September 2004

Swallowing a gram of truth

By David Feela

While the students darkened the bubbles on the survey forms with their No. 2 lead pencils, I sat in my chair at the front of the classroom and surveyed the class. They had been assigned the task of completing a drug questionnaire, an annual statistical portrait of our youth that provides funding for our school district’s Student Assistance Program.

They groaned when I handed out the booklet, but they went right to work, relieved to know that I had no interest in dispensing a grade for their answers. My instructions required that I make available a large manila envelope so students could place their completed surveys inside it; the last student finished was to seal the results. Ten minutes into the survey, one student’s hand shot into the air. “Yes?” I responded. “What’s Derbisol?” the student inquired. I had no idea, though it sounded an awful lot like a young mother’s solution to relieve an infant’s teething pain.

I asked for the page number the student was working on and picked up a copy of the survey. The item in question read, “Have you ever used Derbisol?” Then it asked, “How often?” Clearly, here was a drug I knew nothing about.

“Sorry,” I said, “I can’t help you on this one but if you ever find out, I’d like to know.” The student smiled and continued filling in the bubbles.

I finished the day with this new drug stuck in my thoughts. Apparently, enough young people came in contact with such a substance —perhaps even on a daily basis—to include it on a major survey. While I knew everything I needed to know about Byron, Keats and Shelley, Keroauc, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, I had no idea where Derbisol crept into the cultural picture. In all likelihood I had unwittingly crossed that dangerous line called middle age and begun my inevitable trot toward the shady lane that leads out to the pasture. Derbisol? It sounded like it had the makings of a big-time pharmaceutical, a prescription drug gone under the counter.

The next day I stopped by to pick the brain of our resident “Health” expert, a man who, if he hadn’t heard something about it, at least knew how to find out. Unfortunately, he had no more idea than I did, but having taken the opportunity to ask one of his students who appeared to know his science, he guessed that Derbisol served as an ingredient in VCR and computer cleaning solutions. “Ah,” I said, “then it works like an inhalant?” He carefully sucked in his breath: “Perhaps,” the health guy said, “perhaps.”

The next day while working in the library with my class, I headed for the spot where the medical reference books are shelved. I pulled a few volumes down, flipped to the index, and scanned for the word Derbisol. Once again, the drug eluded me. I went over to the dictionary, the one that might give me a hernia if I were to lift it off its pedestal. Still no Derbisol.

I was beginning to suspect Derbisol of being a hallucinogen, one that vanished without any trace when the authorities started looking for it. The librarian noticed my puzzled expression and asked if she could help. I told her my problem, wondered if Derbisol could be a nickname, like “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” She promised to check the Internet. Later she handed me a copy of an article. “So, how do they take the stuff?” I queried. “They take it with a grain of salt,” was all she’d say.

It seems that in designing drug surveys, writers often include an item or two to check the reliability of their respondents’ answers. The writers invent drugs like Derbisol. The drug is a fake. But in some tested groups, results indicated that as many as 5.6 percent of the respondents reported using these non-existent drugs. Clearly, here’s an awkward high, especially when compared to the slim 3.6 percent who reported using heroin. That makes Derbisol a far more popular drug because, well, mainly it’s cheaper. And I guess honesty is a substance that we abuse. From the peasant on up to the President, little lies define who we are. We tend to alter reality just enough to get by. The collectors of drug-survey data disagree with each other over the practice of throwing out results that reveal lies, claiming that maybe heavy drug users don’t remember the names of the drugs they have taken. Yeah, and maybe the other fictional drug, Menotropins, helps women forget about menopause.

I know parents all across this country worry about influences their children will encounter when they enter the public schools, especially the high schools. Here’s abiding proof for me that one overwhelming influence is still as prevalent today as it was back when I went to school: the desire to appear no different than anyone else. It’s not that drug abuse is not a problem to take seriously, but when I see a student raise his or her hand in the future and ask, “What is Derbisol?” I’m just going to say, “It’s worse than heroin” and that’s the truth.

Dave Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.