At some point in the late 1980s,I received a chemistry set among my Christmas presents. I remember sort of pushing it to the side as soon as I unwrapped it, and shortly thereafter it went on a shelf in my closet to be all but forgotten for several months.
It wasn’t that I disliked educational toys. A nerd practically from birth, I loved them. (EPCOT was also my favorite Disney theme park.) It was just that chemistry had not been a thing I’d much considered. I had started having serious trouble with math from the day we learned long division in school, and academic struggles in science soon followed suit. I blamed my problems in both these areas on the unfortunate fact that I had been born a girl -- which was an increasingly annoying reality for lots of reasons -- but hey, at least I excelled at language-based subjects.
One day -- on a dull rainy weekend, if I recall correctly -- I ran across that chemistry set again, untouched on my closet shelf, the vaguely dated photo of two children (one of whom was a GIRL!) on its lid looking suddenly compelling. I opened the box and was confronted with a battery of small white plastic bottles with incomprehensible names on their labels, plus some sciencey-looking test tubes and tools.
Because this was the 1980s, and safety standards for toys were a thing (unlike, say, in the 1950s, when some “atomic” chemistry sets included URANIUM -- yes, complete with radioactivity! -- for children to experiment with, or possibly to use to mutate frogs caught in the backyard and build a race of invincible superfrogmen), my chemistry set was pretty tame, although the included documentation did well enough at scaring me with its numerous safety warnings that even as I played at my “experiments” I sort of wondered about the wisdom of allowing a kid like me access to potentially dangerous chemicals.
I had fun with it, for like a week or so, until my favorite chemicals were depleted, and then I put the box back on its shelf and went back to rereading “Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst” for the hundredth time and hating science for another 10 years.
Although my interest in that chemistry set was brief, the experience was surprisingly influential, as it allowed me to experiment with a subject I had convinced myself I would automatically suck at, and to my surprise, found that I was quite capable, at least within the restrictive boundaries of my nonlethal 1980s chemical toy. It had enough of an impact on my childhood confidence that I remember it pretty vividly even today -- and understand that I remember literally nothing of high school chemistry except a vague concept of what the classroom lab looked like.
It wasn’t so much about gaining knowledge in the subject of chemistry itself, as it was my realization that I COULD try things, even things I think I might be bad at, and be surprised by my own smarts and capability. This willingness to experiment is, after all, a critical part of childhood, and it’s how kids learn to be independent and self-reliant. Our responsibility as adults, often, is to step back and let our children learn by doing -- and occasionally to step back in with support or to make sure they’re doing so in ways unlikely to result in their tragic demise.
And so we come to some ridiculous news out of Florida.
Last week, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot performed an unauthorized science experiment outside her high school.
On 7 a.m. on Monday, the 16 year-old mixed some common household chemicals in a small 8 oz water bottle on the grounds of Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida. The reaction caused a small explosion that caused the top to pop up and produced some smoke. No one was hurt and no damage was caused.
Evidently, Wilmot was as surprised by the result as anyone. Her friends and classmates have uniformly insisted it was an experiment that went unexpectedly wrong, and even the school’s principal has acknowledged that Wilmot -- a student with solid grades and a perfect behavior record -- didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but made a “bad choice” in her attempt to experiment on school grounds.
Nevertheless, Wilmot was arrested, handcuffed, charged with possession and discharge of a “weapon” on school property -- these are adult felony charges, for the record -- and expelled.
Not suspended, but expelled from the school system altogether.
Stories like this make me want to shake my home state by its nonexistent shoulders and yell “THIS IS WHY EVERYONE MAKES FUN OF YOU.”
Here we have a kid with no prior behavior problems, who everyone agrees was exploring ideas with good intentions, in pursuit of an education (albeit an education that was not authorized by the school itself) and instead of giving her the chance to demonstrate that she is capable of learning from her mistakes (which frankly ALL KIDS should have the opportunity to do at least ONCE) she’s been removed from the school system on a first offense, a decision that could have significant implications on her ability to get into college or otherwise achieve her dreams.
I am particularly enraged by this story because Kiera Wilmot is black. Now I’m not going to assume that Wilmot would ultimately turn out to be a scientist someday -- at 16 years of age, few of us knew what we would eventually become as adults -- but given the profound underrepresentation of women of color in STEM (that’d be science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, this sort of kneejerk reaction feels especially loaded.
A 2006 study by the National Science Foundation states that black women in particular represent only 1% of employed scientists and engineers. Organizations like the Women of Color Research Network at the National Institutes of Health are trying to confront this problem by providing support and resources both to women currently working in these fields, as well as women majoring in them in college and graduate school, but 1% is a very steep hill to climb.
And there's also the fact that a white kid who did this might be scary enough, but brown folks causing even teeny explosions make us especially tense on a cultural level (which is NOT OK, but that's another post), and that is probably fueling the overreaction. Black people in general are statistically more likely to face stronger criminal charges and stricter punishments than their white counterparts, even when the crimes are the same, because racism exists. So it's hard to say definitively that race is not a factor in some respect here -- even an unconscious one.
In Wilmot’s case, the reaction from both the school system and law enforcement is obviously based on severe rules designed to punish people who would bring weapons or explosive devices onto school property for the express purpose of doing harm to the kids there -- and given the frequency with which we face school shootings in this country these days, those rules are not wholly shocking. And certainly, she should have faced punishment of some sort, as her error could have put her classmates in danger.
But to expel her and charge her with an adult felony is absurd, because not only does it have terrible ramifications for her individual life, but it will also have a chilling effect on the ability of lots of kids to experiment and explore, as the best education would allow them to do.
There has to be a middle ground between protecting kids from malevolent individuals who would do them harm, and recklessly condemning a teenager who made a substantial error in the process of experimenting. If we can’t bring ourselves to trust that a 16-year-old kid with good grades and no behavior problems is capable of trying things, making mistakes, and learning from them -- indeed, if we have trouble respecting her ability to LEARN WHILE AT SCHOOL -- then something has gone terribly wrong with our educational culture.
In the interest of making an example of Kiera Wilmot, Bartow officials are missing a chance to teach her -- and her classmates -- an important lesson: that sometimes we learn far more from our mistakes than from our successes. Instead Wilmot’s adult life is facing setbacks even before it has begun, and all because she engaged in the most classic form of educational inquiry.
Florida, seriously. You’re killing me.