Solvency abuse

14th February 2014 at 00:00

The world's chemistry teachers have had a tough time of it recently. While physics and biology colleagues in the labs down the corridor have been cheerfully riding the wave of interest in "God particles", black holes, cloning and genetic engineering, the chemists must surely have felt the elements were combining against them.

One of the subject's biggest selling points for students used to be those dazzling eruptions, explosions and occasional bonfires in the lab. But those edgy, unpredictable experiments of old are now banned. The YouTube video often usurps the test-tube demo and even the mildest of chemical reactions generally involves the teacher speaking from behind a riot shield.

Then came a rather different kind of blow to chemistry teaching, in the form of the immensely popular and globally transmitted drama Breaking Bad. For those who missed it, the story is about an American high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. His students play up mercilessly in class and his self-esteem takes a further dip when he finds himself washing their cars in his part-time job at a local garage. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, and with his family's financial future in mind, White turns to a more lucrative life of crystal-meth manufacture and criminality.

Just consider the impact that this internet-streamed drama has had on the minds of thousands of young chemistry students across the globe. The humorists in any class are bound to have invented and shared between them a secret, criminal-underworld life for their own teacher. Occasionally, the ongoing fantasy may have been brought into the open. Although, as many of us will recall from our own childhoods, more feverish hilarity occurs when the teacher is kept in ignorance of their outrageous alter ego.

In fairness, the impact of Breaking Bad has not been entirely harmful. White's career move from teacher to highly acclaimed illegal drug manufacturer does at least deliver a powerful rebuke to George Bernard Shaw's rather unkind claim, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." White's story illustrates that even the most unworldly-seeming teacher can cut it (and burn it) within the most ruthless of private sector industries.

There is bound to be demand for follow-ups to the series, featuring other teachers turning to the darker side. "Baking Bad" could be next: a food technology teacher, in a fury over her frozen wage and battered pension entitlement, becomes a contract poisoner. Or maybe it will be "Breaking Add", a perhaps slightly less telegenic drama about a friendless, mild-mannered maths teacher who turns to the shady world of accountancy. He makes his fortune by somehow finding a way of changing all additions into subtractions in companies' profit-and-loss accounts without anyone noticing, thus magically reducing the amount of tax payable by some of the world's biggest multinationals to zero. But perhaps that idea is just a bit too ridiculous.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire, England.

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