Chemist, Interrupted

Some people choose their majors for really good reasons. I was not one of those people.

Public humiliation being one of my chief fears, I dreaded Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. as one dreads the gathering of clapping, chanting waitpersons marching towards one’s table on one’s birthday.

From my dorm, I walked the longest route to delay as much as possible reaching the campus Science/Engineering Auditorium, the venue for CHEM3603—Organic Chemistry.

Armed with nothing but my $150 Organic Chemistry: Structure and Function textbook, I wandered into the building like a lost out-of-towner who suddenly found himself on the wrong side of town—the Smart Side.

Entering the room on this first day of class I employ my personal philosophy of auditorium seat choosing and locate an entirely empty row toward the back on the right side of the middle aisle and sit in the very middle of that row. For as long as I can remember this ritual has been my practice, and its origin is unknown to me.

While waiting for the professor to enter stage left, I observe generally two types of students who make up this collective: those who have no fear, and those who are physically nauseated merely by the syllabus.

The fearless ones are upbeat and relaxed, reclined in their auditorium seats as if awaiting a showing of Dune, having already corrected the typos in the syllabus. They understand all that is about to happen because this is their culture, their world, their domain. This class is a mere speed bump on their road to genius.

Then there are the rest of us. The closest we’ve come to an alkaloid is in a hair care product. We don’t know an ion from a Kia. We’re desperately hoping that the professor has fallen ill, or in his aged, confused state-of-mind has forgotten that he works for this university and is at home feeding his bird. For us, this class is not a speed bump; it’s a roadblock, a sign from God that we need to re-evaluate our prospective futures.

And that’s exactly what I did.

I’m not sure how most students choose their respective fields of university study, but mine was decided one afternoon in the hallway of my high school when one of my fellow Seniors asked where I would be attending college.

“Still trying to narrow it down,” I said as if at that very moment I was agonizing over various scholarship offers.

“I’m going to the University to study pharmacy,” he said with great conviction, pointing his finger at the University’s name emblazoned on his t-shirt, as if I were a hearing-impaired foreign exchange student. “Why don’t you do that?”

I should point out that I don’t usually make life-altering decisions on such short notice, that I have no particular affinity for the sciences, and that this person was not anyone I necessarily sought to pattern my life after. So I can’t really explain what came out of my mouth next.

“Pharmacy at the University. Sounds good.”

And that was that. It was done. My college, my major, my future had all been decided in a 30-second encounter with someone who wasn’t really even a close friend, an acquaintance at best, who pointed at his t-shirt. This decision-making ability is why at my house I am forbidden to watch the Home Shopping Network.

So here I was two years later in CHEM3603, having cleared prerequisite hurdles of all the “Intro To” courses, which alone should have been enough to scare me off this hastily chosen path. I was forging ahead under the impression that change was not an option and that if a few people died because of my poor understanding of pharmacology then that was just a price that had to be paid.

The professor, having remembered where he worked and having finished feeding his bird, arrived and introduced himself. I had hoped that this inaugural lecture might be one of those throwaway days where you get sort of a preview of the course and are sent home early. Not so.

“Good afternoon. I’m Dr. Smarter-Than-You’ll-Ever-Be and this is CHEM3603. Open your texts to page 7 and let’s get started.”

That was the last thing I understood for the next three lectures. The rest might as well have been spoken in Bengali. I listened intensely, straining to recognize something I understood as the English language. It was like being in one of those trendy suburban Italian restaurants that pipe Italian speaking lessons in the restroom sound system, except with the professor there was never any translation.

I hoped things might go better at the second lecture, and although I did understand what was said at the beginning, it didn’t bring much relief.

“We’ll start today with a pop quiz,” said Dr. This-Should-Weed-Out-You-Slackers.

You could see it in the non-relaxed students’ faces. A pop quiz! On the second lecture! About what could we actually be quizzed? The only chance I had of doing well on this quiz was if it was the essay question, “what was your favorite thing about starting on page 7?”

Someone handed me the quiz. I immediately employed my personal philosophy of taking a quiz on a subject about which I know nothing and stared at the sheet of paper with great concentration in hopes that somehow the answers might appear to me hidden within the questions themselves, like some secret code. But alas, mine is not a Beautiful Mind. Homely is more like it.

If failure is one of God’s ways of making one contemplate one’s life in the big picture, then I was contemplating on a large scale. There’s nothing like getting a zero on a quiz that makes one ponder the mysteries of life. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why can’t I remember the name of the guy who got me into this mess by so cleverly pointing at his t-shirt, so I can ring his neck?

“Although some of you did very well on the pop quiz, many of you performed poorly,” said Dr. Compassionate. “And I’m afraid it’s not going to get any easier. Some of you might need to consider whether you will be able to catch up…”

I haven’t had many of them, but this was clearly a defining moment. If there was anything of which I was sure, it was that I would never, in a million lectures, catch up. It was a truth that was at once humbling and liberating. It was then and there that I accepted that I would never wear the white lab coat, peer over my reading glasses from my pharmacist’s perch and explain that you must take this prescription at mealtime. And that was O.K.

The smile on my face for the remainder of the lecture was confusing to Dr. Balaam’s Donkey. Why, he must have wondered, is student 7965732 grinning? Doesn’t he understand that he will never, in a million lectures, catch up?

In fact, it was for that very reason that I was grinning. I was grinning because a door had been closed, dead-bolted and possibly barricaded, which meant that soon another would swing wide open. And one did. The door that led me to where I am today.

I was grinning because God had spoken to me through my Organic Chemistry professor.

Copyright 2004 John Thomas. All rights reserved.