Unsuspecting fingers fall victim to the blobs of chewing gum stuck under students’ desks  

Nicole Wu

Staff Writer

     On a Wednesday school morning, you plop down in the seat of your third period class, barely holding your eyes open. Still drowsy from pulling an all-nighter, you absentmindedly reach your hand under the desk. Your fingers meet a weird texture – stiff yet slightly sticky, and your nails sink halfway into the putty-like lump. That familiar feeling jolts you wide awake, and your eyes pop open in horror at what you touched. It’s even worse than wet food in the sink – it’s several wads of chewed gum that was sitting in someone’s mouth a couple minutes ago. Many of us have survived the nasty encounters with chewed gum stuck underneath desks, and it’s a frustrating situation for everyone at American.

     From Hubba Bubba to Wrigley’s, mint to strawberry, and cube-shaped to sticks, chewing gum is a popular habit among high school students. World History and US History teacher, Mr. Elam, shares his thoughts on why students chew gum in class. “I think gum chewing is a long-standing tradition for high school students, and I think it’s something that we do out of habit. I don’t think that there’s any big meaning to it other than it’s an addiction that some students develop, and it’s the only really healthyish one that you can do at that age,” he explains. 

     Tanvi Thomare (10) has a similar viewpoint and believes chewing gum helps trigger brain activity and makes you think better. “I think it stimulates the brain. It is something quite addictive that helps you get around the more boring parts of school because you have something to do other than fidget around. It helps stimulate the brain in a similar way that doing something else would but sitting down.” 

     Other students like Marie Anne Boccovi (10) occasionally chew gum in class as a mechanism to stay focused and improve concentration. Fom personal experience, she mentions chewing gum would not be such a big issue if students are noise-free and mess-free. “Back at Thornton, I would chew gum in class. Sometimes teachers would tell me to spit out my gum, and I would spit it out in the trash can. I don’t see it as that big of a deal, but I understand why teachers don’t want students to chew gum in class. I feel like if you are going to chew gum, be discreet about it and be respectful.”

     While properly disposing gum into the trash can is a simple request, some students have a difficult time respecting the classroom setting. This puzzles several teachers such as AP English and English 10 teacher, Ms. Wilkinson, who doesn’t even have policies or restrictions for chewing gum in class.

     “My issue is even as a teacher who doesn’t look for gum and who is not someone known for being exceedingly strict on gum, it still ends up under my desks. If a student in class were to stand up to throw away a piece of gum, I’m not going to reprimand them and say ‘hey, why are you getting out of your seat,’” she says. “I wish we could allow it completely, but unfortunately, for some reason, some students won’t stand up to throw away the gum, even in a classroom environment where there shouldn’t be any fear of punishment because that’s not what I’ve established. I’m not sure if we could trust students to throw away the gum when they are finished.”

     Not only do teachers find students’ lack of consideration for school property frustrating, but it is incredibly disgusting to accidentally touch the chewed gum on the underside of desks and chairs. Mr. Elam has had his fair share of encounters with stale gum when class activities call for the repositioning of desks.

     “I do an activity every semester that requires us to flip all the desks upside down. It is just a field of gross gum that’s accumulated from presumably years and years of lazy students. It’s super disgusting, but it is also not unique to this school. It is something that happens literally everywhere,” he elaborates.

     Chewing gum is disrespectful to the next person who sits at the desk, to the class, and to the school. Students should treat the school as they would treat their home and personal belongings. Ms. Wilkinson notes, “It’d be like me going over to your house, sitting down at your kitchen table, chewing gum, and putting it under the table. It’s not something you would likely do at your house. I don’t understand why some students feel like it’s OK to do it in essentially what is our house.”

     The stomach-churning, gross factor of touching gum someone else left behind becomes a source of constant worry and anxiety. This results in the attention shift from focusing on the

teacher teaching to flustering over the bacteria-filled wad of chewed gum. Boccovi can attest to that saying, “Every time I accidentally touch gum under the desk, I think to myself, ‘Oh my God, that is so disgusting.’ Once you know that it’s there, that thought becomes a distraction. I’m constantly thinking, ‘Oh my God, I touched something that has been in someone else’s mouth. I need to clean my hands,’ and that becomes a distraction from the lesson in general. It’s an annoying thing that’s always in the back of your mind now.”

     Thomare describes one of her classes where the desks and chairs have been littered with chewed gum and gum wrappers which makes it difficult to find a sitting position that does not end in a sticky mess. “In math class, underneath the desk I sit at and anywhere you touch, you’d probably feel chewed gum. The sidebar to which the seat was connected to had gum wrappers surrounding the whole bar. It made me uncomfortable to sit there. I would have to make sure I don’t put my hands under the desk if I’m trying to move it, so I’m not touching other people’s chewed gum,” she recounts.

     Aside from being a hindrance to learning, sticking chewed gum under desks and unknowingly touching chewed gum is unsanitary. Especially with the huge spike in Covid-19 cases and the arrival of the Omicron variant, it is especially important for students to throw their gum away in the trash and not leave it behind on school property. Mr. Elam expands on the connection between Covid-19 and gum. 

     “That’s one of the easiest ways that Covid-19 is transmitted, as far as I am aware, via a liquid from your mouth that would get into your gum. If a student needs to move their desk, their hands might touch the gum, and then they eat something which gets it into their mouth. Not every student, believe it or not, is as good at sanitizing their hands or washing it as they ought to be,” he explains. 

     According to the CDC, Covid-19 can spread “by touching the eyes, nose, or mouth with hands that have the SARS-CoV-2 virus particles on them.” Properly disposing gum into the trash can is one way to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and protect yourself and others around you. Ms. Wilkinson explains her thoughts on minimizing the transmission of Covid-19 in the classroom.

     “We have all these policies in place in terms of, as you’re walking in the classroom sanitize your hands, wear your masks all the time, and the modified flex schedule, and all of these strategies we are doing to try to slow the spread to keep us all safe, and keep our friends and families safe. If you are taking a piece of gum that has been in your mouth, sticking it under the desk at the end of the period, then the next person comes in and accidentally touches it, you could unknowingly pass along Covid-19 to someone else,” she continues. “The ten steps that it takes you to throw away the gum is better than the possibility of you spreading a disease to one of your classmates.” 

     On a similar note, Boccovi emphasizes the significance of being safe rather than sorry. “You don’t reach your hands into other people’s mouths, so why would you want to touch something that has been in someone’s mouth anyways. We’re living in a time with Covid-19, and you don’t want to contract anything. From what I understand about Covid-19, it can be transmitted through the spit particles, so if there is still spit or Covid-19 on the gum, then it gets on your hands. Some people are touching their friends and touching their faces. That’s how you can potentially get it yourself or give it to someone else.”

     Aside from the unhygienic side effects and Covid-19 risks, sticking gum underneath desks causes an inconvenience for custodians who are already short-staffed. With daily custodial tasks to take care of, having to scrape gum off student’s desks is a time-consuming and tedious process. Custodian, Raul Candeo, details the process of removing gum from desks.

     “The first thing you do is you have to have a gum scraper. A lot of gloves will be needed because the gum is sticky and rips the gloves. Also, we have our disinfectants with us and the chemicals we use. We scrape off each piece of gum, and afterward, we sanitize the desk,” he adds.

     Right now, it is even more important than ever to maintain a clean school environment and make sure facilities are disinfected. Custodial staff are already working hard to make that possible, and the need to deal with gum stuck under desks only adds an unnecessary load to their job and gives them more work to do. Canedo comments, “You’re teenagers, and you guys should be able to throw your gum into the trash. There could be something else on the site happening, and gum underneath the table shouldn’t be pulling us away from the other tasks at hand.”

     The difficult removal of gum risks damage to school property, particularly since the desks are wooden and old. Canedo remarks, “After the gum hardens to the desk, it starts to deteriorate the desk as we’re scraping the desk, sometimes the scrapers put scratches on the desk. Sometimes I’ve seen the whole bottom of the desk be filled with gum, and you can’t do anything about it because it messes the desk up.”

     Most classrooms at American have one, if not two, trash cans. While class is in session, it only takes a couple of steps to walk from your seat to the trash can. With around one hundred and one classrooms and various other facilities such as the library and bathrooms, there are one hundred and twenty plus trash cans placed throughout campus. Canedo reminds students that trash cans are placed outside of classrooms as well, located mainly in the area in front of the gym. “You have about thirty different trash cans located around the school. Throw your gum away in one of those.”  Let’s not leave a sticky mess, Eagles.

Mr. Elam shares an anecdote from his high school experience detailing the ramification of improper disposal of gum. He reminds students to do differently to prevent American from meeting the same fate. “Gum under the desks is phase one. But at my high school, and I graduated in twenty-fifteen, we reached phase two. Our entire concrete floor of the entire school was black with old gum and dirt stuck together, and finding spots of concrete was rarer than finding spots of gum. So, if you want your school to stay beautiful? Start developing good habits. Get your lazy butt up, and go put it in the trash can; don’t put it under your desk, and not on the ground. That solves literally all our problems. Or eat something other than gum such as mints.”

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