A Position of Influence, Back in the Day

I was going to write about something completely different today, but the subject got me thinking about biology, which I haven’t studied intentionally since high school…and that took me down this overgrown path on Memory Lane. Enjoy this little flashback from the era of neon, hairspray, and the original Mom jeans.

In high school, I was basically a “good kid.” Band geek. Got good grades, never caused trouble. You wouldn’t catch me in detention unless I was tutoring a fellow classmate in algebra. But the truth was that I was a bit of an instigator. While I never did anything directly inappropriate that you can prove, like mouth off to teachers or hide sandwiches in the music room piano, I did find an efficient method to carry out chaos: friend the troublemakers and seed their thoughts. I found that if I merely verbalized terrible ideas creative concepts within earshot of the students who would actually do them….fun stuff happened.

Take Dan, for example. (Dan is, in fact, his real name, but he’s completely fallen off the grid since high school, so here you go.) Dan had a sense of adventure and zero…well, actual sense. We were in biology class, with its long tables suitable for dissections, Petri dishes, and microscope slides. For some reason, though, each table was equipped with what appeared to be electrical outlets. (None of us had phones to charge back then, and we weren’t using any cool power tools, so we had no idea why they were there.)

To get things started, all I’d had to do was ponder aloud to Dan one day earlier, “All the science tables have outlets on them. I wonder why? I mean, they’re not, like, connected to anything, right?”

And the next day, in the middle of class:


We all turned and a somewhat stunned Dan was sitting WAY back in his seat, looking VERY surprised and maybe a little windblown. Dan was immediately sent to detention, but we got the deets later: Dan had been considering the outlets, and in the interest of science, decided to run an impromptu experiment. Hypothesis: these outlets are trash. He grabbed a set of keys, put them in the outlet, and “I pushed them in with my pen.” The resulting boom disproved his hypothesis. Quickly and loudly. Also, the keys belonged to Sandy, who he had a crush on despite having a long-term girlfriend…and said girlfriend was also a Good Kid with a low tolerance for nonsense, so the tea was spilling EVERYWHERE after this.

Epilogue: Dan never actually WENT to detention. He went to the band room and hid for the rest of the day instead. And apparently the teacher forgot to send the detention slip to the office, so the sentence was never served, and this incident remains undocumented in the official high school chronicles. Oh, and I guess Sandy’s keys were fine. Sandy was dating the quarterback, who didn’t kill Dan, who remained with his girlfriend until she went to college and dumped him and married a really good-looking guy and became a pharmacist. The End. And yes, we are ALL wondering why Dan vanished after high school, and have multiple theories ranging from Witness Protection to top-secret government work to federal and/or predator-style crimes. I’ll report back if we ever find out.

Oh, and then there was James from chemistry class. Full disclosure – in middle school I had a HUGE crush on James, but he only had eyes for…well, pretty much Other Girls Who Were Not Me. So while I’d moved on and was dating a drummer (bonus cool points?), there was certainly some residual fondness for his cheeky attitude towards life, school, and general authority. So when the teacher introduced the concept of Bunsen burners to us, with the boring af standard safety training: “…and the tip of the flame reaches 5 bazillion degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to melt copper….”

…all I had to say to James, under my breath, was “Hmm. Aren’t pennies made of copper?”

And it began. (And no, I have no idea (clearly) how hot Bunsen burners get, or what the melting point of copper is. Suffice it to say I’m better suited as a contestant on The Price is Right than Jeopardy. RIP Alex Trebek – I have mad respect for you, dude.)

Anyway. From that point on, in James’s world, chemistry class was an opportunity to prove whether or not the tip of the flame was, in fact, hot enough to melt copper. Or pencils. Or quarters or notebook spirals or anything else readily accessible to a high school student in the days prior to internet access and Amazon. And once he’d melted metal, it was time for art class. Pennies were morphed into….well, honestly? Useless globs. But they didn’t look like standard pennies anymore, so that was cool. I mean, back in the dark ages, until this point the coolest thing you could do with a penny was leave it on a train track for the trains to flatten.

Credit: Scott Barrow

So this went on for MONTHS, and as you’d expect, James got bolder and bolder with his creative exercises. It all came to a head in February, though. On that fateful day, James had brought in a unique specimen for the flame treatment: the Reader’s Digest Commemorative Coin.

<sniff> Isn’t it beautiful?

Of course, being dumb teenagers, we had no idea what kind of metal this was, and didn’t think about whether it might be sort of toxic to inhale the fumes from heating this bad boy up – but James was ready to melt it down into Something Really Awesome. He got his tongs, turned up the flame, and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

And…nothing happened. No smoke, and not the slightest bit of shape-shifting. It absolutely refused to melt.

Undaunted, James persevered, holding fast, convinced that Something Cool was about to happen. He held that stance for over twenty minutes (see, he can’t have ADD, look at this concentration!) unwavering, not moving. Until Thom (who insisted on spelling his name “Thom”, because he was That Weird Guy) caught wind of the fact that James was not, in fact, carrying out the day’s prescribed assignment, but was instead having unsanctioned fun.

Not wanting to miss out on the action, Thom yelled “HEY!”

James, startled, turned and dropped the Commemorative Coin. It bounced off the marble table…


…and tumbled to the linoleum floor.

<ping> <pingpingpingedypingping> <brrrrrrr>

As the coin was making its descent, another student who I’ll call Amy (because again, it’s her real name, come at me) walked by. Wanting to be helpful, she stopped and called out “Oh hey! You dropped this!”

And she bent to pick up the coin.

Which had been ROASTING for twenty minutes.

(Imagine this scene playing out in slow motion for effect.)

Amy stooped to pick up the coin. Triumphantly, she raised the coin over her head, “Here you go!”

And it was at this point that she realized that the coin was SCREAMING HOT.

The resulting shrieks shattered the classroom blackboards and the screen of the tube TV collecting dust on the AV rack in the corner. The coin flew out of her hands as the activity of the entire classroom came to a screeching halt of silence. The only sound in the room was that of the coin on its final descent:


<ping> <pingpingpingedypingping> <brrrrrrr>

We all stared as James, wide-eyed, watched the coin roll to what was likely its final resting place under a rolled-up, outdated poster of the Periodic Table wedged in the corner.

As you probably concluded, James was banned from Bunsen Burner use for the year, and was restricted to nothing more dangerous than a pencil and paper for the rest of 10th grade. Amy recovered from her injuries, at least as far as I can tell from Facebook, although she was branded with a Statue of Liberty tattoo on her palm for a while. (I mean, nowadays you’d pay cash money for that sort of body mod, so I guess she was kind of accidentally hipster that way. Cooler than Thom with an H, for sure.)

While I normally stayed in the background for these shenanigans, there was that one time I almost got busted. Let’s time-travel back to 11th grade Driver’s Ed, taught by Mr. C.

Now Mr. C was the chillest teacher we knew, which made him the perfect fit for instructing clueless, inexperienced teenagers on the art of automobile operation. Hard braking and wrong turns were met with an impressive amount of calm – you could be absolutely flooring it towards a literal brick wall, and his reaction would be “…uh…Ralph…you might want to think about easing off the gas a bit….and maybe head left here….” (What’s mildly interesting about this is that Mr. C used to be the football coach, but was asked to step down because he got too worked up and angry and was scaring the players. I suspect the magic of medication was participatory in his transformation, but no one knows for sure. Also, Ralph once ate a fly. Thought it was important to mention.)

Anyway, on this particular day, we were watching a movie about not driving school buses into a ravine or something, which meant that no one was paying attention. I had zero interest in driving (isn’t that what boyfriends are for?) so I was capitalizing on the opportunity to complete my Spanish homework, which was due next period.

I was sitting in the back of the classroom, conjugating some verbs, when James started being…well…James. James was clearly bored (I mean, how much fun is school when you can no longer light things on fire?) and was flicking paper footballs across the room to his other malefactors. Mr. C was in the front row, transfixed by the riveting content of the cinematic genius unfolding in front of him. (I guess we all have a favorite film?)

Here’s a quick visual of the setup:

Eventually, one of the Hail Marys overshot the goalpost and landed on my desk. I decided it was time to play along, because no me gusta this movie or actual homework. I pulled out a clean sheet of paper, hastily folded a paper airplane, and set it aflight in James’s general direction.

And here is where we had a literal plot twist.

I do not perpetuate any notion that I am even moderately skilled in the architecture of paper aircraft. Normally, my planes are doomed to meet similar fates as the Hindenburg or Titanic; they get hefty assistance from gravity and beeline to Earth like cats hearing a can opener from the kitchen.

So imagine my surprise when the plane cleared several desks and careened directly towards James.

And then, to my amazement, the plane TURNED. It took a hard right and banked north, sailing towards the front of the room.

I held my breath and watched. Certainly, a paper airplane interjecting itself into the school blockbuster Prom Night Carnage would attract Mr. C’s attention, no?

No. Because the plane turned again.

I watched, horrified, as the plane cleared the front row of desks, unpredictably pitched 90 degrees to the right, and sailed catastrophically into Mr. C’s left ear.


my “oh $#!t” moment

Startled, Mr. C jumped to his feet, and turned to face the class.

And pointed DIRECTLY AT JAMES. Who was so outraged at the injustice of the allegation that he began to sputter:

“What? No!! It wasn’t me!! It was KATE! KATE THREW THAT!!! I SWEAR!!”

Mr. C sent James a withering look of complete disbelief – while this wasn’t physics class, it was pretty obvious that it would have been impossible for me, sitting directly behind Mr. C, to manage to throw a paper airplane to hit the left side of his head. Besides, I was a Good Kid and never in trouble. James, on the other hand, had a reputation for being a miscreant. (I’m sure there was some teacher-lounge talk about the whole Bunsen Burner fiasco.)

Crisis averted. At least for me, which is all that’s important here. James probably would have had detention eventually anyway. Right? Mad props to the entire class of 1989 for not ratting me out.

I don’t know what ever happened to James, but…James, if you’re out there, struggling with the lifelong consequences of being falsely accused, I want you to know:

3 thoughts on “A Position of Influence, Back in the Day

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