I still remember the look of incredulity on his face.
“You are a complete and utter moron!”
he said, staring at me as if I had just dropped a rare Ming Dynasty vase.
To be totally honest, I had a look of sheer disbelief at my own incompetence. I looked around the room and saw twenty other faces also staring at me, except their reaction was completely different; there were all struggling not to laugh out loud.
Five minutes earlier I was preparing to perform a titration to find the concentration of an acid for my A-Level chemistry course. I had done this quite a few times already and even the most gormless muppet usually managed to complete the task without pain.
The experiment requires a glass tube, called a burette, which has a tap at the end, to be clamped vertically to a stand above a conical flask, similar to this:
|This guy is much better than I was|
I managed that.
I walked back to my workplace and opened the clamp on the stand to grip the burette vertically. Stupidly (and I still don’t know how I did this), I let go of the burette before the clamp had locked its rubber jaws onto the glass.
The burette obeyed the law of gravity and dropped onto the bench, shattering into several hundred pieces.
The chemistry teacher shouted from across the room.
“What have I told you all about clamping burettes?” he snarled. And then to me: “Get a brush and clean that up and then get another tube!”
I did as I was told. I grabbed a dustpan and brush and gathered up the tiny fragments of glass before walking across to acquire my second burette. I carefully prised the glass tube from the wall as I had done many times before and walked back to my workplace.
On the way, one of my so-called mates, lifted up a plastic bottle filled with distilled water and aimed it at my face. He didn’t actually squirt me, but I protected myself anyway out of instinct.
Sadly, I forgot about the burette in my hand and my evasive manoeuvres, while protecting me, had a devastating effect on the glass tube. I smashed it against the workbench and it shattered into a couple of hundred pieces, rather like its predecessor.
I closed my eyes in shame and when I dared to look up I discovered the chemistry teacher marching towards me, his face evolving into that of an apoplectic demon.
“In all my days, I have never seen one student break TWO burettes in the space of two minutes. Clean that up and get another – and this time BE CAREFUL!!”
I thought he was actually going to hit me. Thankfully, at my old school, when we entered the sixth form, students were treated as adults (even though we weren’t really) and the teacher restrained himself from any form of punishment.
All I could do was squeak the words, “I’m sorry, sir.”
I was genuinely embarrassed.
I cleaned up my second lot of glass and shuffled over to the burette wall again, amidst sniggering.
I grabbed the middle of the third burette.
Something came over me. Perhaps it was panic. Perhaps I was just flustered. Maybe I was frustrated at my own clumsiness.
I'll never know.
Rather than carefully extracting the tube from its haven, I simply pulled the tube.
Burette number three snapped in two places.
The top third was still clamped to the wall.
The bottom third fell to the floor and shattered.
The final third was in my hand.
I turned around slowly and stared into the eyes of the teacher who was speechless for around twenty seconds. His mouth fell open in utter disbelief before he uttered the words:
“You are a complete and utter moron!”
I had no defence. I couldn’t think of anything to say other than:
“I’ll get the dustpan and brush.”
Those words were the catalyst and laughter erupted from the mouths of the rest of the class like tiny sonic tsunamis.
I cleaned up the mess for the third time and when I had finished, the teacher had extracted a fourth burette and set it up at my workplace. As I approached, he simply said:
“For God’s sake try not to break this one!”
I didn’t and managed to complete the experiment without any more burette casualties.
It didn’t stop the teacher from saying:
“Try not to shatter any more burettes, Mr Mancunian. They cost a lot of money you know.”
repeatedly for every titration I had to do. On the occasion of my very last titration, he actually smiled at me as he spoke the words.
I have quite a few tales from the chemistry laboratory that I may regale you with in later posts, some of which are quite a lot more spectacular than a little breaking glass.
In many ways this, and many other examples of my prowess at practical chemistry, go to prove that while I was actually good at the subject, I was really rather clumsy and careless when it came down to handling dangerous substances.
At one point I honestly fancied a career based on chemistry.
Thinking about it, it’s probably a good idea that I didn't pursue that particular plan.