Friday, December 20, 2019

For the Love of !@#$%^ Chemistry

Recently I finished reading a brilliant memoir by Oliver Sacks.
This book had languished for years on a shelf full of books that I intend to read.
I had passed it over many times, because chemistry is my nemesis; and this book,
Uncle Tungsten:  Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, is loaded with chemistry. 

A persistent antagonist, chemistry has haunted my nightmares for a half century.
The moment I see a blackboard with chemical equations enter a dream,
I know I have crossed a boundary into nightmare.

Flickr ~ Lee Nachtigal ~ License

My personal history with chemistry is checkered,
star-crossed from my first exposure to it in Grade 9.

I approached the subject with great optimism
because of a lifelong interest in science.
My teacher Mr. McLean was cool. 
Not only did he teach science,
he was the staff advisor for our drama club.

My most vivid memory of our ninth grade science class is humiliating.
I had been looking out the window at the woods by St. Mary's River,
and I made the mistake of asking Mr. McLean
if he thought trees could communicate.
After my teacher and the class stopped laughing, 
he flat-out told me no and that I'd be better served 
if I looked at the blackboard instead of out the window.

My Father (my principal), Mr. Cruickshank, and Mr. McLean (right)
Staff Lunchroom and Home Economics Classroom
St. Mary's Rural High School
Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia, Canada
A candid photo of mine in our yearbook

Yearbook, as above, 1965-66

In Grade 10 Mr. Sharma arrived from India
to teach us science and math.

That's when I hit a wall
with chemistry.
I could not grasp canceling units
when using math
to solve chemical equations;
heck, I couldn't understand
using letters in beginning algebra.

Sometimes the simplest things
become big obstacles.

But I did get that Mr. Sharma's intellect and curiosity were wide-ranging
and that he was determined to broaden our thinking.

"As much as you believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in reincarnation,"
I remember him challenging our class, wagging his finger
at a class clown who had made fun of his religion.
Off we went on a passionate philosophical debate.
We so loved bird-walking Mr. Sharma  

He one of the reasons I became a teacher.

Yearbook, Islands Consolidated, 1966-67

My senior year, Grade 11,
found me in a new village, a new school,
and with a new science teacher, Mr. Malik.

He, too, was from India,
one of many talented teachers
who immigrated to Nova Scotia
to help solve its shortage
of science and math teachers.


He found my classmates and me frustrating
because we weren't as diligent as his Indian students at our studies,
and he felt hindered as a teacher
because our school lacked a laboratory and basic scientific supplies.
He did not give into discouragement, though.  
He forged on, determined to spark a passion for chemistry in us.

I could appreciate the audacity of chemistry which sought
to explain the nature of matter, the physical foundation of the universe.

I could see the
beauty and economy
in its symbols and equations.

But regardless of how many
late nights I spent scribbling
on a blackboard at school
while my parents worked,
I struggled to manipulate its
formulas and shortcuts 
to arrive at the correct
solutions for problems. 

Onto Acadia University, Chemistry 100, and Dr. Zinck.
Chemistry 100 was the gateway course you had to pass
as a prerequisite for many upper science classes. 
Consequently, it was about the largest undergraduate course on campus.

Over one hundred of us slogged through this course 
driven onward by this strict, determined, and innovative professor
who brooked no nonsense and kept us in assigned seats
until he learned the name of every student and the face that went with the name.

I plodded on, largely lost in class, a disaster in the lab.
I scraped through pop quizzes and scheduled tests.

Then one glorious day, Dr. Zinck passed a graded test back to me ~
He insisted on handing every student his or her test.
He looked at me keenly and said, "What happened to you?"

I looked down.  I had not scored my usual D or F.
I scored 96%, a solid A!

From that day on, I was a marked student.
He moved me up front, fifth from the left (facing him)
where he could keep a careful eye on me.  
I was mortified, sure that Dr. Zinck thought I had cheated.

Horrified, humiliated, and intimidated, 
I couldn't confront him and tell him I did so well
because the quiz contained no math, only concepts.
He failed me at the end of the year-long course.

During the summer of 1968 I had a student job at Acadia's library.
By day I organized and catalogued the university's photo collection,
and by night I slaved over chemistry and its perplexing calculations
preparing to take a supplementary exam
in late August before the new university year began.

My lease on my summer apartment ended several days before the exam,
so I stayed with a friend Mary and her family,
pulling two all-nighters studying chemistry.

The morning before my Monday exam I accompanied
her large Roman Catholic family to Sunday Mass
and decided to participate in Communion, even though I was Baptist.

Strung out from lack of sleep and overwrought by my approaching exam,
I fainted as the priest held out the Communion Cup for me to sip Christ's Blood.
I pitched right into him, and he caught me on the way down.

I have no memory of Mary's parents getting me 
out of the church and back to their home,
but I do remember her mother giving me hot soup,
tucking me into bed, and confiscating my chemistry text.
I slept until the next morning and then wrote my exam.

My Baptist father joked about this incident: "That's what you get
for taking Communion in a Roman Catholic church."

Later that week I attended a Pep Rally in front of University Hall.
Who should be there but Dr. Zinck, and he spotted me right away.

He worked his way over to me and said, "You passed your supplementary exam,
barely, but I failed you anyway.  I thought it would do you good to repeat the course."

Well, I was so pissed off, that I marched into the Registrar's Office
and signed up to take Chemistry 100 again with Dr. Zinck.
I could have taken Dr. Peach's Chemistry 100 instead,
but I wanted to prove to Dr. Zinck that I was a serious, non-cheating student.

I'll never forget the first lecture of my repeat year in chemistry.
Dr. Zinck looked around and said, "I see we have a few familiar faces back." 
He looked at me and said,
"By the way, if your name is Myrtle Louise and you use Louise,
please let me know.  But I'll still call you Myrtle anyway."
Floor swallow me whole please!

I eked out a C+ in Chemistry 100 that year.

Almost a decade later, this Glutton-for-Punishment
decided to take another stab at first year chemistry,
not because I had to but because I wanted to.

I landed in Dr. Olmsted's half-year course
at Cal State Fullerton in Southern California.
Slide rules were out, computers with punch cards were in.

Google Search
My takeaway?  Along with a B!  
Some chemical reactions are not reversible,
a fact Dr. Olmsted impressed
on his own small children at breakfast
by having them toast bread
and try to reverse the reaction
by putting the toasted bread in the freezer.

Out of facts like this,
elementary teachers are born!

Chemistry and I have continued to struggle over the decades,
but I never fully abandoned it,
even if it continued to haunt my nightmares.

Why couldn't I just let it go?
Because one day during my first year in Dr. Zinck's class,
he called me up to peer into some kind of a spectroscope
and describe what I saw to my classmates.

OMG ~ I was seeing the light energy (photons) emitted by excited electrons
as they jumped from a higher atomic shell to a lower one.
I don't remember the elements in the compound being analyzed,
but I remember the thrill, the wonder of the bright-line spectra on the screen.

That was the moment I knew atoms were really real!
That was the moment I understood the passion of people 
who devoted their lives to the study of chemistry.
That moment will always be a major highlight in my life.

That was the test topic I scored 96% on. 

Spectra of Hydrogen and Helium

Looking back on my life, I like to remember my chemistry teachers
and how they touched my life, especially Dr. Zinck.

For decades I thought he was punishing me for cheating when he failed me
and that he was mocking me by making fun of my name in front of 100+ people.

After teaching hundred of students myself, I realize that 
perhaps he really was challenging me 
and trying to welcome me back to his class ~
After all, I could have slunk into Dr. Peach's section.

I like to think my chemistry teachers would be happy
to know that I was not a lost cause,
that I introduced hundreds of young children to the wonders
of the physical world and rudimentary chemistry.
We had such fun making molecules, defying gravity, 
playing "States of Matter" (a crazy game I made up),
exploring white light spectra with prisms, 
learning simple symbols and formulas
and big words like photosynthesis and electromagnetic spectrum. 

My Kiddos Working with Equivalent Fractions
Aurora, Colorado, USA
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I'm really glad that I found the courage to take Oliver Sack's memoir
Uncle Tungsten off that shelf and finally plunge into it.

Sacks spent his early childhood in northwest London just before the Second World War.
Like many children, he was separated from his parents
and evacuated into the English countryside to escape the London Blitz.
He found himself in a grim boarding school under the rule of a sadistic headmaster
and coped by escaping into numbers, plants, and metals.

When Sacks returned home after four years, 
his love of metals grew into a passionate exploration of chemistry.
Encouraged an extended family of eccentric doctors, scientists and inventors,
he experimented with elements and compounds in his home laboratory.
Sacks was determined to unlock the mysteries of the periodic table
and recreate the discoveries of his chemical heroes.

As I accompanied Sacks on this journey, I found myself
right back in Chemistry 100:  in a good way, in a wonder-filled way.
He loved chemistry and pursued an understanding of it with delight and joy,
and this delight and joy permeates his luminous memoir.
I'll read it again, simply for the love of !@#$%^ chemistry.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

On the Bay of Fundy 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


  1. Sounds like a real winner. When you love something it sure can shine through in the words.

    lol you sure showed that university professor. That would piss me off if he came and said I passed but I still failed you. I'd take it again to stick it to him too. Maybe he was trying to get you to learn, or maybe he just was seeing if you were a glutton for punishment haha I went with physics in high school over chemistry, as both teachers stunk, but one a little less than the other. Big mistake. Hated it with a passion. But I do appreciate what it is and teaches like chemistry can as well.

    1. Happy Friday, Pat! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I took physics in high school as well, and I struggled in that too. So much so that I knew better than to take it at university. I've never had physics nightmares, so that's a good thing. But like chemistry, I keep reading about physics. The concepts are fascinating, and I've learned to accept that I'll never grasp the math. Have a wonderful Christmas with your family. and enjoy being Uncle Pattie with those adorable Poop Machines to the fullest!

  2. You finally learned how to score with chemistry. I'd been mad if I passed the test but he failed me anyway.

    Geometry was my nemesis and I was good at math up until that point. C one semester and then B the next. (Only C my entire high school career.) To this day, I've still never had to prove any triangle was congruent to another. LOL

    1. LOL for sure, Diane! Guaranteed, we all have things we learned and never used.

      I struggled with geometry until one day my mineralogy professor took me aside and lent me a collection of 3D wooden forms, one for each of the seven crystal systems. Suddenly, a light went on, and I got it. That was the first time I had held a mathematical model in my hands.

      One of my main goals as an elementary teacher was to develop my students' spacial thinking. I had every variety of hands-on manipulative that I could find or create. My students spent many, many hours building, playing games, and solving puzzles with these objects. The funny thing was that some of my students could see certain things much faster than I could. It didn't bother me, though. I used their helping me to show kids that it's okay to struggle and that, if you persist, you can understand it. Sometimes I really missed though days!

      Merry Christmas!

  3. Teachers can really influence one's life. Maybe you would have still pursued science, but a caring teacher who guides can really show direction.
    I like little cartoon youtubes about science, but pass on the books. lol

    1. Hi, 3XN!
      I'll have to check into those You Tube videos. Thanks for the tip!

      I doggedly hung in there with a major in geology. I was likely the last person to go through Acadia University with an B.A. in Geology. The oil crash in the mid 1980s sent me back to school to become a teacher. Good thing I jumped when I did because my company and my husband's (me petroleum, him gas) vanished in the crash.

      Everyone thought I'd become a high school science teacher, but I didn't want to just teach science. I loved all areas of the elementary curriculum. Furthermore, I wanted to encourage girls to enjoy math and science before it became "uncool" and to increase all my students' understanding of fundamental math and science before they hit more difficult courses. So I focused on removing stumbling blocks in math and science for my young students. Studying geology was one of the great joys of my life, and I remain passionate about it and enriched by it.

      Enjoy the rest of the holiday season. Wishing you all the best in 2020.

    2. I went the teaching route. Elementary. Have been retired 25 years. While I was happy to leave teaching, I know the methods etc have changed and hopefully for the better. But I am sure the rewards of teaching and seeing minds grow are the same now as the days I taught.
      Thanks for your well wishes. :)

  4. Wanted to stop by and say congratulations for being selected in the anthology!

  5. Can't say I was ever a fan of chemistry. I remember how to convert grams to moles, and that's about it!

    1. I think it's awesome that you remember that, Sherry! Converting grams to moles is one of those calculations that stars in my nightmares ~ LOL! Have a lovely finish to the holiday season!

  6. Your determination and persistence in mastering chemistry (or at least passing the course) are inspiring, Louise! Lesser students than yourself would have just given up.

    Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year's and wishing you all the best for 2020!

    1. Thanks, Debra! I was driven to understand. I haven't decided if that's a blessing or a curse ~ LOL I hope you and your Rare One have a great Christmas, New Year, and 2020 too! Have you been practicing your "surprised" face. I have to do so as well!

  7. T remember those days in the chemistry lab, then later on as I struggled with it during an apprenticeship. Wow, you did so well, and maybe he was setting a challenge. We know you do so well with challenges, wonder what he would think if he read this today? I sorted out some books yesterday, and my dear friend Walter had sent me over some years, small books on how to write.Among these was " Jonathon Livingston Seagull" and inside was the letter he wrote, telling me how to outline the story he knew I had in my heart and mind. The closest I have every got to that is to write on my blog and do lengthy comments!!!

    1. Thanks, Jean! I bet you know what I'm going to say! What a wonderful friend you have in Walter. Get after that story and write it! I write on my blog and do lengthy comments too, so I'm not as productive as I could be in my writing. 2020 is the year!!! Have a lovely Christmas and New Year's with Hugh and your family! XOXOX

  8. If you could reconnect to Mr. McLean, you could suggest to him that trees can communicate as it's now know they share some electronic pulses between roots. Interesting story. I took Chemistry in college and did okay (we'll I got a C in class, A's in labs, so it tempered my GPA). I had taken a class the summer before on solar energy at a technical college and my chemistry professor had also been a student. As my first name is the name I go by, when he called roll, he looked up and asked, don't you go by Jeff. I was impressed as it was a class with probably 120 students.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jeff. Some professors are amazing when it comes to recalling the names of their students. I'm sure everyone has a subject that challenged them, and for a lot of us it was chemistry. I often take comfort in the fact that trees communicate, and I avidly read anything I can find about it. All the best to you! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  9. For some reason, Sharma reminds me of Marco Rubio.

    1. Have a happy time at Christmas with Daisy and your extended family, Adam!

  10. Poor Mr. McLean. He was so wrong. Of course trees can communicate. I have never read a book by Oliver Sacks although I've certainly heard of him. It is now one of my goals for 2020 to read some books by Dr. Sacks. I had to take two chemistry classes. In both of them I missed an A by one point. It haunts me to this day. (I had a secret tutor but I didn't cheat and neither did you.)


    1. Hi, Janie! It's hard to miss an A by one point ~ I know the feeling. I'd like to read another book by Oliver Sacks. He is an excellent writer. All the best to you at Christmas! I hope that you have fun!

  11. Good for you Louise, though I'll be honest, I would have marched into the dean's office and reported the teacher for failing me! I wouldn't have taken his class again at all! :)

    1. LOL ~ I bet that you would have, Rain. I was in awe of my professors. It never occurred to me to question my failing. I saw it as MY failing. I hope that you and Alex have been enjoying the pre-Christmas fun. We're heading up to the mountains early tomorrow morning to spend Christmas with Terry's sister and family. Have a lovely time celebrating!

  12. I am glad to hear you are not a quitter, Louise. Your persistence in learning the material seems to have paid off. I do think trees can communicate. I just read that when you cut a plant, it does make a supersonic scream, so he was really wrong to shut you down like that.

  13. I LOVED reading this! I always disliked Science at school- especially Chemistry because I was terrified of the Bunsen Burner! I hated any experiment involving chemicals or having to touch that thing! The theory was very complicated, I am not surprised you didn't get on with it well. For me, it is more embarrassing because my Dad has a Chemistry degree and has worked most of his life in Chemistry- he's now part of the Royal Society of Chemistry as part of their Energy group as a result of his final job before Retirement for Pfizer and I always feel ashamed that I was so scared of it!
    I am so glad you finally got to grips with it and that you see your teachers gratefully. I really liked and got on with my science teachers at school (especially Mr Rowland who was so fun and loved Star Trek and Doctor Who!) but it wasn't till I did my teacher training that I finally started to like Science- I really enjoyed our lectures on it and I was actually good at teaching it to my children when I used to teach it!
    Thanks so much for such an eloquent blog post!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.