by Bess Hayes
I did not study for this exam. I was not so inclined. I must say it was rather liberating. I think one’s fifth year is a fabulous time to finally fail a class. I’m quite excited. As I haven’t really written much on the test by way of answers, I’d appreciate any feedback on the clarity and comprehensibility of my writing, if you feel so inclined.
I. Nomenclature. Provide correct IUPAC names for the following (2 points each):
It amuses me that people are afraid to look at each other in the testing center. I think that most people like to look at strangers, but are embarrassed to be caught doing so. I have a bad habit of taking clandestine photos of strangers in airports with my cell phone. Doing so gives me a slight thrill. It’s nosy and inappropriate. It’s too bad cell phones aren’t allowed in here. Other than the obvious reasons, maybe it’s good they’re not. I never feel so uncomfortably naked as I do when the object of my view catches me staring. In the testing center this situation is complicated by the nature of its purpose. Here students aren’t just afraid of offending the people they look at, but of getting in trouble with the proctors. They fear that the proctors will accuse them of cheating, more than they fear being outed for staring at the pretty faces around them. The proctors, therefore, are the only people in the room students feel safe looking at. And, come on, they’re practically begging us to turn our eyes towards them, as they walk slowly, systematically up and down the aisles, with their hands clasped behind their backs, monitoring the desks as they pass. And we do stare at them, these safe objects of gaze, almost as if their systematic movement will stimulate our brains and memory.
But tonight I’m feeling defiant and want to stare at the other people taking tests instead of taking my own. The boy next to me has a new pack of Bic mechanical pencils on his desk, along with a calculator, a granola bar wrapper, and glasses. Students don’t just study and prepare for the content of a class before taking an exam. We must also ready our rituals: buying a pack of pencils; preparing a lunch or dinner for long-haul exams. What we bring with us into the testing center is probably the closest thing most students get to creating an emergency 72-hour kit. All anxieties and situations must be prepared for: hunger, running out of ink/lead/eraser, batteries going dead, even a runny nose (tissues are not to be overlooked! I had a bloody nose during my last midterm, but I was prepared with ample tissues). The non-scholastic preparations for taking a test are essential and quite impressive.
This semester I’ve experimented with not preparing, with living in a state of general unpreparedness. This has happened on many levels—chemistry is merely a piece of the whole. I think this is my way of saying I’ve become dysfunctional. I’m trying to make it sound intentional, rather than what it actually feels like—like I’ve suddenly lost control, lost autonomy of my life and actions. My friend was tested this week for mental stability. She learned she is not sound. I believe experiences we had this summer messed us up. The fallout is that she goes to counseling and I come to the testing center to take an organic chemistry midterm, but instead end up naming my problems in an essay rather than naming benzene rings with functional groups in correct IUPAC nomenclature.
II. Mechanisms. Provide mechanisms for the following reactions. Use curved arrow notation and be as detailed as possible (10 pts total):
I’m not sure how this happened—perhaps the stress of sleeping (and not sleeping, as the case may be) in London train stations, Irish airports, German hostels with black sheets and flames painted on the walls, Danish night buses, and Belgian park benches had something to do with it. Perhaps it was the trauma of returning to the US, where, after becoming so dependent on the company of a few specific people, I lost their constant, wanted, and needed companionship that has altered me so.
And yet I’m not so much altered as alternatively directed. I believe, or television and first-hand reports have convinced me, that many college students suffer from imbalances between their social lives and schoolwork, imbalances that equalize with experience and time. I used to think I was fairly balanced, as I did well in school. But maybe I was calculating this based on a model assigning all good value to studying, and hardly any to social activities. I used to spend hours fastidiously writing out and memorizing flash cards and studying for chemistry. I wouldn’t say I was happy to do so, but I was resolute in my resignation to forego conversations with friends and trips home to Salt Lake on Sundays for family dinner. But I’m not anymore.
My previous study habits have come completely undone since I went to Europe this summer, where I studied in England and afterward traveled around with a few friends. I learned and fell in love with new means of experience and being; with sleeping on grassy hummocks overlooking the cliffy Cornwall sea; with creating a tin whistler ensemble and playing on top of Scafell Pike; with walking across the winding, windy moor during a rainstorm in order to locate the structural remains of the building that inspired Wuthering Heights; with descending the stairs beneath the Millennium Bridge to the rocky bed of the Thames, to throw rocks of grievances and frustrations into that wide, brown London landmark; with swimming in the icy teal Connemara sea, combing my goose-flesh arms and fingers through the spaghetti-like seaweed; with finding a location on a map and planning and booking an assortment of planes, trains, and automobiles to get there.
A seemingly innocuous trip to England, which I expanded to the continent and extended over a month, has metastasized, has turned into an impassable distraction—a longed for and idealized bliss. My previous reality—the one I’ve since returned to—can no longer pretend to satiate my scholastic and social cravings. I’ve now experienced something entirely different—more intense, challenging, involved, chaotic, reckless, irresponsible, and exhausting than my previous normalcy. Returning home has been cruel, impossible, a travesty of growing up and realizing responsibility and desire for true desires.
I used to love chemistry. That’s changed too. I’m not sure what happened. I’m still convinced I like it, though maybe this is unfounded. I no longer go to lecture and make beautiful and precise copies of the mechanisms drawn on the board, pleased with my understanding. I now sit there and fester. It irritates me when the professor asks us how happy the electrons are. This simplification offends me, and I resent that we’re told to identify the emotions of personified electrons instead of learning how to recognize their stability and tendencies in various circumstances. The professor’s mantra is: “How happy are they? Not happy, Bob.” Granted, sometimes the answer is “Happy, Bob.” I’m not sure where Bob came from. The professor explained it once. Some movie perhaps? I’m irritated with Bob and his ubiquitous presence in this class. Poor Bob, I’m blaming him for problems that are undoubtedly much more complex. But even acknowledging that doesn’t change the simple fact that in this class I’m not happy, Bob.
III. Synthesis and Reactivity. Provide products for the following reactions. Indicate stereochemistry where appropriate (3 points each):
Before my last chemistry midterm, I sat on the grass outside the JFSB. My chemistry lecture notes were open before me, but I was writing in my journal. I was experiencing a new realization of self. I had just called my mom, frustrated and demoralized, because I was once again unprepared for the test I had to take. I was overwhelmed with school and a newly founded, social interest, and chemistry was suffering most. My mom told me that chemistry wasn’t worth it; this could be my trial run. She told me not to beat myself up about it. My three months in Europe with my journal always with me taught me to depend upon the contemplative writing process to understand myself. So, after speaking with my mom, I felt so relieved that naturally my only option was to go to my journal and try to understand the meaning behind the feeling.
My feelings were terrifying and almost unwanted. But acknowledging them freed my soul and created such immense joy within me that I knew the probability of its truth was tremendous: I do not want to be a doctor. For years now I have been laboring (quite literally when taking classes like chemistry) under the conclusion (delusion?) I made when I was ten years old that I did want to be a doctor. It’s terrifying to let that go, because I’m left with unknowns. I don’t know anymore what easily defined profession I want to go into, what I should study in graduate school.
I hate being around the pre-med students in my classes who talk about letters of recommendation and MCAT preparation and scores in a demonstrable and calculating, almost conniving way. I’ve always been convinced that school and education should be about the love of learning and not about the grade. I’m hardly a shining example of this ideal, but in my hypocrisy I still believe it and hold it as the model of educational excellence. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s absolutely shameful to openly admit that your goal for studying is to get grades worthy of dental or medical school, or the only reason you’re doing research is so you can add it to your long and impressive resume. And even when I feel the same way, why admit it? It might become true overall. Disgraceful! I’m envious because, as dishonorably grade grubbing future medical professionals may be, they have it so easy. Choose profession: medicine. Choose schools. Choose specialty. Choose among job offers. People always need a doctor. As a naturally overanxious being, I considered the gold-trimmed path to medical school a delightfully simple answer to any problem life had to offer.
But the day’s present to me was revealing the discontent with my self-declared path in life. Instead of stethoscopes and white coats, I want to join Montaigne, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf, and essays—if not professionally, then symbolically by reading their works and the works of other essayists. Words. Oh! Such, such were the joys and peace inspired by this honest yet worrying realization—and I’m being sincere, not ironic, as George Orwell was when he used the phrase to title his essay.
Since then my chemistry book has merely weighted my bag as my class attendance and motivation, already unhappily low, plummeted into annihilation. My mom asked if she was a bad mother for encouraging her daughter to do what makes her happy, because in this case it meant utterly dismissing a class, not to mention my plan of becoming a doctor. I smile as I remember this question, because in the testing center on this rainy Friday night I am content, pleased even, to sit here “taking a test,” because I’m doing what I love—writing—exploring my thoughts through words. I wonder how happy the people around me are, up here in the music room on the top floor, listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D. They’re mostly hunched and tight. Many legs are shaking. They’re breathing deeply. Every few minutes someone starts punching mechanically, impatiently at a calculator. Many are making quick, full-body adjustments in their seats. Perhaps the new arrangement will help them remember what they’ve learned in class. The boy in front of me occasionally shakes his fist, “Yes! You can do this, you know this,” at another successfully solved problem. His papers are covered with immense tic-tac-toe games, matrices of Xs, Os, and Is. The music to Anne of Green Gables starts to play. Of about forty people in the room, only five or so are female. I doubt the boys taking their chemistry, engineering, and math tests have the same images in their heads that are in mine of Gilbert Blithe saying “I’m sorry, Anne,” or of Diana Berry’s younger sister saying through pudgy lips, “Did you know Gilbert Blithe is dying?” I smile as I look around the room and consider the appeal of the anxious, occupied faces around me and remember Anne and Gilbert’s long-awaited romance on the bridge. A chemical reaction of a different sort.
Yes, I am content, pleased, at peace, happy even. Those around me? Have they also realized a deep and clarifying truth? How happy are they? For some reason the shaking legs and nervously clicking pencils make me think they’re not as happy as I am, Bob.