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Popcorn kernel stress begins in kindergarten


On the windowsill of my kindergarten classroom, Mrs. Schmidlin prepared space for our paper cups. The cups contained a wadded up, wet paper towel with popcorn kernels wedged between the towel and interior cup wall. It was our spring science project. She assured us we could make them grow into plants.

We lined up our cups on the sill after she used a black marker to boldly label them with our names. Every day, we made sure our paper towel wads were moist, because seeds needed water and sunshine. Every day we checked to see if our seeds were growing like the chart illustrations on the wall in the science center.

I panicked the day it rained and the sun didn’t shine. I was sure the lack of sunshine would harm my popcorn seed, rendering it unable to bloom. It made sense to my innocent mind, especially since our seeds had not yet opened to reveal green stems and leaves.

But then one day it happened. We walked into class one warm spring morning to find all the cups looked like the poster. Well, all but one. Bobby’s cup was without a plant. I felt terrible for Bobby. At first, I assumed his cup was shaded or he didn’t keep his towel moist. But then we discovered he ate, rather than planted, his popcorn kernels.

Green stems reached from 23 of the 24 cups toward the rays of sun outside the window. As the sun rose high and warmed up the plants, I panicked again. What if our plants produced lots of popcorn kernels? Wouldn’t they get hot enough in the window to actually pop?

I could not concentrate on singing the alphabet song that day. Seriously, what if they had to close school because our classroom was filled from floor to ceiling with popcorn? What if we were in the classroom when the popping began? Would we have to eat our way out?

Even as a child, my imagination ran wild and I was more than a little high-strung. The combination is why I now have to regularly take acid reflux medication.

Despite my concerns as a kindergartener, I grew up to believe it was prudent to facilitate the same popcorn seedling project when I became a teacher. Not once was my classroom ever threatened by excessive amounts of popped corn. Although, as an adult, the prospect of such a dilemma seemed entertaining rather than scary.

Popcorn kernels still perplex my mind and rattle my nerves. While relaxing on the couch watching a movie, I like to enjoy a bowl of freshly popped popcorn. My treat includes a drizzle of canola oil, sprinkle of sea salt and splattering of hot sauce. What I do not enjoy is the collection of greasy unpopped kernels of corn hiding at the bottom of the bowl.

As I try to enjoy the last few bites of popcorn deliciousness, I always become frustrated upon discovering a handful of what could have been part of my yummy snack. Instead, the kernels roll around the bottom of the bowl, taunting me with their hard shells and lack of white fluffiness.

When I try to dispose of them, there are always a few that escape into the cracks and crevices of my home. I can almost hear them laugh at me when I jump out of my skin, startled by the racket they make upon being sucked up into my vacuum.

My son and I actually challenge each other to pop the most kernels without burning the popcorn. This is a dicey competition. You have to be diligent about measuring the kernels, listening to the pops and watching the time. Despite our competitiveness, we’ve learned that it’s much better to have a few unpopped kernels than to endure burnt popcorn smell in the house for a week.

What is it that causes one kernel to pop while one next to it is unaffected by the heat? Is it structure? Attitude? Unfortunate placement within the microwave-popping bowl?

And then there are the halvsies. The ones that partially pop, but retain half of their hard, bony kernel. These are the worst of all kernels. They masquerade as a healthy snack, then break a tooth or get lodged in your throat.

Do the halvsies get hot, but then cool down mid-pop? Were they born with only half the DNA required to achieve a full pop? Are they deficient as a result of chemical engineering employed to boost mass production in an effort to meet an ever-growing demand for popcorn?

My life would be much less stressful without popcorn kernels. But I was introduced to them at an early age and have endured a love-hate relationship with them ever since.

Maybe someday a wonderfully brilliant scientist — perhaps one of my former kindergarten students — will discover a way to alleviate the unpopped kernel situation. In the meantime, I suppose I’ll continue to take my acid reflux pills. I’m certainly not giving up my fluffy, white, whole grain movie snack.

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Micki Bare is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau and the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, N.C., and author of “Thurston T. Turtle Moves to Hubbleville.” She lives in Asheboro with her husband, three children and mother. Her e-mail address is mickibareinspiredscribe.com