“When you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're not.” – Jerry Reed
“Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!” – Jerry Lee Lewis
I remember sitting in a ninth grade science class and hearing about “spontaneous combustion” for the first time. The teacher was explaining that sometimes natural biological and chemical processes can lead certain materials to ignite all on their own without human intervention. The idea of some thing suddenly and unexpectedly bursting into flames boggled my teenaged brain. The idea made the world a different place for me, a more dangerous place; until that moment, I did not know that anything could catch fire all by itself. “It happens sometimes in hay barns,” the teacher said. “If a farmer bales his hay before it's dry enough, then the moisture in the hay can cause it to build up enough compressed heat to start a fire. Poof! Just like that, a mixture of heat, oxygen, and other gases resulting from fermentation inside the bale can cause hay to explode into flames.” I was still trying to decide whether I wanted to believe whether things could actually, just on their own, erupt into flames when a classmate raised his hand and declared, “It happens to people too.”
“What does?” the teacher asked.
“Sometimes people just burst into flames,” my classmate offered. “It's called 'Spontaneous Human Combustion.' I read about it. It happened to a character in one of Dickens' books.”
“There's not a lot of evidence for that really happening,” the teacher replied. “Let's just stick to what we know can happen.”
“If it never happens, then why is there a term for it?” The student was persistent. “If it never happens, then where did Dickens get the idea that it did? He didn't just make it up, did he?”
A weird nervous tension filled the room. It was one of those rare moments when even the students who never pay attention seemed to be paying attention. We could see the frustration on the teacher's face, but we couldn't really understand it. The science teacher seemed to be getting angry, but we couldn't tell why.
“Look,” the teacher said with about 50% more volume than necessary. “This is science class. Here we study what can actually happen in the world. In English class, you don't have to worry about what actually can or can't happen. Charles Dickens was under no obligation to write about the real world. Dickens told stories. Stories aren't real. In the real world, hay bales sometimes catch themselves on fire, but people don't. Now, let's move on.”
But, of course, my squirrelly freshman classmate was not going to let it go. Something he said had touched a nerve, and he wanted to find out what the teacher would do if he continued to push it. Back when I was a student, these experiments typically ended with someone getting kicked out of the room and sent to the principal's office. “How do YOU know what's real?” the student asked. “Charles Dickens was one of the most popular writers in history. How can you say you know more than he does about spontaneous human combustion?”
“Science isn't about what's popular,” the teacher said emphatically. “Science is about what people can prove. It doesn't matter how popular Dickens was. Dickens also wrote about ghosts. Lots and lots of people believe in ghosts, but that doesn't mean they exist. What we talk about in science class is based on evidence, not wild stories!” At that point, the science teacher commanded us to open our textbooks to the end of the chapter and to start answering the review questions on page 64. The kid who had been arguing for the existence of spontaneous human combustion continued to hold his hand in the air, but the teacher began ignoring it. After a few minutes, the teacher relented and said to the kid, “If this has anything to do with what's on page 64, go ahead, but if this has anything to do with people catching fire, I don't want to hear about it.”
“I was just wanting to know how many people would have to catch fire before you felt you had enough evidence to believe that people catch fire,” the student said smugly.
The teacher sent the student to the principal's office. “What'd I do?” the kid asked repeatedly as he walked out the door. “I told him I didn't want to talk about it, and he wouldn't let it go,” the teacher said to the rest of us after the kid had left, and the door shut behind him. Nobody said anything to the teacher; we went back to silently writing out the discussion questions on our notebook paper. I didn't say it out loud, naturally, but I remember thinking, “What the heck just happened here?”
Although I did not understand back then why the teacher became so upset, I think I have a pretty good understanding of it now. This particular teacher has spent years becoming a science teacher because there was something within his love for science that spoke directly to his identity. Something in the way science explained the world outside of him helped him define his inner reality as well. Just like the rest of us, this teacher carried a psychic model of the world in his head that explained to him why things happen. When the student challenged his psychic model of how the universe works by insisting on the possibility of spontaneous human combustion, the teacher responded as though this challenge to his way of thinking was equivalent to a personal attack on his character. When the student insisted on an explanation for something that did not fit into this teacher's personal scientific worldview, the teacher did not experience the student's questions as a legitimate exploration of reality but as a subversive and disrespectful expression of insolence. In other words, what could have been an amusing discussion on the remote possibility of people bursting into flames turned instead into a defensive, uneasy declaration of authority and dogmatism. Perhaps had it been a different day or had the comment come from a different student, the teacher would have responded by making a joke or by saying something to the effect that science has a low tolerance for unorthodox phenomena, but on this day, the teacher heard the reverberation of impertinence echo within him from his student's remarks, and he exiled the heretic to the dark retribution of the principal's office.
I suppose that everyone who has ever attended public school has at some point been there when an ordinary conversation takes a grim turn, and contention, rather than real flames, flared up seemingly without warning. And, of course, this type of human interaction is not by any means limited to schools. People can get angry anywhere. All of us at some time in our lives have been victims to the blind allegiance we give to the models of reality we build in our heads, and heaven help those who accidentally bump into our most heartfelt beliefs and threaten their stability. In our heads, we construct scaffolding hobbled together from odd scrapes of old parental warnings, religious indoctrination, civil obligations, and toothpaste advertising. On top of this scaffolding, we heap layers of desire for the people we want to be, along with the debris we create from the yearning not to be the people we once were. Do people sometimes, unexpectedly burst into flames? You know we do. We all have.
Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.