Remember the freshman practical, a strictly timed test that decided your fate?
Alphabetically seated in the operative lab in 1975, I studied beside Ms. Oleander Jacobs. She was later paired with me for clinical exercises that she couldn’t perform without seriously hurting me. She lacked the didactic skills for good—or even acceptable—dentistry. But on one particular day when the test involved waxing a crown in the lab; I felt safe.
Nervous students watched the clock slowly tick toward 9 a.m. Tension filled the air as the instructor announced, “Now.” Matches were struck and a room of Bunsen burners whooshed to life—at least, most of them did.
“Mine’s not working. Whaddo I do?”
“You should’ve checked it earlier, Mr. Brown. That’s the sign of a good clinician. See if you can share your neighbor’s.”
“I can’t find my wax instrument,” another student desperately announced. “Does anyone have an extra?” No one came to his rescue; he had to make do with a discoid-cleoid.
“I need a match. Can I borrow a match or a lighter?”
“A lighter? No one smokes, you nimrod. Use this,” he said, while tilting his burner to pass the flame.
Habitually dirty, Oleander was more grimy-gross than usual. Her pungent body odor mingled with the scent of cheap candles and the heat of several dozen miniature campfires. The mix began to weigh ponderously in the air, which didn’t help my nerves.
But wait! Something else is afire—some familiar stench. Several nearby students raised their heads to sniff the air like Basset hounds. Then it came to me: burning hair! Instinctively looking left, I stammered, “Oleander, you … you … your hair is on fire!”
She swatted the top of her head, as one might do with an annoying fly they have no hope of hitting. Irritated at the interruption, she briefly glared at me before bending back over the lab bench. She pressed her chin firmly against her chest and studied the die with her Coke-bottle glasses. Her flailing had not only failed to extinguish the blaze, but had further fanned the flames, which shot ever higher from atop her oily mop.
Floyd, seated to the left of Oleander, sprang into action. He jumped up, jostling his steel lab stool, and made a mad dash to the sink. Grabbing a stack of paper towels, he ran them under the faucet and smacked the top of Oleander’s headwith the wet wad. This merely encouraged the fire, which reached further heavenward. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I saw a hint of blue at the tip. Was the conflagration going critical?
Maybe that guy who couldn’t find his burner could use Oleander’s head.
Throughout it all, Ms. Jacobs continued to diligently carve her wax, which she had transformed from a block to a marble. Her detached countenance contrasted sharply with the flaming emergency, which Floyd and I had to deal with. Water wasn’t the answer, and the lard lurking in the depths might spread the fire. Baking soda wasn’t readily available, but the fire extinguisher seemed inappropriate. Then again, that might be fun...
Water seemed to be the only option. I jumped up and completely knocked over my stool, which crashed to the floor with a loud, metallic clank that caught the attention of an ever-widening circle ofstudents. Several turned to gaze wide-eyed on the pyrotechnic glory that was “Oleander the Human Torch.”
I filled a green mixing bowl with water and dumped it on her head. Miraculously, the flames were snuffed out before the grease fire could spread. Floyd whacked her head with wet paper towels one last time, just to make sure. All was well, but Oleander was drenched.
I thought she would have been grateful, thanking me and Floyd for our heroic efforts. Conversely, she could have gone ballistic. But, she simply kept on working, never again lifting her chin off her chest.
When my metal stool had reverberated against the floor, the clueless instructor glanced up briefly, but quickly went back to his cheap paperback. Students around our little bonfire seemed to enjoy the comic relief, while those seated further from the epicenter diligently carved their crowns without pausing to see where the awful stench was coming from.
With the misplaced flames duly extinguished, Oleander and the entire class were safe. However, those seated near the fiasco found it hard to concentrate and quietly chuckled through half-smiles. From time to time, the proctor put his book down and strolled around to inspect our progress. But he never suspected the close call in Section J. Everyone passed that test, including Ms. Jacobs and her two-man fire brigade.
The following day, Oleander arrived at school, as slithery-slimy as ever, her hair still unwashed. I discreetly searched for a burnt spot on her scalp but couldn’t find one. She turned, caught me staring and actually smiled. I weakly smiled back, hoping I wasn’t sending her the wrong signals. Somehow, the scorched field had blended in with her disheveled mop.
Oleander somehow made it through all four years. I found it hard to imagine her responding appropriately to a patient’s angst, and hoped she went into research. But I never knew. Afraid that she had misinterpreted my stare, I never stayed in touch.
Jim Rhea, DMD