The substitute chemistry teacher swept into Room 105 at Ballou Senior High School, slipped on his white lab coat and greeted the 15 students. The topic was electrolytes, but the hour-long lecture veered into decidedly nonscientific territory -- personal responsibility, racism, black history, religion, politics and even drugs and sex.
Marion Barry, the D.C. Council member and former mayor, held court in the chemistry lab at the Southeast Washington school yesterday. Barry had been asked by D.C. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to appear at Ballou on the day that Janey was serving as principal, and he opted to go a step further and teach for a day.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry tapped much more than his knowledge of chemistry during his day at Ballou Senior High School.
(Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
With bachelor's and master's degrees and some doctoral credit in chemistry, Barry (D-Ward 8) clearly has the science chops to teach the class. But it was his life lessons and let-it-all-hang-out teaching style that left the biggest impressions, students said.
"I learned that you shouldn't take nothing for granted, you've got to work for everything," said Eric Goode, a 16-year-old junior. "It makes me want to go to college and be successful."
Barry declared education his number-one priority and said the visit would give him ideas to help Janey improve the school system.
"God gave me a gift -- being able to get up. And I'm still standing," Barry, 68, told the students.
He later said that he hadn't read a chemistry book in 25 years but that most aspects of the science hadn't changed. He added that he visited Ballou and other schools for one-day teaching assignments when he was mayor.
"I used to be on drugs. 'One puff won't hurt you,' " he said, referring to what drug dealers often tell new users to get them hooked. "Yes, it will."
Barry initially set his sights on becoming a scientist, inspired in the 1950s by the space race that followed the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik I satellite. He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis and a master's degree in chemistry from Fisk University in Nashville. He also has three years' worth of credit toward a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Tennessee.
But he was drawn away from science by the civil rights movement and politics.
The class lecture was much like his life: Barry would start off talking about science and end up in the political realm. For instance, a discussion of electricity morphed into a riff against the electric chair and other forms of capital punishment. "Spending all your life in jail is more punishment than dying," he said.
In the lesson on electrolytes -- substances capable of conducting an electric current -- Barry asked student volunteers to try to complete an electric circuit using a light bulb and a beaker filled with tap water, salt water, citric acid, Gatorade or other solutions. A strong light beam would signal a completed circuit and a strong electrolyte; a dim beam would indicate a weak electrolyte. No light would mean a non-electrolyte.
"A weak electrolyte is like weak people," Barry said. "Some people can pick up 200 pounds; others can pick up 50 pounds. I can pick up 10."
He often used the Socratic method, picking the students' brains on the differences between a solvent and a solute, the properties of ice and gas and what they liked and disliked about science. Many times, Barry's questions were met with blank stares.
"One thing you have to learn is if you don't know something, ask somebody," Barry said. "Don't ever leave this classroom without knowing what you're supposed to know."
Barry worked the room like a stand-up comic. Using the people skills that got him elected mayor four times, he cajoled and charmed and poked fun at life.
"You young ladies should not give the guys anything without a condom -- or umbrella, whatever you call it," Barry said as the students snickered. The girls have to say, " 'You ain't getting nothing here,' " he added. "It's an awful responsibility to have a baby, and these guys aren't going to help you."
Though he grimaced at some of Barry's remarks, Janey said he appreciated the lecture.
Most elected officials "will come in and make an appearance, but not teach a class," said Janey, who took notes and planned to give Barry some feedback. "I think this sets a good standard for engagement."