Tuesday, April 21, 2009

`Keep Me from Burning'

The school day started with a fire in the student restroom. The boy I was escorting said, “I’m not going in there,” so I went in there and found it empty of students. Burning was a plastic wastebasket in the corner. The flames were disappointingly feeble but smoke was filling the room and pouring into the hall. I pulled the wastebasket to the sink and threw water into it with my cupped hand. Left on the bottom was a soggy black mess of semi-molten plastic. I briefed the vice principal and returned to the classroom, though I still needed to use the restroom.

I had brought with me to school a poetry anthology I’m reviewing, and spent odd moments grazing around in it, concentrating on poets whose work I don’t know well. Among them was Katherine Philips (1632-1664), most of whose poems were addressed to “Lucasia” -- in fact, her friend Ann Owen. Included in the anthology is “To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship,” which, after the restroom adventure, seemed appropriately smoldering. The final stanza reads:

“Then let our flames still light and shine,
And no false fear control,
As innocent as our design,
Immortal as our soul.”

Fire (as ardor, combustion, inspiration) is an unacknowledged theme of the anthology, as I suppose it is generally in poetry. Next I found “Bethsabe’s Song” by George Peele (1556-1596), from a verse tragedy, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (1599). I particularly like this couplet:

“Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.”

(Spell-check, of course, objects to “cause cause.”) In the afternoon I accompanied another student to chemistry class, where I learned the word stoichiometry and found these sentences defining “limiting reactant” on the board: “The reactant in a chemical reaction that limits the amount of products that can be formed. The reaction will stop when all of the limiting reactant is consumed.” To illustrate this point, the teacher poured three fingers of light-green ethanol into a beaker and put a match to it. The resulting flame was pale blue and, from a distance, almost invisible. She tipped the beaker and the flames grew higher and turned orange. “Oxygen is the limiting reactant,” she said.

The boy sitting at the next desk assured me the fire in the restroom started when a kid smoking a joint thought he was about to be caught, and in a panic threw it in the wastebasket.


Anonymous said...

i have faced perils such as fire before - they are often initially disappointingly small, e.g. a fire in a waste bin, but with effort and imagination they can be transformed into Towering Inferno-like catastrophes into which you will repeatedly plunge to rescue small children, dogs, and buxom ladies - of course, leaving the rest to perish.

R. T. said...

Your posting (another poignant moment from your career which you generously share) reminds me of my favorite poem in which the imagery of fire is so profoundly important:

The Tyger


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


When I use this poem in my classes, students are consistently enthusiastic when we begin because they can appreciate the imagery, and when we have fully explicated the poem, they are generally blown away by Blake's singular imagination and themes.

By the way, continue sharing in your blog. I look forward to reading about your adventures in the classrooms.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Just reading the word STOICHIOMETRY triggers unpleasant flashbacks... as I was the kind of student who flourished in AP Lit/Lang classes and ditched AP Chem.

I've never thought the 'limiting reactant' concept poetic, but it's true that you can only use or burn as much as you've got.
It's also true that the sum is often greater than the parts.

Can those two concepts be reconciled? Only in a poem...

Allan Connery said...

It seems ungrateful to make this quibble my first comment on one of my favourite blogs, but nevertheless I must: did the teacher really say oxygen was the limiting reagent in burning that beaker of ethanol? Surely if the fire had died out because the supply of oxygen in the room had been exhausted, everyone present would have suffocated.