Two innocent-looking girls take the shade off a bedroom lamp, up-end a coffee can on it, and melt crayons in the shallow tray they’d created. It’s difficult work. The balance is precarious. It’s way too easy for the waxy mess to slop onto the carpet where it will stay, a clump one girl tries to cover with furniture or dirty clothes the rest of her childhood. Neither of them got burned.
But they did catch fire, having their own little moment of alchemy when the gold crayon swirled itself into the other colors.
They will graduate to ruining plastic pitchers with their experiments. What happens when you mix nail polish remover with nail polish? This cleaner with that one?
Both of them owned Easy Bake Ovens. Neither of them owned a chemistry set.
What happens when one of the girls pours just a little nail polish remover in a shower stall and lights it on fire? She had the hand sprayer ready and the water already running, and she watched the wall of blue flame for a count of two, maybe three, before she doused it.
Don’t believe in miracles? How about dumb luck? The fact that I escaped my childhood alive, without massive burn scars, the fact that my childhood home didn’t burn to the ground—-I have to believe in one or the other. Though I will say, in our own pre-adolescent way, my friend and I were methodical in our experiments. The hand sprayer was good to go, after all.
I never set off firecrackers or wired a birdhouse to explode, the way my brother did (birds never moved in, fortunately, smart birds). But my brother and I were both dangerously creative.
We particularly enjoyed burning trash. Out in the country where we grew up, on the edge of a tiny town called Opdyke, there was no trash pickup, so you burned what you could and dumped or buried the rest. Any other chore, we’d fight to weasel out of. Burning trash, we fought to see who got to do it. Our special favorite was finding anything labeled CAUTION, FLAMMABLE, or especially, DO NOT INCINERATE. At least we had the good sense to stand back. Sometimes there was a whoosh of flame or an interesting shade of smoke or if we were really lucky, BAM! An explosion when an aerosol can slammed against the side of the burning barrel.
One of my brother’s friends was badly burned when he used gasoline to burn his family’s trash faster. All we learned from that, apparently, was DON’T USE ACCELERANTS. (Which is actually a really good thing to learn.)
An analysis of this could reveal boredom, misdirected intellectual curiosity, some variety of pathology, or a combination of all three. But we also were being true to our Opdyke heritage and our family heritage, whether we knew it or not.
On our father’s side of the family, we were only one, maybe two generations removed from people who had stills in the hills. My father’s childhood home burned to the ground, twice I think. I have a vague memory that it was my grandfather’s fault, but I’m not sure about that.
On our mother’s side, we had our solidly creative Gran’daddy, who could solve pretty much any intractable problem by sleeping on it. He regularly dreamed the solution. He could also find water by dowsing—I’ve always been afraid to try. I don’t want to know if I have that particular gift.
When it came to fire, Gran’daddy worked as a volunteer firefighter and I remember being part of a crowd watching them set the old one-room schoolhouse on fire so the volunteers had something to practice on. (I also remember one odd little boy flashing his penis to everyone that day. At least we didn’t have that pathology in my family.)
In terms of creativity and fire, I have to think of Gran’daddy’s work with Sparky, a welder and inventor in our little town.
On the main street, which now has a name but didn’t when I lived there, Opdyke had a post office, ½ of a building that also housed an old-fashioned store with a wood-burning stove. We waited for the bus inside on cold days. (At this point my memory blurs with an episode of the Waltons–I can’t believe I was so lucky and that this was the early 70s, not the 30s.) Next building down was a two-story, red-brick garage where Sparky had his shop. That was pretty much all there was, business-wise.
I know Sparky and Gran’daddy worked together to make parts for various farm machines, but I also remember fabulous inventions, like the rotation hot-dog roaster for camp fires.
It never once occurred to me to ask to visit that shop, and no one ever offered.
Had my son’s school existed at that time, in that place, there probably would have been a field trip there, or we’d have had Sparky come to class to demonstrate.
At least I like to think so, and I like to think River Valley Elementary Studio School is in the process of living up to part of its initial purpose, to give kids space to be creative as part of their education.
It’s not just that I want my son to also escape his childhood without burn scars. It’s not just that I want him not to burn our house down.
I want him to be able to play with fire and learn even more from it than I did.
On reflection, I am utterly baffled that I took Chemistry I in high school but not Chemistry II, where the students regularly made explosives behind the teacher’s back. (Well, other than being completely burned out by my senior year and also hitting a very solid three-dimensional brick wall when I tried to imagine molecules in 3-D.)
In my creativity research, I am trying to learn how to encourage and assess students’ creativity. I’m struck by these quotes from Arthur Cropley, in his book, Creativity in Education and Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Educators. He points out that
“Surveys have shown that in theory at least teachers overwhelmingly support creativity as something that should be fostered in the classroom….However, in actual classroom practice they often frown upon traits associated with creativity or even actively dislike characteristics such as boldness, desire for novelty or originality.” I don’t know how much I exhibited those traits in the classroom, but I can definitely see my obsession with fire as a bold “desire for novelty” (something other than another rerun of Gilligan’s Island) and I don’t know of any other children who set their shower stalls on fire, though a lot of people may be like I was until this moment, sensibly keeping things like that a secret. Cropley has a list of things to do to make creativity possible in the classroom, and it’s striking to me how most of those apply to my brother’s and my trash burning processes. Cropley says we should
• “encourage students to learn independently
• have a co-operative, socially integrative style of teaching
• do not neglect mastery of factual knowledge
• tolerate sensible or bold errors
• promote self-evaluation
• take questions seriously
• offer opportunities to work with varied materials under different conditions
• help students learn to cope with frustration and failure
• reward courage as much as being right.”
We did “neglect factual knowledge” for the most part, and I don’t remember much self-evaluation. I don’t remember frustration or failure, but I think the wall of flame in the shower stall scared me enough I went back to burning trash as my main experimental mode, where you could “reward courage” with an occasional but deeply satisfying explosion. We were hell-bent on making our own “opportunities to work with varied materials under different conditions.” My 8th grade demonstration speech involved dripping candle wax into a pie-pan of water. “What’s it for?” the teacher asked when I was done. It hadn’t occurred to me I needed a purpose–it was just really fun to do. But what I said was, “If you use scented candles, these can be put anywhere to make things smell nice.” I don’t remember being punished or rewarded for that project.
I want to officially and publicly and sincerely apologize to my parents who are learning about most of this for the first time along with everyone else reading right now. (I explained and apologized long ago for the mouse bones the repairman found in the dishwasher when it broke down.)
“Sin boldly,” Martin Luther said, which is what I think of when I read “bold errors.” I wonder, as a teacher, if I make any room at all for that in my students.
It scares me to death to imagine what kind of experiments my already creative son will think up. I mostly hope it’s in a classroom with safety goggles and fire extinguishers available, but I think it’s part of my job to let him experiment at home as well.
Because playing with fire? Having a sweet face that will mislead some people into thinking he doesn’t have a dark side? He comes by that naturally. So did I.