x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Teenagers and chemistry: a dangerous mix

Chemistry class is one place where teenagers revert back to their childish ways.

Our school recently got a new safety room. Before a teacher explained to us exactly what it was for, it had been the subject of much ridicule. Rumour had it that the purpose of the shower was to encourage a certain member of staff to start taking one every day. Why else would there be a shower and what looked suspiciously like a drinking fountain in a special room in the science block? It turned out that (surprise, surprise) it was for students. We were understandably outraged. Not for long, though, once we discovered that we could only use it if we had been soaked with a corrosive chemical or had set our clothes cheerfully ablaze in green flames.

We teenagers are meant to be so much more responsible now that we are, well, teenagers, but chemistry lessons are one of many scenarios that prove we've still retained some of our childhood ways. "Always waft smells towards your nose" is one of the first lab safety rules drilled into our heads. You know all that droning the person at the front of the classroom did before letting you enter your first school science lab? Tie your hair back. Don't try to hide the remains of an explosion in your pocket or you could end up in hospital. Don't chew gum or you'll blow up. Don't breathe or the carbon monoxide in the air will kill you.

Believe it or not, the whole class tuned out after the first two rules. I was one of the more responsible students who decided it was best to hear it out to increase my chances of surviving high school. Last chemistry lesson, it became apparent that Toby had been one of the many who hadn't. "I don't want any of you lot taking big snorts of this," the chemistry teacher intoned last week, pointing to a test tube filled with something we were supposed to make. "If you do, it'll feel like having two sharpened pencils jammed up your nostrils, then having them shoved up. Hard."

This lecture, of course, meant that on no account were any of us to try and sniff the substance produced after we had finished our experiments - which is exactly what Toby did. Apparently he didn't believe the teacher and wanted to find out what would happen if he inhaled some of the gas. He spent the rest of the lesson with his nose scrunched up and an inability to un-furrow his eyebrows. Working with a Bunsen burner is another technique we learn. The careful explanations about fire safety have ceased to have any effect on us. Last chemistry class, when we were supposed to be doing flame tests, I began to investigate the types of fireworks I could make. The textbooks stated quite clearly that I could do this by igniting sodium or copper to give a bright yellow or green blaze. Maybe, I reckoned, since we were meant to be holding bits of metal in the flame to change its colour, we could make everything a little more explosive. Or, in other words, interesting.

A shower of sparks might also add some colour to the otherwise dull lesson, I thought. Twiddling around with the air holes quickly resulted in the discovery that I could make yellow puffs of fire shoot out from a blue flame, and poking the inside of the burner at the right angle with a matchstick made glowing embers flutter outward. Alternating the metal we were holding inside the flame fast enough generated a rainbow flame-thrower effect. When I managed to scorch a hole in Diana's book, I concealed it under her pencil case and scooted to the other side of the table. It was only when I almost singed myself that I realised that playing with fire was much more dangerous than I had anticipated.

Soon enough, it was time to clear up. Sweeping the ash and charred apparatus into the waste bin, I popped the Bunsen out of the gas tap, then hurried to put it back in its cupboard. No more fire-breathing tricks, for the meantime at least. It turned out I had somehow messed up yet again. Within minutes, someone had cried "I smell gas!" and the room was emptied. For the time being, with a week's worth of detentions to look forward to, I have abandoned any hopes of becoming a world-famous chemist.

Lavanya Malhotra is a 14-year-old student in Dubai.