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.