Surely you remember that day in your middle school science class when you had to blow bubbles through a straw into a solution of bromothymol blue to watch how the slightly acidic carbon dioxide from your breath causes it to turn yellow. I have to believe this is true, because otherwise, how could I justify forcing this activity on the students in my science classes?
Several years ago, I was attempting to teach my middle school students basic chemistry by doing this very activity. I had arrived at school early to unpack beakers, mix chemicals and set out straws and safety goggles. The students were to first blow bubbles into a windshield washer fluid- blue solution and use a timer to find out how long it took to turn yellow. Then they were instructed to do jumping jacks for thirty seconds and repeat the process with a new beaker of bromothymol blue solution. Scientifically, the exercise would cause them to exhale more carbon dioxide, liquid would turn yellow much more quickly the second time.
As the students filed into class, I partnered them up and passed out crooked photocopies of instructions. They sat down at black lab tables, where the more mature students focused on either trying to start or end romantic relationships through a series of hand gestures and facial expressions, while the less mature students focused on drilling holes in the tables with paperclips or shoving gum into the holes drilled by immature students in previous classes. With this in mind, it is no wonder that my rapid fire, didactic instructions for the lab activity sailed over their heads and right out the window.
When I told them to begin, I saw one student suck a mouthful of liquid up into her mouth, while another student immediately attempted to do jumping jacks as his partner blew bubbles into the beaker. Although I tried to steer them back on course, I saw other students continuing to wink or drill, and it became clear to me that I needed to orchestrate some kind of dramatic moment, like teachers in movies always do in order to ameliorate the situation.
So, like the movie-star teachers do, I slammed the door loudly and shouted ‘Everybody STOP!’ Truly, this was an unusual move for me, but dramatic times call for dramatic measures. Inside, my mind was wandering to what I had packed for lunch, whether I would go to the gym after school and how many miles over my oil change I had driven. On the outside though, I was all business. My initial tactic of talking fast and loud at the students had failed, so I was forced to try a new tactic.
I scanned the room and quickly called Bill to the front of the room. He was a student who was bright, although easily distracted by every girl, insect, plant, poster or window in the room. I explained that he and I would demonstrate the activity and when we were sure that everyone else understood how to do it, the rest of the class could proceed. This was a student who had recently beat me at a classroom ‘trashball’ contest, so to be completely honest, I was happy to set up another friendly competition so that I handily beat him and reset order in our world. I turned to another student named Julia and handed her a timer, instructing her when to hit start and stop. After donning our safety goggles Bill and I both blew bubbles into our beakers until they turned from blue to yellow.
Up to this point, I have described a pretty typical day in what I believe is a pretty typical middle school science classroom. It is what happened next that made this day what into what has become one of the most seminal days in my teaching career. In order for what follows to make sense, it is important to consider these two facts about me: one is that I have always been competitive to a fault and two is that I had only recently returned from maternity leave. The importance of these details will soon become evident.
After we had blown bubbles into the first beakers, I instructed Julia to set the timer for thirty seconds, and I looked at Bill and challenged him to a jumping-jack contest. The students on my side of the room were to count how many jumping jacks I did and the students on Bill’s side of the room were to count how many he did. Julia shouted ‘Go’ and we furiously started jumping.
I would describe myself as a generally fit person. I exercise frequently and had recently completed a 46 mile hike over 20 peaks in New Hampshire’s white mountains. Based on this, I had expected that 30 seconds of jumping jacks would barely tax me at all and that I could continue teaching as if nothing had happened. However, the factor that I had not considered is the considerable loss of bladder control that resulted from squeezing a cantaloupe-sized baby-head out through a kiwi-sized tunnel during childbirth.
For the first ten seconds, we were neck and neck. Then suddenly, I felt a little drop of pee squeeze out. Certainly this is gross to consider, but from time to time it happens, no big deal. But this time, the drop grew to a trickle. And then the trickle grew to a full stream. The seconds seemed to slow to minutes as the full horror of what was happening became clear: in front of a whole class of students, while engaged in a ridiculous contest of athletic prowess, I was full-on wetting my pants. All of the reading I had done, papers I had written and hours I spent observing other science classrooms in preparation to become a teacher had not prepared me for this moment.
You might have guessed that I would run from the room crying, or at least quit the competition and concede the win to Bill in order to excuse myself and get cleaned up. But for some reason, when I had gotten dressed that morning, I had put on a v-neck sweater, a conservative, but short denim skirt, white tights and knee high, brown leather boots. And so as the pee kept flowing, I felt it trickle down my leg and begin to fill my left boot. My eyes widened as I realized that I was literally peeing my pants and that no one had any idea.
The last ten seconds passed and the contest was over. My boot was full to just below the ankle with pee and I was sweating, not from the exercise, but the embarrassment and exhilaration of realizing what had just happened.
I blew bubbles into the second beaker, and instructed Bill to do the same. As expected, both beakers turned yellow almost immediately. For insurance, as I set my beaker back down on the cart, I ‘accidentally’ spilled a little onto the floor, just in case. The students started working, and I was grateful to see that they had a much better understanding of the process, thanks to the clear demonstration we had provided them. I sloshed from group to group, helping them fill out data tables and reset their timers. At the end of class, the bell rang, the students went to lunch, and I went to the bathroom where I removed my boot and poured a trickle of yellow-brown urine into the toilet.
I leaned back against the stall wall and closed my eyes. In that moment, I was convinced that what had just happened would go down as one of my worst teaching moments. However in the years that have passed since then, I have come to view it as one of the most formative. After you have peed your pants in front of a whole class of students and carried on as if nothing happened, it makes many other potentially traumatizing situations seem trivial. Student calls me a bitch? At least I didn’t wet my pants. A small to medium-sized fire breaks out in my classroom? At least I didn’t wet my pants. A parent heckles me, a coworker harasses me, a fight breaks out? At least I didn’t wet my pants.