for a long time. But one day, I asked him, "Hey, why not arrange the minerals by type, and then alphabetically? That way, WE know where to find them, because we already know their names (I was a bit of a rock hound). So he let me do that. Some kids would ask me, when Jim wasn't looking, "Hey, what's this mineral?" I used to answer with, "I won't tell you," but I got sneaky, and so I'd say some totally made up name, like "hatamoronga," "nocurium," or "aycheetite." Later, I'd tell Jim, and he'd laugh. "Aycheetite, huh? An ignoramus rock, I am sure." [geologist humor, please move on]. He'd mark those wrong answers on student's papers, "My assistant thinks he's funny."

We had fake fossils made in cheesy gray plastic. We said they were all from the Plastocine era.

The school had a terribly unbalanced budget. For instance, the whole science department's budget was a measly $400. Already $200 was earmarked for disposable things, like formaldehyde frogs and the like. The rest was for incidentals, like light bulbs, ditto ink, and other things that ran out. In many cases, they'd hit parents up for money to balance out the budget, especially if a student broke something. Like a stereo microscope was $700, almost two year's worth of budget. Some kid broke one while horsing around, and the school demanded repayment for it (and got it). But Jim was displeased that they didn't use the money to get another microscope; it was put back into some "refund budget," which Jim never saw. So we were still out one microscope, and as it was, there were 2-3 students per microscope in a typical class. The only reason we had some of this equipment in the first place was by donations. Like the National Science Foundation gave us the microscopes years earlier. The A/V equipment was part of a pool owned by the school itself. In contrast, the football team, which wasn't even a class, but an intramural, got a $10,000 budget per year, with "unlimited extensions" for various needs. Like one year, they trashed their projection screen TV after losing Homecoming, so they got a new one. This infuriated Jim to no end.

Money was so bad, we even had to "reclaim" stuff from chemistry experiments. One of my jobs was to "reprocess" copper sulfate, a kind of blue powder you had to dissolve in some solution for some lab. I'd get pints of this liquid, and I had to boil it until all the water was dissolved, leaving a blue crust behind, which I scraped and ground into powder and saved in a jar for the next lab that needed it. We got about 80-90% back this way. One day, I accidentally left some on the burner, and left it there for a weekend. I thought I had turned off the burner, but apparently it was just barely warm. The liquid evaporated very slowly over the next few days, and when I got back in on Monday, the wide-mouthed jar it was in had dried, overheated, and cracked in half (I paid for it, $5). But in the center was one BIG blue crystal, about the size of my thumb. It was beautiful. I showed Jim, and he broke it off the bottom, and showed it around for a few days, using at as a lesson on how geodes were made. But, in the end, we had to mash it back into powder, because we couldn't spare the copper sulfate to keep it. I was pretty bummed by that.

One day, Jim tried to gross me out by showing me his mashed thumb. He had crushed it over the weekend while using a hammer, and the nail was all black, blue, and gross. He demanded I look at it under the stereo microscope, but I wouldn't. He said I was a girl, and chased me around with it. He teased me with it for months until it healed. Jim's style of humor, what can I say?

Another time, I had so cleaned out his back room, I came across an old map cabinet. For those who have never seen one, it's a dresser-like thing with dozens of flat, wide drawers, for keeping maps flat and neat. "I haven't been in there for ages," he said. "Why don't you clean it out." One of the maps I found was from the late 1960s, and was apparently part of some science education kit from McDonalds. It had a map of the solar system, notably missing a few planets, with product tie-in descriptions, like "Mercury is sure hot! It's the planet closest to the sun, and too hot even for the yummy and tasty McDonald's French Fries!" Ronald had a house on Jupiter, and Grimace had a house on Saturn (which was colored purple in this map), which struck me as odd, since those were gas giants, and had no solid surface to speak of. Planets missing were Uranus and Venus, and Jim and I speculated its probably because they sounded like naughty words. It also mentioned our Moon, and not only neglected to mention any other moons around any other planets, but had it in orbit between us and Mars.

Earth, by the way, is apparently a prime place to get McDonald's food if you are in our solar system. Your mommy and daddy can drive you there.

Sometimes we'd get more of these promotions. I recall there was a product called "Fruit gushers," a kind of candy with a liquid center, that gave out "educational materials" with text like:

Hand out each child 6 delicious Fruit Gushers. Have them arrange them in a pattern. Discuss geometric shapes. You may recall that Greeks gave us geometry. Best of all, students can eat their shapes when they are done! Please find included a Fruit Gushers ruler that you may keep or hand out as a prize for the most clever student!

Actually, the Egyptians ... no, never mind. My readers know. Now as an adult, when I think about it, it sounds like there's a hint of hypnosis there, too. "Stare at the pretty shapes children ... let's talk about shapes ... shapes ... wheels within wheels ... must buy Fruit Gushers..." Actually, the gushers were quite tasty, although they came in generic gray foil envelopes that said, "Fruit Gushers - the product does not contain nuts," and in bold, cold-war-era letters, "EDUCATIONAL USE ONLY!" Da, comrade!

I got to go conoeing with his Honors students that year, too. We went to the Choptank River and wandered around an estuary and wetlands there. Jim required our canoe be in the lead, but had me do all the paddling. Sometimes, he'd splash water on student with his oar with an "oops," and if they tried back, he'd say "Don't get my [expensive] camera wet, or I'll flunk you!" Then I'd have to paddle like crazy to get away from the teens bent on revenge. But it was all in fun.

I miss working with him. He enjoyed my work so much, because I spent a lot of after school hours with him, he put me up for the Heather Award, a Fairfax County Public Schools award for outstanding volunteer work. I got it, and still have it somewhere.

He ended up quitting school, and went to go back to work for the USGS, and last I heard was doing survey work up in Washington State. That was his dream job, so I think he's pretty happy.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000373.html
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