Finding Chemistry

In 11th grade my chemistry teacher let me come to school on teacher work days to take the tests. That’s the kind of help I needed to make sense of anything. Mr. H didn’t talk to me as if he thought I was dumb. One day he gave me bracelet that had been sitting in lost-and-found for months. By the time he quit to take a job that paid real money, I’d dragged my grade up to a B-.

For the last grading period the new teacher arrived. Mr. H was tall, slim, and in his 30s. The new teacher was short, pudgy, and balding. I didn’t expect the new teacher to give me the same breaks as Mr. H. Still, I suppose I expected something.

“I don’t understand this exercise,” I said. I’d read the chapter a couple of times. Nothing made sense.

“Do you have a specific question?” he asked. He crossed his arms over his chest.

I looked at the page. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Do you have a specific question?” he asked.

“I can’t, well, I mean, I don’t know what to ask.” My face burned.

“When you have a specific question, come ask me.” He went back to his desk.

I didn’t ask him anything again, and when we took the test, I read the questions, waited for the hour to end, and threw my test away as I left class.

My grade was so low at the end of that grading period, I ended up failing for the entire semester.

Chemistry grades don’t much matter more than 20 years later. But when I look at the pages of writing, I feel the same way. And I do not have a specific question.

13 thoughts on “Finding Chemistry

  1. I have one.


    …No, I guess I don’t. I have a lot of questions but none of them are specific.

    I know just how you feel, I think. I really do. The words stare at me. I don’t have a specific question; I just … don’t know what to do.

    (For me, it was Calculus.)

  2. The irony is, there’s no teacher standing over your paper, waiting to fail you – there is only you. You don’t have to be like the 2nd teacher was to you, you can be like the 1st one, and allow yourself the freedom to learn and grow and do your best and keep going. 🙂 Really, you don’t need a question, and the answer is your writing. 🙂

  3. Sarah

    “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”

    Ranier Maria Rilke

    I don’t think creating is like chemistry- a set of formulas to memorize and solve, questions to posit and answers to mark right or wrong. It’s the way we move through life. A freestyle dance, not an exam. I wore a t-shirt in my punk days that said “Shut up and dance.” That’s what I tell myself when the questions pile up and I can’t stop obsessively trying to answer them. Shut up and dance.

  4. Sarah puts me in mind of a snippet of Bill Moyers’ “The Power of Myth,” where Joseph Campbell [insert reverential pause here] tells about a group of western Thinkers visiting a Shinto priest in a Japanese garden. Near the end of the visit, a sociologist tells the priest, “. . . I don’t get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.”

    The priest looks at him for a time, thinking. Then he smiles.

    “We do not have ideology,” he said. “We do not have theology. We dance.”

    “Shut up and dance.” The best advice I’ve heard in about . . . forever.

    My Inner Tee Shirt now says, “Shut up and write.”

  5. I do like that Rilke quote. (Question for anyone still following the thread: is that from his “letter to a young poet” thing?)

    Sometimes the questions, even the ones we can’t remember off the tops of our heads, pile up like all those Biblical passages which relate nothing but lineage. One question begets another two, each of which begets a couple-three more, and so on. They’re the dullest passages in the whole book — it almost doesn’t matter that the genealogy might be important in the abstract. Almost.

    When I started reading writing in the water a couple years ago, a post with this title would have been about something else entirely. Proof, if you needed any, that eventually you’ll move on to what really matters to you.

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