Mold: It's Not Stale

April 24, 1993

There I was in the cafeteria, asking for seconds on lunch. (At least that's what people called it. Personally, I thought of it more as glop. This meal in particular was unidentifiable glop with gluey potatoes.) "I'd like some more," I said. For a second time seemed to stop and everyone stared at me in disbelief -- no one at our school had ever gotten seconds on lunch, not even "Fat Face".

"What's that?" the school cook at the counter asked.

I cleared my throat. "I'd like seconds," I repeated. The cook's face lightened, and a smile spread across her face from cheek to cheek. "Here you are, dearie. Enjoy!" she said pleasantly.

"Thank you," I mumbled. I looked at the food and made a face. Barf. It seemed to be moving. I had no intention of eating it, of course. I hadn't even had more than a bite of my firsts. I balanced my tray and walked back to my table. I sat down and carefully put the food in a big bag. Then I sealed it tight to trap the smell inside the bag. I really needed to wash my hands. "Enjoying your food?" Melissa teased, and I grimaced.

It all started about two hours ago in science class. We've been studying about protists, monera, and fungus, none of which I found the least bit interesting. In fact, the only thing I had learned was that if you wanted to get someone to go away you could say, "I think I need to get an amoeba removed and disposed of." Anyway, Mrs. Einstein, everyone's "favorite" teacher had announced that we had a project worth half of our grade due in five weeks. She told us we could pick our topic, which I thought might be fun. Boy, was I wrong!

It turned out that it had to be about fungus. Yuck! Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against mushrooms, yeast, mold, and mildew. (Except that they're slimy, smelly, yucky, dirty... You get the picture.) Then my friend Melissa, who sits behind me in science passed me a note. I cautiously unfolded it. Then when Mrs. Einstein was writing something on the board, about experiments (I think) I read it.

It said, "Help! I have no idea." Quietly, I got out a sheet of paper. Then I wrote my message.

"Why don't you grow mold?" Of course I was only joking. Who would want to grow mold? I waited until Mrs. Einstein had turned her back, and I turned around and dropped it on Melissa's desk. Mrs. Einstein must have eyes in the back of her head, because she saw me pass the note. In two seconds flat, she had stalked over next to me and Melissa. The rest of the class turned around, grateful for the distraction. She picked up the note and read it aloud. I braced myself for the scolding that I had heard so often.

Instead, she turned to me and said, "Julia, what a superb idea! I definitely think this has real potential. What an inspiration! Class, this is an example of the kind of thinking you should be executing in my class. Use this as an example, and you will be sure to get an 'A'. Julia, I'm sure your project will turn out simply wonderful if you continue to put this much effort into it!"

Well, I may be able to put that 'A' to good use, but I was not growing mold, and that was final. "You've got it all wrong, Mrs. Einstein. I'm not growing mold; I have plenty of other ideas. This was to help Melissa get started. She's having trouble picking a topic, and I know how important it is to help friends." Mrs. Einstein, sensing something was up, replied, "That's very generous of you," in an almost facetious tone of voice. "Well, Melissa?"

Melissa smiled sweetly at the class. She opened her eyes wide and cooed, "Oh what a great idea, Julia, but this is your idea. I couldn't take it from you."

She sure was laying it on thick. It was sickening, but everyone else seemed to be buying it.

Then in a firm way, as if the whole matter were settled, Mrs. Einstein said, "Good luck on your project. I'll be looking forward to it." Melissa smiled at me. I was numb with shock. Me and my big mouth!

When I got home from school after two more uneventful classes, I dumped my bags on the table and got a snack. The cookies my mom had baked the night before smelled delicious, but the memory of my lunch made me think again. I wasn't so hungry anymore. I poked at the bag of food. What would I do with it? I opened it, and a horrible odor came out. "Yuck," I said. I left it on the table and took my books into my room to start my homework.

I was reading my social studies textbook when I heard my mom ask, "What on earth is this?" When I got to the kitchen she was about to throw my bag away. The food inside was an ugly brown. Surprisingly, it had been left untouched by the ants. (I guess even they had enough sense to keep away from our school lunches.)

"It's my science project, Mom," I said, wrinkling up my nose."

"What are you doing, growing mold?" she asked with a laugh. I nodded my head. "Oh," she said. "So, what exactly are you supposed to do with this, with this...," she stuttered.

"Glop," I supplied. "Goo, junk, mess, UFO (unidentifiable food object)."

"Yes, that does describe it," my mom said smiling. "You want to do this project?" she inquired.

"No," I said, "about as much as I want another hole in my head." I explained to her what had happened in school. One thing was for sure, this was one project that I was not eager to start. In fact, I was dreading it.

I thought about my project. There was no way to get out of it. When Mrs. Einstein made up her mind, there was no changing it. "Mom," I called, "how do you grow mold?"

"With all of this mold growing in the mess in your room and your brother's, you're asking how to grow mold?"

I realized I had a strange dilemma. I had spent most of my life trying to stop mold from growing. After all, it made me sneeze. Now, I had to grow mold.

This should be easy. All I've got to do is sit around and watch it grow. I didn't even need cafeteria food, and I wouldn't have to touch it for five weeks. Now, I could kick back. I didn't have to do anything for science for a whole month! And with that thought in mind, I went to get a cookie.

The next morning in science class Mrs. Einstein told us about picking a topic. We have until tomorrow to come up with a good topic. I already had mine. She told us that we would need an outline by next Tuesday (a week from today). telling our hypothesis and rough procedure. She went on to tell us that we'd need to research and keep track of our procedure and take daily notes about our results to write a three to five page report. We would need to have a step by step plan for our experiment and, in summary, explain the conclusion we have reached and why.

We would also need to have a visual aid with a graph or a chart and bring in anything that we used. We would have to give an oral demonstration to the class and then the entire grade would have a science fair. (Each class had a different topic.)

This sure seemed like a lot of work. So much for not doing anything all month.

At lunch, everyone was talking about their projects -- what they were doing and how. Then Melissa asked, "How do you grow mold?"

"Oh, it's really easy. All you do is you get a dish of water and set it in a dark place on the day of a full moon at five minutes before midnight," I ad libbed. Then the next day you put crackers and sugar in it."

"But then won't you get ants?" someone asked.

"Why does it have to be five to midnight?"

"And on the night of a full moon?"

Everyone seemed to have a question about growing mold. "Well, I guess you'll get some ants. I don't really know why it has to be late at night, and it has to do with the, um, gravity," I answered. "There are other ways to grow mold, but that's the fastest."

I wondered, "How do you really grow mold?" I guess I'll have to go to the library after school. Otherwise, I'd be sure to fail science.

That day after school I went straight to the library and checked out four books:

Help, There's Mold in My Socks!
The Science Guide to Fungus
There's a Fungus Among Us
101 Easy Experiments

Then I walked home with my books.

When I got home, I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I took into my room with two cookies, a glass of milk, and my books. I spread out the four books and leafed through one. I accidentally got a blob of jelly on it. I ran to my parents' bathroom and got some wet paper towels. In my hurry to get the paper towels, the remains of my sandwich fell onto the floor.

Then the doorbell rang, and I went to let my brother in and give him a snack. Later, I returned to my room, wiped up the jelly, and went back to reading the science books.

Aha! Something I can use! And it looked easy!

"Get two to six slices of bread (you may want to use different types) and place them in various places that are dark and damp, i.e., basement, closet, under the refrigerator. Make sure you keep track of what you put where and when. Wait three to five weeks and it should be growing mold."

Then I found another part about cheese. It was all about blue-mold spores on Roquefort and Bleu Cheese and white-mold spores on Brie and Camembert. I was about to embark on my science project!

Over the next few weeks I took detailed notes of my observations like:

"The whole wheat under the boxes in the basement is turning a dark green and looks sort of fuzzy. I checked the expiration date and that is the first to expire. The others didn't have mold yet. Is there a relationship?"

I had decided to use bread for my project because the idea that cheese was moldy milk made me sick. That's one of the many things I learned about mold, and I wrote it in my notes for the research portion of my report. One day after school, I got a folder to put all of my papers in. I kept my papers neat and made sure to date them all. I was pretty impressed with the amount of pages I had. Between my three pages of research notes and three weeks worth of observations, it was pretty long.

I decided to draw pictures of some things I had learned and left space on the posterboard to glue on the slices of bread. At the top I put, "Which bread gets mold quicker?" and "How does mold grow?" Then I wrote my hypothesis and the experiment. I had labeled pictures of different kinds of mold, a picture of cheese with a paragraph on Brie, the history of mold as medicine, and the discovery of the fungi kingdom. Then I would write what I learned and my conclusions. It was coming along really well, and I still had two more weeks.

Then I had another idea. I put three more slices of bread out and wrote down the date and locations where I hid them. I could glue those slices, too, and date them. I could also add more bread next week.

One somewhat humorous experience is that last week my dad lost the TV remote control and was searching under the couch cushions and guess what he found? I wrote that in my notes, too.

Another week passed by and I wrote up my research report, hypothesis, and method of conducting the experiment, and organized the rest of my notes. I also made a table of the highlights of each week. (Although it wasn't really interesting, it wasn't stale, either..)

Even though I didn't love mold, I'd learned to tolerate it, and I was going to have the best science report.

A few days later, I wrote down the key words of my report on notecards for my oral presentation and practiced my speech in front of the mirror. I took my report to my mom's office two days before it was due and typed it. Then I decorated a very colorful cover for it. It was seven pages long!

The morning it was due I woke up early to retrieve the bread. I had squares on my posterboard that identified the type of bread, the date I put it in its location, where it was, and how many days it took before it started to grow mold. I put my bread in the squares. Then I wrote across the top in big letters, "Mold: It's Not Stale!"

I quickly showered and dressed and went down to breakfast. I put my visual aid on the table and sat down to eat. The phone rang, and my brother and I both raced for it. He banged his chair against the table and my visual aid fell! The phone kept ringing. My visual aid, all my work, fell! Two slices of bread came unglued and crumbled. I ran into my room and slammed the door.

It's not fair! I was destined to fail science! I had the best project and now it was ruined. I was extremely upset and was crying when my mother came in. There were piles of tissues strewn across the room.

"Pick up your tissues and go or else you'll be late," she said. I didn't move.

"Okay?" she coaxed.

"Okay," I muttered. I sighed and began to pick up the tissues. One was in my closet, one under my desk, and one under my bed (along with my pillow which I had flung angrily across the room.) I wished I could stuff my brother in my closet along with the tissue, only I wouldn't let him out.

I grabbed the tissue from under my bed. My hand grasped something slimy. I pulled it out. It was a moldy peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- two slices of moldy bread. I began to laugh and laugh. I had mold after all! I had never been so happy to have mold; I knew I would get an "A" after all!