Office Chemistry

By Cathi Choi 

Last Friday afternoon was like any other day after school in the science department. Some students were in the science tech center.  A few teachers had gone home; a few had stayed behind.

Then, teacher Dietrich Schuhl received a mysterious FedEx package. He ripped open one corner of the box and a few feathers fell out. He walked over to science teacher Larry Axelrod and showed the inside of the box to him. When he fully opened the box, a vintage hat with orange and black feathers, a vintage cheetah hat, a scarf made out of three minks, a crocodile skin purse and a snake skin purse fell out. It was a package of dead animals. Apparently, the parent of the former student had found these in her attic, and thought they could be used for some educational purpose. 

All the teachers in the office gathered around Schuhl’s desk. Wendy Van Norden and Karen Hutchison tried on the hats Stephanie Quan donned the crocodile purse; they were repulsed and amused. 

“So, if anyone wants to borrow a snake skin purse anytime soon,” Schuhl joked. 

While Schuhl doesn’t get a package of dead animals every week, the department usually has this playful kind of atmosphere. If you hang around long enough, you’ll see teachers having conversations across the office. They’ll exchange lab information, talk about awkward situations with students and share YouTube videos of super saturated acids.

Not since graduate school has science teacher Tara Kheradyar been in an atmosphere like this. 

“Lots of people, studying the same thing and always talking to one another,” Kheradyar said. “Everyone is collegial, friendly and funny.” Quan also described the environment as “informal.” 

“There are lots of students coming in and things to break up the day,” Quan said. ”There are moments like that,” Quan said. “Definitely good times.” 

The atmosphere is the thing that science teacher Chris Dartt says he misses most. Dartt had to move out of the office this year to the AP Chemistry classroom because of the lack of space. 

“Students were always coming in to use the computers, and there’s always an exchange of information about labs, an exchange of ideas,” Dartt said. “It’s a big, open room.” 

“There’s always something going on—students get tutored, teachers exchange information,” Kheradyar said.

The Science Department is unique in that it’s the only place where teachers’ offices are directly connected to a Technology Center. The screen separating the two rooms is a glass panel, allowing students to peer into the lives of their teachers and vice versa. 

“I feel like I’m at the zoo,” Yanni Vourgourakis said, “but I don’t really know which side I’m on.” 

Kheradyar said that the Center is a good thing. “All the time, students walk in asking for things they need, like ‘Do you have a hole puncher?’”  

The student movement in and out of the office is fluid, as are the exchanges between the teachers. In the past few years, a few teachers have also exchanged photographic presents. Schuhl, in particular, has been generous with his school photos.

“What else should I do with them?  Hang them up at my house?” Schuhl said. 

He has not only doled them out to his colleagues (Hutchison and Blaise Eitner have him on their desks), but also to school receptionist Susan Damon.  In fact, every one of the science teachers, excepting two or three, make a perky photographic appearance on Damon’s desk. She has each of their school pictures taped up onto the counter. She walked into her reception area one morning earlier this year, and Schuhl’s mug was perched on her docking station.  

“I don’t know how I was bestowed with the honor of Schuhl’s picture,” Damon said. This is Damon’s first year at the school, and she said this department was really easy to get along with. 

“I know this department better,” she said. “They’re all super friendly people and easy to approach.” 

The science teachers all have different explanations for why their department has this casual, good-humored atmosphere. 

Department chair Larry Axelrod attributes some of this to the field of science itself. 

“Science as a process attracts certain philosophies,” Axelrod said. “People genuinely interested in science lend themselves to be open to new ideas, opportunities and people.” 

Over the years, a community has been created with an environment that is professional but casual, Walt Werner said. 

“Once you establish an ambience in the office, you don’t have to wear a tie to gain the respect of your colleagues,” Werner said.

The department breaks from the stereotypes that are generally pinned to scientists, Werner said. There’s an assumption that they’re colder and more rational, and that chemists and physicists are lab oriented, math oriented and isolated, Werner said. He, however, doesn’t think that really applies here. 

“People here are very humanist. Karen is a physics major, but she’s just as immature as the rest of us,” Werner joked, just as Hutchison walked by.  

And to this Hutchison responded, “I hate you.” 

Hutchison is one of the younger teachers in the department along with Quan. The two sometimes sword fight with the Robotics Team equipment, and she and Schuhl once pulled a prank on David Hinden. 

Towards the beginning of the year, Hinden would sometimes leave his cell phone on his desk, where it would ring and ring. On the television show “The Office,” one of the main characters steals a colleague’s cell phone. He throws the cell phone up above the ceiling tiles, and the cell phone’s ringing drives the colleague crazy as he desperately searches for it.

So, Schuhl stole Hinden’s cell phone, climbed on top of a desk and put it up above the ceiling. But Hinden’s cell phone ran out of battery, Hinden said. Schuhl forgot about it. And for a few days, Hinden thought he had lost his cell phone. 

“Things like that don’t happen every day,” Hutchison said. “But I’d say about two-thirds of the time something wacky is going on.” 

“A lot of scientists have a sense of playfulness. Being interested in pure science is like being interested in art, poetry,” Hinden said.

Hinden said that although they can’t compare themselves to the likes of Isaac Newton, he has characteristics that reflect the department’s character. Hinden referenced one of Newton’s quotes.

Newton said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”