Saturday, November 03, 2007

Chemical Communication

Millions of kids everyday echo a sentiment which I can't recall ever having uttered during my 16 years in the American educational system. In regards to science, history and math classes in particular, you hear kids talk about how they can't understand why they're studying something that they will almost certainly never use. It's the constant struggle of teachers to convince their pupils that learning is about broadening their minds and expanding their ability to think analytically. To some extent, I bought into this idea and I always believed that it was more interesting to know more than what I immediately perceived with my limited senses. I was probably just too unpopular to occupy my thoughts otherwise but studying all the stuff which didn't directly apply to daily life was interesting to me and made me feel like life was more than my boring and often miserable rural existence.

One of the classes which I didn't like though was chemistry. It wasn't that I lacked an interest in chemistry itself but rather that I hated the teacher because he was none too fond of me. This became crystal clear when I was sick for about a week and returned to find a test on that very day of my return which I couldn't possibly have prepared for (because I hadn't been there when it was announced). As this jerk of a teacher passed out the tests, I told him I couldn't take it because I hadn't had time to prepare. He told me I had to anyway but I refused because it simply wasn't fair to spring a test on me like that. Rather than allow me to take the test later, he simply failed me.

Given the injustice of what had happened, and the fact that I was a straight "A" student up to that point, I told my mother and she complained bitterly to the principal. I never did take the test but the teacher gave me a "C" and my grade averaged out to a "B" for the semester. It was still unfair, but I guess he got to play his power game with a student he didn't like and come out with a draw rather than a loss. I didn't get the grade I would have gotten if I'd have had a chance to take the test under fair conditions but he also wasn't allowed to unfairly fail me.

To this day, I'm not sure why he disliked me so much. I wasn't some disruptive little snot nor an insufferable know-it-all. The only thing that ever occurred to me was that he was absolutely enthralled with my best friend at the time and I wonder if he had some warped sort of jealousy going on because she hung out with me so much. To this day, I think he had some sort of pervy lust for her. He certainly seemed to put her on a pedestal in classes all the time and pay a lot of undue attention to every experiment she did. I guess some lecherous old deviants had to have been the inspiration for Lolita.

At any rate, despite all the unpleasantness I endured from that mean-spirited bastard, I did study hard and enjoy the concepts behind chemistry. I'm guessing I'd have gotten a lot more out of it if my teacher had been less petty and neurotic, but one thing I did get out of it was a decent memory of the periodic table of the elements from having had to memorize it. While I can't say that I remember it all now, I do remember the more common elements. Strangely enough, this has actually come in handy from time to time during my English teaching in Japan.

While I've never been in a chemistry lesson in a Japanese school, my experiences lead me to believe they also have to study the periodic table with the same abbreviations in roman letters rather than with Japanese characters. On several occasions, including one this past evening, I've been able to explain an element to a student using its abbreviation on the periodic table. In the past, sodium and iron have come in handy and this evening I dug way back in my memory to remember that lead is Pb so I could help a student understand that "lead" was Pb and not the verb "lead" (as in acting as a leader).

While I realize that not many people are going to grow up and become English teachers in foreign countries where they may find the ability to convey ideas through universally-understood abbreviations helpful, my situation does show that you never know when something that seems esoteric at the time you learn it may actually prove useful. I've certainly found that all the sentence diagramming that was done in my English classes has been paying off.


Miko said...

I was not wildly popular in high school, either. Although, that may have something to do with the fact that I rarely bothered to show up.

Hey, the other day a student had to leave my lesson early because of feeling ill. She told me in Japanese that she suffers from chronic anaemia, so I decided to explain "iron deficiency" to the rest of the students. Now, I knew that if I wrote the actual word "iron" on the board it would only confuse them. So guess what I wrote instead! And they all got it.

You just never know when it will come in handy, eh?

Shari said...

Cute new avatar there. :-)

Iron was one of the two I've used before (on more than one occasion). Sodium was the other.

It's kind of cool that science is an international language.

Helen said...

Count me in on the Chemistry coming in useful over here too. It's not so much for my classes as it is in conversations with my husband!

My first high school Chem teacher was great..., but my last one was totally ineffective. A classmate and I once kept track and he said "Okay" about 130 times in 15 minutes. I didn't learn very much from him...l failed the course, but got my credits for graduation. (I retook Chem 30 at my university and passed it.)

My uni was a liberal arts college, and although I didn't always enjoy the courses I had to take, I've found them very useful in retrospect. Education is never wasted...I think!