Alfie reads aloud from his report. “Did you know that using bio…logical agents to infect people is not new? Over two and half thousand years ago the Ass…Ass…Assyrians used a fungus called…rye…ergot…to poison their enemies’ water supply and eeurgh…” He is cut off mid-sentence by a devastating pre-emptive strike.
Earlier, our study of microorganisms had faltered. The children had lost interest in good bacteria. The wonders of yeast, which had once risen so promisingly, sagged. The miracle of probiotic yoghurts disappeared down the long and winding digestive tract of educational overload. Resistance to antibiotics was becoming all too evident. The only remedy was large doses of excruciating pain, hideous disfigurement and death.
“Killer bugs” is the sort of headline guaranteed to raise temperatures and set pulses racing. In no time at all, a selection of weirdly exotic names (staphylococcus, streptococcus, E. coli) had caused an outbreak of morbid curiosity. This in turn led to a spike in interest about the terrible diseases that infections can cause. What child is immune to the charms of graphic descriptions of smallpox, necrotising fasciitis and the Black Death?
Cartoon illustrations of evil bugs grinning maliciously from the pages of primary textbooks gave way to full-colour photographs of the real thing, splashed across an interactive whiteboard. Giant tadpole-like strains of tetanus; worm-shaped clostridium botulinum; long, writhing strands of bacillus anthracis. And, once exposed to these magnified images, the children grew feverish for more.
But size isn’t everything. Or is it? In the time it takes for one bacterium to become two, the children forgot that these alien life forms were actually microscopically small. Enlarging them only enhanced their repulsive lure and affirmed their existence. A positive side effect of this was that I could reveal the awful truth in the most dramatic way possible: “Did you know there are millions of similar bacteria living right now on your hands?”
Disbelief turned to denial. Children examined their palms in detail. The antibacterial gel was suddenly in demand. How was it possible for vast colonies of germs to live on such small (albeit slightly scruffy) areas of skin? I ignored their questions and pressed home the learning advantages. “It’s not just your hands either. They also live up your nose, Anjelica. There are billions in your digestive system, Jamie. They are in the very air that you breathe, Dyson. You won’t believe how many are in William’s saliva from sucking the end of his ruler.”
When the gagging, choking and expressions of disgust died down, I set the children their task. Armed with only a few tablet computers, some textbooks and an assortment of photocopied information sheets, they had 45 minutes to seek out, isolate and investigate killer bugs. When their mission was accomplished, a select group of researchers were invited to reveal their findings.
Alfie’s investigation into the deadly secrets of biological warfare was a popular choice, but sinister forces sought to silence him. Why else would William fire a gob of spit from the end of a plastic ruler?
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield