Would you please light me on fire?

In kindergarten and elementary school, birthdays are a big deal.  However, sometime between elementary school and high school, birthday celebrations become relegated to families and friends outside the classroom. It’s understandable that a high school teacher or administrator who is beyond the “fun” rites of passage and is looking forward to getting an AARP card in the mail might see birthday celebrations as a waste of time, or at the very least a distraction.  However, celebrating birthdays is part of being human.  Part of learning to be an empathetic member of society is learning to appreciate and celebrate each other.  In short, birthdays matter.

To this end, I have started a tradition this year of lighting my students on fire on their birthdays.  I use the natural gas from one of the gas jets in the lab to blow soap bubbles.  The student scoops a handful of bubbles, I light a match, say “Make a wish,” and ignite the bubbles.  The gas inside the bubbles makes a flame about 2-3 feet high for about ½ second.  The flame is gone before the student has a chance to get burned.  Needless to say, this has become quite popular with the students, and on their birthdays they come into the classroom saying, “Mr. Biglerrrrrr, it’s my birthdaaaaaaaay!”  To which I respond, “I’ll bet you’d like to be lit on fire, right?”  “Yes, please!”

One memorable day last October was the birthday of one of our vice principals.  One of my students asked whether we could ask her to come to the room and spring the tradition on her when she arrived.  I convinced the student that it would be much kinder to explain the tradition to her first, and ask whether she would actually like to participate.

About five minutes later, the VP arrived at my door and announced with a smile, “I’m here to be lit on fire!”  I explained exactly what I was going to do, and explained the physics behind the demo.  The VP scooped up a handful of bubbles and I lit them with the match.  Her face broke into a huge smile, and she said, “Wow.  When I was in high school, we never did anything like this in physics class.”

The demo made her day, probably for several reasons.  First and most obvious is that being lit on fire is fun, provided that it’s done safely.  But at least as important is that the students’ desire to involve her in the tradition gave them an acceptable way to let her know that they like and appreciate her.  For someone whose day revolves around enforcing rules and handing out consequences, getting to feel liked and appreciated by students was a nice birthday present.

And so it is with teenagers, and everyone else too.  We all need an occasional reminder that we matter to other people, that our friends, classmates and coworkers are glad that we’re a part of their life, and that our happiness matters to them.  Also that anything that is actually safe but looks dangerous and involves fire must be fun.

It’s fun for me too.  I love getting to share my mischievous love of science and demonstrations of the unexpected.  And I love getting to set fire to an administrator and still keep my job.

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About Mr. Bigler

Physics teacher at Lynn English High School in Lynn, MA. Proud father of two daughters. Violist & morris dancer.
This entry was posted in Anecdotes, Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Would you please light me on fire?

  1. Pam says:

    So proud of my big brother! I’m still trying to figure out how to translate this experience to an online training environment, but if anyone can figure it out, you can, Jeff. My kids have been getting lit on fire by “Uncle Jeff” for years and it definitely raises eyebrows when they tell their friends and teachers. Oh, and they eat burning candles, too. Again, because of his creativity and love of empowering others.

    • Mr. Bigler says:

      In thinking about how you can steal and adapt the idea, when I’m thinking about an activity for my students, I ask myself the following questions:

      1. Does it actually get the (educational) point across?
      2. Can I physically put the student into the activity?
      3. Will it give the student bragging rights?
      4. Is it badass enough that when they brag about it, their friends will be both interested and jealous?

      Even if you’re not teaching physics, I’m sure you can use some version of these four criteria in one of your training videos. And be sure to let me know if you actually do the flammable soap bubble trick in the video!

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