Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Chemical Warfare: My Battle Against Leaving Cert Chemistry

After I finished my Junior Cert I celebrated for a few reasons. But mainly, because I never had to sit in another Chemistry class. Don’t get me wrong – I liked science, but the idea of dedicating hours to dripping one liquid into another and watching colours change did not appeal to me. Also there were numbers involved. I wasn’t a fan of maths in any of its many guises.
I knew what subjects I was doing for the Leaving Cert – or at least the ones I hoped to take. None of them were Chemistry. I wasn’t doing transition year. I was in a rush to get out and experience life. I might not have been in such a rush had I known that real life entails filling in paperwork, trying not to grow horizontally, and spending large chunks of my week in vegetable aisles wishing I could chop open the avocados to make sure they’re in decent condition before committing to buying them.

But I didn’t get to study what I wanted for the Leaving Cert. It turned out, that in the fourth stream of choice subjects, there was literally no class I wanted to do or, correction, was allowed to do.

The choices were:

a) History – with a man who also taught religion and therefore, I assumed was a pervert. This was confirmed, in religion class, when he executed a disturbing hips don’t lie dance routine to Pon De Replay by Rihanna, to a room of terrorised sixteen year olds.
b) Home Economics – A class in which I would have got an A1 with my eyes closed, but my Mum had banned me on the grounds that she couldn’t face two more years of fighting with that woman at parent teacher meetings. I was everything a Home Ec. teacher hates i.e. I did not respect the power of bleach and had a devil may care attitude towards sweeping the floor.
c) Geography – With a teacher who I made cry in 3rd year. I’d asked quite innocently what a dildo was. Several of the lads were trying to sell me one and pissing themselves laughing in the back of class. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I began to understand why she was so upset with me. I stumbled upon giant dildos in a tourist shop in New Orleans that also sold Mardi Gras beads, wigs and voodoo dolls. Before that I'd thought dildos were a type of sweet as the lads claimed they came in different flavours.
d) Chemistry
Faced with the wrath of my mother/the reign of a pervert/the emotionally unstable – I was forced to take Chemistry. One might say that I started Chemistry with a bad attitude and one would be right. If I was going to have to become acquainted with the finer points of the periodic table of elements, then my teacher was going to become acquainted with how I felt about that. The injustice of having to sit in Chemistry class, 3 times a week, was intensified by my sixteen year old hormones.

The injustice continued when taking Chemistry did not just mean Chemistry. It meant I now had two science subjects and therefore, according to the Irish Education System, a vocation. Yep, I was being called forth by the world of science, and as they do, to students suffering the affliction of complimentary subjects they shoved me into LCVP. Leaving Cert Vocational Program. A terrifying class with students I hadn’t even know were in my year. Prior to this I had been streamed into classes where people pared their pencils, instead of gnawing them. This class was full of kids best known for drug dealing, sticking their heads through windows and sneering. One girl wore doc martens and skeleton earrings out of season.
LCVP was worse than Chemistry. We spent an entire year learning how to write a business plan for t-shirts. What this had to do with a vocation for science – I don’t know. What I do know – is that they spent a disproportionate amount of time advising us to dress like nuns for job interviews. One memorable moment was a long lecture on the merits of pantyhose delivered by a woman with a run in her tights. She also had a knock-off snake skin briefcase, and a faux fur coat – the height of professionalism in Co. Clare. Our teacher walked us through the many skills needed to obtain a job in our given vocations. Which is to say, she taught us the equivalent of the Irish Oral in our mother tongue. A worthy lesson, just in case we forgot how to form Basic English Sentences such as “My name is Alvy, I have been forced to suffer through Chemistry and LCVP for two years now,” when wearing formal attire.

But this isn’t about LCVP, this is about Chemistry. Which I waged warfare on for two long years. My first form of attack was a lack of adherence to safety procedures. I was amused by the heightened alarm other students seemed to display when pouring chemicals from one vessel to another. In a fit of teen angst, I plunged my hand into a beaker of Hydrochloric Acid. My teacher was less than impressed, but couldn’t really argue when I triumphantly let everyone know the molarity was too low for it to do any harm to anyone. As was the case with all the chemicals we so cautiously handled. I continued with my tirade against what was basically water with trace elements and refused to wear safety goggles. I’d balance precariously on chairs while pouring things into wonkily arranged science apparatus. All this might have been fine, if I didn’t do it with a glint of merriment, my teacher wasn’t stupid. He knew.
My main issue with Chemistry was the calibre of people it attracted. The people hell bent on high points, that wanted to understand it – but really didn’t. They were those kids that did grinds for 50% of their subjects, because their teachers/brains had failed them. In Chemistry, they asked questions that had already been covered. Our teacher would spend hours re-explaining basic information with patience. I did not share his patience. I took great joy in learning off a ridiculous number of organic compounds and referring to them in an offhand manner just to cause mass panic. Sticking to the syllabus might have been a more strategic approach to my Leaving Cert, but I was bitter.
There was more trouble caused by my habit of drawing little aliens that marched through my text book and said blasphemous things. These things were often semi-relevant and I felt gravely misunderstood when they got me condemned to the back of the class.
Not that Chemistry was all bad. Our teacher did try to make things a little lively. We once got to make a bomb, but it was anticlimactic. It smoked pathetically and made a weird fizzing noise. I’d wanted to at least burn a hole in the tarmac of the school’s basketball court – it didn’t even tarnish a pebble. There were high-fives and Ooohs, but Chemistry was dead to me. I looked at the smouldering NescafĂ© cylinder and felt misled.
After that, things got worse. Chemistry had ruined something as exciting as bomb building. I heightened my bad behaviour. I filled out the exam papers in advance, yawned loudly when people asked stupid questions, finished my Irish homework, read novels that I placed inside my Chemistry book, and texted my friend who’d ended up in History with the pervert.
I was a menace to Chemistry. We had one double class that was at the end of school. The Science teacher knew that I had a bus that wouldn’t wait for me if I was late. He would often assign me chores as a punishment. Chores – was called charges – and was supposed to be random, except that disruptive children always got landed with doing them as a punishment. I spent most evenings of my Leaving Cert year sweeping the floor, of one class or another, and being chastised for my apathy.
My mother would come back from parent teacher meetings and ask me to try to be nicer in Chemistry. She never said any of this with much conviction knowing that most of the issues directly correlated to:

a) Her bringing me up to be stubbornly independent

b) Genetics – her Leaving Cert went similarly.
Charges – put me in danger. The bus I caught home, wasn’t really a bus. It was more of a glorified van. Sometimes it contained seats and other times there would be pallets in the back and upturned boxes. We would reluctantly perch on them as we clutched each other and our school bags for balance. The bus was full of an assortment of country children, most of whom didn’t speak. The star of the bus was a deranged eight year old (a leftover from the National School bus run), who mooed at the smokers. This kid would moo insistently at skeleton earring lady. By the time I would race out from school, Skeleton Earrings would have retaliated by rallying her troops to fling pebbles at my head. I would throw myself into the bus trying to avoid the pebbles coming from the smokers.
The smoker situation escalated in LCVP class. I sat in the wrong seat. Skeleton earrings approached, stood over me and pointed to the top of the class and said "smart people sit up there." I felt like she was doing her intellect a disservice and asked "you do realise what you’re implying right?" But seeing the look on her face, I decided not to further question a person that determined to harness the spirit of Doc Martens. I slid from the desk and retreated to the top of the class. That week, I wrote a business report about t-shirts that was so thorough it got read aloud. I participated in chemistry and didn’t once get charges.
It didn’t last, I got bored of being good. The smile on my Chemistry teacher’s face when I decided to engage in a pop quiz on titrations wasn’t enough for me. And soon I was back on charges. I started taking short cuts. I’d sweep the floor and push the dirt under cupboards. In hindsight, this saved about 10 seconds but, when my teacher discovered the mounting pile of dust, caused a monumental shift in the level of hatred he felt towards me.
Which, in turn, caused an escalation in my attitude problem. Our Chemistry teacher left the class unmonitored one day. I convinced another student to jump out the window. I was small and light and slipped out easily. He was not small or light, so when we stood outside the window and I realised there was less to do outside the school, than in, I jumped back in. Then, thinking it would be funny to see my classmate panic, I shut the window. He didn’t have the speed or agility to stop me. Seeing his momentary panic, I rallied my other classmates – and we barricaded the two doors into the chemistry class. This ended with the door being forced open and the brush I’d stuck through the handle being snapped in two. I stuffed it in a store cupboard. The teacher, did not know what had happened. We were all sitting neatly in place on his return, but the missing brush was noted, and I was blamed. Months later, the teacher would pull the snapped brush from the closet and shake his head at me sadly. The worst thing about my Chemistry teacher was when he was disappointed in me, which was most days.
Then, came the day I had to draw a picture for another class. My Chemistry teacher was not a fan of my art. He didn’t like that I came into Chemistry with charcoal smeared across my face, or that reports from the art classroom would suggest I was nothing short of an angel. In art, I simply went in, picked up a pencil and drew. Something that did not come naturally to me in Chemistry. It was easy to be passionate in art – there was always room for improvement. Balancing equations with passion was impossible. The equations never got any harder than the first few we were shown – I quickly became bored and lost the will to move electrons anywhere.
There I was drawing Gandhi, for some religious project. I don’t know the context, it’s hard to remember that far back. But it was clearly a sketch of Gandhi in a sheet. Except, when my teacher slid it out from under my grasp and held it up, it became clear I’d suffered a major oversight. My teacher was a small bald man, not dissimilar to Gandhi. It looked like I’d decided to draw him in a towel.
I don’t know if it was the drawing, or the fact that he thought I was fantasizing about him in a towel, but I was removed from Chemistry. I was sent to sit in the back of Geography- where I was greeted with “It’s you,” by the teacher (who was still suffering the aftermath of my dildo enquiry). After a double class, listening to Geography – I decided that the periodic table at least had some element of mystery to it. Geography did not, if I thought Chemistry was painfully obvious, then Geography was another level of mind number-y. I tried not to listen to their map coordinates as I reread passages of my Chemistry book in desperation.
The rest of my classmates, must have found Chemistry incredibly boring without me. The boredom culminated in a protest. They sat outside the door, wielding little picket signs and refused to return until I could too. They were basically heroes – and didn’t seem to care that I had already sabotaged a year and a half which could have been spent learning. There was a treaty drawn up by the Chemistry teacher, some tears on my end (the fear of geography was immense) and I was readmitted to Chemistry.
For several weeks I was the ideal student. Then one day, my pasta salad spilled on my Chemistry book. The oil from the dressing turned a good chunk of the book’s pages transparent. Given our history – my teacher thought this was a further sign of my lack of respect for chemicals! He did not appreciate that the pages that were transparent just happened to be the one section of Chemistry I really didn’t like – pressure.
After that, he didn’t help me with anything, and rather than grovel for some kind of photocopy of those pages – I just left that section out. It was one of those questions I assumed you could avoid if you wanted. I scanned old leaving cert papers and convinced myself I would get an A without that section.
Except on the day of my Leaving Cert, pressure had been incorporated into many of my favourite sections. I thought about my transparent textbook, and all that preceded it. I knew I deserved it.

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