Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Sun Is Mighty

There are always problems, some of which require systemic solutions; some are one-off things about which the best we can do is say, "Wow, I wish that hadn't happened," or "That was close," or "What are the odds?"

Yesterday I wrote a rather breathless post about how children remind me of the magic that exists in our day-to-day lives. It was about our mirror of concavities that sits under our loft and how it has been catching the sun, reflecting light onto our wall every bit as brilliant as an overhead projector. It was a more powerful phenomenon than I knew.

There on the ground, lying face down in front of the boy: those are Paddington
Bear's boots.

Our Pre-3 class meets on Tuesday mornings. I then get 45 minutes to turn the classroom around for our Pre-K class. It was another glorious day and I had all the curtains open to get as much sunlight into the room as possible -- no one loves simply being in the sun more than a Seattle-ite. As I moved in and out of the classroom, I noticed a scent that I at first identified as toast, maybe burnt toast.

We've just introduced "small group activities" to our Pre-3 class and I tried to remember if one of the parent-teachers had made toast with the kids. It's a fun thing to do together and you get to talk about being careful and heat and kitchens and the passage of time. I was moving in and out of the room, each time trying to sniff out that smell. I was in a hurry, of course, prepping for the next class. I checked around all the electrical outlets, I checked the kitchen next door to the classroom. I then thought I smelled it most powerfully when I was near a window and figured it must be one of the local restaurants burning something.

I was setting up a bunch of Valentine's Day themed projects. I'm very organized about this holiday: all my decorations, books, special art supplies (like doilies), and heart shaped boxes, baskets, cookie cutters, spoons, and, of course, the Love Rats and their partners the Love Ducks are all stored in one box. This is a great holiday to celebrate with children: it's all about Love with a capital "L." There are few things more profound than hanging out with girls and boys talking about Love. And there's candy: I've made a sort of "counting game" that uses candy hearts as tokens and which I keep in a metal box that formerly held chocolates. I remember a lot of children over a lot of years when I get these things out.

But my flashbacks were disturbed yesterday by that smell. I couldn't tell, but it seemed like it was getting stronger, which would tend to knock out my "toast" and "restaurant" theories.

When my daughter Josephine was in kindergarten, one of her classmates was a boy named Jaan who we've known since he was two and I was a parent-teacher myself, doing small group activities in co-op with him: long enough to have formed our own relationship, one not mediated through his parents. We carried on a good-natured, slow-motion argument over the course of months, during which he would propose things that he insisted were more powerful that Love. "What about guns?" he would challenge, or, "What about a hurricane?" Then I would describe a scenario in which Love proves itself more powerful. "If someone had a gun, I would Love them and it would make them so happy that they would put their gun away," or "I would hide from the hurricane with the people I Love and when it was over, I would still be there and the hurricane wouldn't." That kind of thing. At one point he asked, "What about the sun?" I sent Jaan away that day feeling as if I'd "topped" him, but in hindsight I think he got me: if any terrestrial thing can stand with the power of Love it would be the Sun, and, as I was about to learn, not only because it is the source of all life on earth.

It was at this point in my reverie that I spotted the wisp of smoke. There was smoke under the loft! It was our Paddington Bear doll! Right behind his ear was a circular black mark that looked like someone had put a cigar out on him . . . And it was smoking! How could this be? That's when I realized what had happened. The rare winter sun had reflected off our mirror, the concave shape had perfectly directed and concentrated the rays and set Paddington Bear a-smoke. Holy cow!

I rushed Paddington Bear to the sink and ran him under cold water. Moments later our Pre-K class was having a wide-ranging discussion about the smell in our classroom, and how it had happened. What a way to learn about reflected light and the ability of a concave mirror to focus the energy collect across its entire aperture into a small spot, making it into a kind of laser. (It's the same phenomenon that allows one to start a fire with a magnifying glass.)

What are the odds? indeed. Needless to say, we will no longer position this particular mirror, which has had Sun reflecting off of it for years, where it can accidentally catch the Sun: a systemic solution to what truly must be a one-off problem.

Oh, the Sun is mighty.

(Note: A quick internet search turns up several examples of concave mirrors being used to start fires, almost all of which were intentional experiments, but accidental ones are apparently not unheard of.)

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Meagan said...

Will you do any intentional expiraments with the mirrors and sun making fire? I guess it might be a little dangerous for a preschool, but if anyone can make it happen, I suspect it's you.

Karen said...

Thought of your singed Paddington this morning when I asked our PreKers to put their stuffed animals in a bin to "sleep" during snack time... I put the basket up in the window, near our various mirrors and other materials from our study of light... then I thought of Poor Paddington, and moved it across the room!

Teacher Tom said...

@Meagan . . . I've been reading up a bit on using concave mirrors to ignite fires. It is apparently a fairly difficult thing to do, but naturally, we will be taking it outside on our next brilliantly sunny day (which might not be until July) and give it a go!

Incidentally, we've not found two more scorch marks under our loft, one on Paddington Bear's coat and another on a large pillow we keep under there. Apparently, we've been gambling all week!

stephanieleah said...

I love it! And more than likely the sun would have passed through before the laser beam could actually start a school-wide fire.

I think a larger universal force protects our preschools (knock wood?). There are so many "close calls" that I can't event count. So many opportunities for injury that never occur. One day long ago, a girl was swinging on a tire swing in our play yard, when suddenly the entire tree came down right on her. The tree happened to land on her just so so that a small wave in the part of the tree that landed on the girl rendered her unharmed. And wouldn't you know that her name was "Gal" which in Hebrew means "wave".

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