Jennifer Kolari: 13 To Life


Pro Mastication: The Case for Allowing Gum in Schools

In school, gum has always received a bad 'wrap'

Chewing gum helps people concentrate, and by people, I mean kids. Japanese researchers have recently completed a study confirming that gum chewing increases reaction times in human beings by up to ten per cent and that as many as eight different areas of the brain are affected by an “affectation” that has been described as gross, rude, disgusting, cow-like and generally unacceptable in school.

Blow me a bubble. 

Since the dawn of time, or at least since one fateful day in the 20th century, gum-chewing has remained verboten in lower and middle school. I remember my mother telling me how she was forced to stand under the wall clock of her classroom for three hours with the pink piece of gum she had been innocently chewing stuck to her nose. For a bashful little girl, the shame of punishment certainly dissuaded my poor mom from performing that atrocious act in school ever again. But, what did she learn? That some teachers are extremely mean?

In Grade Ten, I had a boisterous French teacher who, upon noticing a student chewing gum, would pick up the metal trash can, begin banging a beat on its bottom as if in the throes of some sacred ritual—BOOM, boom boom boom; BOOM, boom boom boom—and make his way down the aisle to the desk of the kid in question. I remember feeling the scarlet heat my cheeks whenever he drummed in my direction. There was humour in this admonishment, but also a hearty dose of shame.

I am not surprised that chewing gum improves thinking and alertness by temporarily increasing blood flow to the brain. I have viscerally known this for years having always employed mastication in order to focus, concentrate and create. In movies, I use popcorn. At the keyboard, I use carrots, mandarin orange sections and sliced radishes. On a bad day, I might dip into peanut M&Ms or chocolate covered raisins. I admit it—I’m a chewer. I chew. And when these other foodstuffs run out, I resort to gum. Gobs of it. 

When my son was in Grade Six, he was repeatedly chastised by his Math teacher for sitting at his desk with his chin cupped in his hand. This particular instructor saw his behaviour as indicative of sloth and a lack of focus. My son was self-aware enough to explain to me that this posture actually helped him pay attention to the difficult arithmetic he was trying to learn. When his teacher yelled at him to stop, his concentration broke, plus he was humiliated. Gee, if only he had been allowed to chew gum, instead, imagine the equations he would have solved without a tutor.

Maybe teachers, parents and other authoritarians need to revisit their feelings and rules around activities that promote concentration. Kids are now allowed to use calculators in certain test situations, even though this action precludes them from performing the most basic, yet time-consuming, mathematical tasks. Children who find cursive and even printing difficult are allowed to bring laptops into the classroom even though this practice excludes economically challenged folk from getting a leg up. If a piece of sugarless peppermint gum helps a child to settle down and pay attention, why not allow her to use it just like any other tool—except during Gym.

In school, gum has always received a bad “wrap." I don’t know how the negative opinion began, but like many others, it has been perpetuated by the righteously indignant.  Perhaps, teachers should consider another interpretation. In this century of heavily diagnosed attention disorders, it seems pigheaded and irresponsible to prohibit children from engaging in any conduct that may assist them in paying attention. If gum chewing helps, why then, provided it remains within the confines of the mouth, is not popped or blown and does not find temporary lodging on the underside of a desk, is this activity banned? I say, let them chew gum.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, gum-chewing is no longer illegal in high school.  Given the other substances teenagers put in their bodies, it should be a welcome relief. So, the next time your teenager is about to leave to write an exam or cumulative test, certainly cook him a big breakfast with lots of eggs, oatmeal, kale and blueberries; then send him off with a pack of gum—sugar-free, of course.