Chemistry Fail

When I attended H.S in New York, Chemistry was a required class in the Catholic School System. Why this was “required” remains a mystery to me. In my day to day life, I don’t believe I have used Chemistry once since graduating High School a hundred years ago. I realize that I drink H2O and that’s about as far as my Chemistry class has taken me. Yet, for some reason, the Archdiocese of New York felt this should be a required course. So, in my Sophomore year, I found myself sitting in Mr. Carrs’ Classroom. Mr. Carr was one of the few teachers at Cardinal Hays HS who was not clergy. I didn’t fear him as much as I feared the guys in the white collars and black robes. I found myself identifying more with him. This was probably a mistake, in that, minus the white color and black robe, he was as tough and strict as any of the other Christian Brothers and Priests that taught us. My hope of identifying with him faded within the first week of class. He didn’t smile much and lived and breathed Chemistry. It was clearly his passion and I suppose he didn’t quite understand why others (me) were not quite as passionate.

I was lost from day one. If you thought I had a hard time with French, ( go back and read my blog about that disaster), you should have seen me in Chemistry class. Other than water and oxygen, ( impressive, eh?) I couldn’t grasp any of countless chemical symbols. H, He, Li, Be, Ne, Na, Mg…… on and on they went. I couldn’t even remember all the State symbols in the country and they wanted to know the symbols for a million different Chemicals? Why?? So that one day in the future, when I found myself at an important cocktail party, I could confidently walk up to a pretty girl and impress her by asking if she would like me to tell her the chemical symbol of Magnesium??? If I really wanted to knock her off her feet I could tell her that In addition to the letters for the element itself, I could add subscripts for ionization or oxidation state or other atomic detail. Talk about being a winning one-liner!

Needless to say, I didn’t do very well in this class. When not asking myself; “ Why am I here?” , I found myself staring out the classroom window at the Grand Concourse… knowing that in walking distance was Yankee Stadium! The ticket taker at the Stadium never once asked me if I could tell him the chemical symbol of Magnesium.

The Lab was always touted as the “ fun part” of Chemistry class. This was when one would get “hands on” experience with actual chemicals. Along with a Lab partner, you would mix various elements and witness the results, as well as observe the properties of the elements.

Everyone had a lab partner. Mine was a nice kid I will call Ed. Ed was one of those fascinated with Chemistry and he loved the class. All except the part about having me as his lab partner. I honestly believe he was fearful that I would accidentally blow him up or burn all his skin off. When we walked up to our lab table he invariably said something to the effect of;

“Don’t touch anything unless you ask me first, ok? For God’s sake .. put your gloves on!”

Ed was a very nice guy to put up with me and to be as patient as he was, but, when I met him he was about sixteen years old… when we completed our Chemistry year together, he was around thirty-two. Go figure. I may have been the cause of his PTSD.

It will not surprise you to hear that I failed the course miserably and thus was required to attend Summer School. This was a big deal for our family because I had single handily messed up a good portion of our summer. Instead of being with Mom and my brother in Lake Hopatcong, I would have to stay in the hot, nasty city with Dad while I completed my summer school program. I would miss being with Mom and Rob and they would miss me. ( Actually, I never asked Rob if he missed me at all…. that would be interesting to know.)

All this made Dad very unhappy and that was never a good thing. First, he was very angry that I had failed. He was totally convinced that “I had not put my mind to it” and that I was more interested in playing ball than in passing this class. Of course, he was right. Secondly, he was mad because I was messing up the summer, and again, he was right.

When one failed a class at Cardinal Hayes, a meeting with the parent and teacher was required, with the student present. Dad was determined to be the parent at this meeting and that did not bode well for me. This was unusual, in that Mom usually handled all this kind of school “stuff” because of Dads brutal work schedule. Him giving up an evening of rest to accompany me to the Bronx to visit with a teacher was not a good sign.

Rob kept telling me that “I was dead” and there “was no hope”. ( maybe he didn’t miss me?)

Dad was silent for most of the long subway ride to the school. His silence was another “not so great” sign. The one thing that was positive was when dad realized he would be meeting with a lay teacher rather than a Brother or Priest. We were old school Italian and the Brothers and Priests were viewed with a revenant awe. Dad would never really express his thoughts and feelings to clergy, but to a lay teacher? He was loaded for bear. ( Dad put some of the blame for my failure on the teacher because I had told him I didn’t understand a thing the teacher was saying. Dad was planning on letting him know this in no uncertain terms) .

Needless to say, I was pretty nervous when we arrived at the school that warm June evening. Subway rides in the heat were no fun, and we were both sweaty and uncomfortable when we got there.

We walked down the now empty halls to Mr. Carrs’ office in silence and waited in the outside office to be called. A large, empty school building has an ominous feel to it, and that was certainly what the whole situation felt like to me, Ominous.

We had not been waiting long when Mr. Carr appeared and politely asked us to come in. I began to get up and Dad put his right hand on my shoulder and pushed me back in the seat.

“You stay here… I want to talk to him alone first….”

Oh crap. My brother’s words rang in my mind. I was dead.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dad emerged from the office. He looked calm and not at all mad.

I wondered what the hell had happened, but I dared not say a word.

“Come on”, Dad said, we’re going home”.

He must have seen the confusion in my eyes because he simply said… “outside”.

We emerged unto the Grand Concourse exactly one hour after we arrived and I had no clue what had taken place. I ventured a curious glance at dad and I’ll never forget his words:

“ I just spent a half hour talking to your teacher. I didn’t understand a damned thing he was saying either. No wonder you failed ….do good in summer school.”
That was it. No other word was ever spoken about my failure, no other threat, no warnings, nothing. That was it. On the way home, we enjoyed an Italian Ice and talked about how crappy the Mets were playing.

I aced summer school


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