Back in high school, Chemistry was mandatory. I didn’t know a molecule from a mollusk, but I went to class hoping I could at least pass it. We were partnered up by the teacher on the first day, and my friend Susan became my lab partner. We were both clueless.
Neither of us had ever made so much as a baking soda and vinegar volcano, so we sat there in mutual ignorance. Many of our friends in the class had older brothers and sisters who had at least told them what to expect in Chemistry; we were both only children and were on our own. Back then, there was no internet, no Google, no Wikapedia, no cell phones; all we had was the Encyclopedia Brittanica and our parents for information.
For those of you who were not born in the ’50s, the Encyclopedia Brittanica was a set of “books of knowledge” ranging from subjects A to Z. Back then, you could buy them “on time;” one book a month until you had the whole set. Unfortunately, these were no help to us as the information on chemistry seemed to be pretty light in encyclopedia “C”.
So, there we were, lab partners in rubber gloves, wondering how in the heck we were ever going to make it through the class. I don’t remember much about the class, to be perfectly honest. I just remember that Susan and I took turns doing the experiments; one of us did the actual work, and the other took notes.
The one valuable thing I took away from Chemistry was what our teacher called “the scientific method.” This meant that you took notes on each and every step of each experiment. This way, if things didn’t work out as expected, you could go through the notes and figure out when/where you got off track.
To this very day, I still use the scientific method. Example: when my faithful computer guru comes over to help me figure out why my sound no longer works or why the text I’m reading keeps jumping up to the first line, I take notes. As he explains what’s going on and how it can be remedied, I write down the process. This way, when the same problem comes up again, I read my notes and can usually fix it myself.
I don’t remember what grades Susan and I got in Chemistry. What I do remember was that at some point our teacher realized that he had two real duds on his hands, and he had work out how to teach us.
At the beginning of each class he would explain the experiment to us all. Then he would look at Susan and I and “translate” it into a process we could understand:
To everyone: “Class, remember to keep the <insert arcane chemical here> well away from the <insert next arcane chemical> before you mix in the <insert last arcane chemical>.”
Then he would turn to us and say, “Susan and Jane: don’t add water.”
Incredibly, we passed the course. Our grades may have been on the low side, but at least we didn’t fail, nor did we give our poor teacher an aneurysm.