Surface Tension

I was never “good” at science. With one exception–biology, sophomore year. I think it was something about the exotic vocabulary and pictures that piqued my interest. Ironically, two years ago I became an ad hoc / extemporaneous long-term substitute teacher for the sciences, ranging from biology and chemistry to physics and astronomy.  Thank God it snowed for the first four days I was supposed to start teaching. I played catch-up the entire time I was snowed in. The last time I studied that hard was sixteen years ago. Note: I was 16 years old sixteen years ago. I just got a little faint.

I still have some work saved from High School. On paper and floppy discs! In one big folder, I tucked away several essays from my English AP classes and notes from bio. The diagrams are labeled and colored with such exquisite detail that it almost seems as if a science person drew them. When I moved back home in 2015, I exhumed my notes and found one section totally dedicated to surface tension. Its definition stuck with me then, and continues to float around in my mind now–

Water molecules want to cling to each other. At the surface, however, there are fewer water molecules to cling to since there is air above (thus, no water molecules). This results in a stronger bond between those molecules that actually do come in contact with one another, and a layer of strongly bonded water. This surface layer (held together by surface tension) creates a considerable barrier between the atmosphere and the water. In fact, other than mercury, water has the greatest surface tension of any liquid.

The more you know.

What gets me about the concept of surface tension is that it can be personified, which is probably why so much of bio makes sense to me. We all know the feelings associated with water metaphors: learning to tread water; feeling like your drowning in paperwork; singing in the rain, when it rains it pours. But surface tension never gets its due in our vernacular. Today I felt so many feelings that the “floodgates opened,” which of course means I cried. Again. But what followed, as is always my way, were the thought bubbles. Why is it so upsetting to be seen upset? How is it that in a very stressful work environment, the less I want to lean on other people the more I absolutely must?

How, I often ask myself, is it possible for other people to handle pressure at work? Why is no one else crying? The immediate answer to one of these questions is that dudes and ladies handle stress differently. The quota so far is for every one cry I have in a two week period, there are three nights where any one of my coworkers slams dishes, lashes out at a cook or decides not to show up for work. The odds are in neither party’s favor.

There are so few of us in the kitchen. We work anywhere from 50-80 hours a week, morning noon and night. We kind of have to work well together. It’s like being marooned on an island. We have to try not to cannibalize each other to survive (all due respect to the profession which, thankfully, requires us to know how to cook enough so that we don’t have to resort to such measures–emotionally or otherwise). Like water molecules, we have to stick together. But oh, the tension. God forbid someone walks into work with a sour mood. We all feel it. I often put a voice to this when it happens, which my coworkers do not appreciate. Conversely, when one or more of us is in great spirits, it can uplift the whole crew. I swear it makes the food taste better.

It’s like a pressure cooker. Everyone is exhausted. I have burns and cuts and aches that just keep happening. Yet it’s part of the deal. The physical burdens of the job are nothing compared to what it feels like to be a complete novice in a world where everyone else seems to know what they are doing. Not to mention the fact that I am hyper-sensitive/critical of any sideways glances, comments or insinuations about my femininity. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Recently a male coworker asked me what it felt like to be one of four females out of 20+ people working in the kitchen. I told him I was excited–it meant I had a front row seat to watch the Patriarchy crumble.

My bark is almost always more vicious than my bite.

What it actually feels like is quiet defeat. I can pitch a fit or become spontaneously combustible, but people still need to eat. SOMEONE NEEDS TO DOUBLE-BOIL THE FUCKING crème brĂ»lĂ©e. That’s the way it goes.

As embarrassing as it has been to lose my shit on the regular, I am also relieved. Several of my kitchen mates remind me I am in the right place. Remember that guy, what’s his name, GORDON RAMSEY? That guy loses his shit for millions of dollars a year. He doesn’t cry; he yells.

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He’s straight up abusive to his staff, but at least he has a sense of humor. I won’t even discuss the parity of positive public opinion on women cooks versus male cooks, but I think you can piece it together. Bad behavior gets rewarded. In any other profession, our vastly inappropriate conversations about literally anything would get us fired. But in the kitchen, you better buck up and shut up or someone will show you the door. It’s refreshing. It’s also brutal and infuriating. But in every job I’ve ever had, no one is above the law of proving themselves. And for someone as impatient, perfectionistic, judgmental and sensitive as I am, time is an imperious bully. I want to be good at everything before the oven timer for the bacon goes off first thing in the morning. Not going to happen.

So there is acceptance. And that surface tension. We are all little water molecules buoying each other up. I had a conversation with Bowie today about it. In recovery and otherwise, this is where I’ve been led. These coworkers and friends are my current spiritual teachers. I pray, as I have on many stressful days, to acknowledge to my Higher Power that I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where He leads.

There you have it: spirituality on the fly.



Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My Can-Do List

I teach a child–we will call him Aaron–who is too funny for his own good. He cuts up in class, but it’s hard for me to get mad at him because he’s so clever. He doesn’t show outright disrespect, he just talks A LOT. He also happens to have one of the highest grades in the class. He is funny to the point where I promised if he could get an ALOL–Actual Laugh Out Loud–I’d give him a bonus point. I leveled the playing field with the other kids by awarding them two bonus points each if they could correctly identify a David Bowie song on every test.

Last week, I told the sixth graders they could name the skeleton I use to teach them where different bones are in the body. They used the democratic method at an impressive pace to vote on the name “Sheldon Dipper.” Aaron led the charge, of course, because he approved of the class talking way too loudly for any extended period of time. After the vote, Aaron talked far less than usual for almost a week.

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His semi-silence didn’t last long, however. A couple of classes later, Aaron yammered incessantly. I asked him to move seats, to which he replied, “I can’t, Miss Lucy, that is not on my Can-Do List.” Setting aside the blatant insolence of this child, I burst out laughing. I made him write his quote down on the white board near Sheldon Dipper and took a picture of it. I would have given him a bonus point then and there, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. These kids are highly quotable, which makes it damn near impossible for me to remain stern.


There is a lesson in this, naturally. On the same day the Can-Do List came into being, I had a 12th grade student reveal some disturbing details to me as I wrote notes on the board. While my back was turned, this student began making fun of his friend who was clearly hungover from a night of high-school drinking. He then tells the class of three students that he can rip “like five shots” before he gets too sick. I tried hard to keep my mouth shut. Now that I am an educator (or at least, on my way to being one), I have to set boundaries with the kids. I am openly sober, but it isn’t my place to Go Tell It on the Mountain with teenagers. This same student once told me that he had a problem with drugs and alcohol, “in the past”– that his way of dealing with childhood trauma has been to soldier through it with stoicism. All I said in return was that if and when you’ve had enough, you’ll know; there is help. I offered my support to him if he needed to talk about anything that was getting to him. And a split-second later, the only girl in this class walked up to me to say in hushed tones that she sometimes felt she couldn’t talk to her mom about her depression. I silently whispered, “Lawd Help Me.”

What I wrote on the board while this emotional shit show erupted was the different types of chemical reactions that exist in nature. As I finished writing about “combustion,” I explained to the group that chemistry is easier when you personify the elements. Like a person who pushes down too many emotional things, combustion occurs. Except when humans explode, the volatility can be much more destructive to life than any chemical meltdown.

I have to walk a tight rope with the older kids. I am old enough to know better than they do about life things, but young enough that they are still getting used to calling me “Miss” Lucy without it being awkward. Turns out, talking openly about my recovery is not on my Can-Do list. That has proven to be harder for me than I anticipated. My instinct is to swoop in to save these teenagers from unnecessary pain. In short, the clarity in my sobriety is a Catch-22: I can spot an addict a mile away, but it isn’t my place to diagnose anyone, no matter what their age or pathology.

The best I can do is be there for them. The only way I can do that is to be sober. And study. The last time I took biology or chemistry was the year these kids were born.

Lawd, help me.