Do No Harm

Photo by cottonbro on

Chewing gum has caused a lot of trouble in my lifetime. It has encased my shoe like a spiderweb, almost always when the footwear was fairly new. I’ve had to remove a knot of gum from my little girl’s long curly hair. I’ve found so much of gum under the desks in my classrooms that I have often wondered how many years it has been hanging there turning into stony fossils each with a story of its own. I’ve unwittingly sat on a stray piece of gum and ruined a perfectly good pair of slacks. I’ve probably spent as much time instructing students to spit gum into the trashcan as I have teaching the quadratic formula. I’ve gone bonkers listening to someone smack and pop their gum and I’ve been guilty of putting a my own well chewed hunk of gum on the bedpost overnight. What I’ve always tried to figure out is who invented this gooey stuff and why did they do it?

An infamous foe of the Texas revolution, Santa Anna, is often credited with being the first to bring gum to the United States. In fact, after his fall at the Battle of San Jacinto followed by other failures he was exiled from Mexico and ended up in New York City where he often chewed a gooey substance called chicle that came from a native tree in Mexico. His secretary, Thomas Adams, was fascinated by his boss’s habit and came up with the idea of mixing licorice with the rubbery substance to create Black Jack gum which became a sensation at the end of the nineteenth century. Oddly enough Adams first tried to make rubber out of chicle but when that failed he thought of Santa Anna’s habit of chomping continually on the naturally rubbery substance and realized that there might be money to be made mass producing a product that eventually came to be known as gum. 

I remember having a teacher who chided students who tried to sneak their gum chewing into the classroom by insisting that it was well past time for them to be over the kind of oral fixation that babies and toddlers often have. I always thought that his comments were a bit hypocritical given that he smoked while teaching back in the days when such things were still acceptable. I suspect that we humans indeed have a kind of primitive instinct to chew or gnaw or suck on things.

I thought one of my daughters would never give up sucking her thumb. I worried that she would be bullied in school if she did not find a way to quit her habit. The clock was ticking and I was using all kinds of alternatives and psychology to keep her from continuing the habit that I feared would make her the brunt of insults and bullying. Miraculously she simply quit one day just before she was scheduled to begin kindergarten. She never even looked back nor did she have an unusual attachment to putting things in her mouth. She just went cold turkey and that was the end of that. 

I’ve seen people chew on their fingers or suck on their hair. I was one of those kids who put teeth marks in my pencils. Whenever I felt anxious about my schoolwork I found myself unconsciously putting the end of my writing instrument inside my mouth while I contemplated strategies for solving the problems. I suppose that there is something instinctual about using our mouths as a kind of anxiety blocker, so gum was no doubt a more preferable way of satisfying that inclination than chewing on a stick or biting lips or smoking a cigarette or a pipe. Santa Anna and Thomas Adams somehow tapped into our need to soothe ourselves, but I can’t imagine why licorice was his flavor of choice. 

Of course now every grocery store check out lane is filled with a huge variety of gum of every conceivable flavor and type. Those products have unwittingly destroyed property and items of clothing in businesses, schools and homes across the land. Who has not experience the joy of becoming encased in a weblike goo simply by walking on the pavement on a hot summer day?Virtually every mom keeps peanut butter on hand not just for the favorite sandwiches of kids, but to use as a remediation when a chunk of gum ends up wrapped around every strand of long hair. We could probably glue together a stone wall with all of the chewed up gum that has been tossed without thought of the damage it might do. Never mind the general irritation that it sometimes creates.

Have you ever been in the presence of someone furiously chewing and snapping gum? The cringe worthiness of such an encounter can be as horrible as the sound of fingernails scratching across a blackboard. For those of you too young to know what that is, I can assure you that it causes an uncomfortable sensation that wracks the nerves. In such instances I have to look away or leave because otherwise I might suddenly switch to teacher mode and order the individual to spit out the gum or face the consequences.

I admit that gum has its soothing features and I enjoy a smack or two now and again. I’m not totally against its use but I sure wish that someone had thought about rules for disposing of it that everyone would agree to follow. We don’t spit food on the ground or attempt to hide bits of it on furniture, so how to did we come to think it was a good idea to dispose of gum by tossing it wherever we happen to be? Enjoy that chiclet wherever you are, just stop the damage to our world that gum has caused for over a hundred years. Remember there is some poor soul working with a putty knife and a garbage can every moment of every day attempting to clean up the mess. Have a heart. Think before you roll that gum into a little ball and toss it thoughtlessly where it will wait to attack someone’s shoe or clothing or hair. Think of it as being as dangerous as a match and walk it over to a proper container where it will do no harm. It’s the right thing to do.


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