I was fifteen. I was sitting in chemistry class, and had just been given back a test. The mark was of a kind I hadn’t seen since the fourth grade, when I drew a giant x across my paper and wrote “You did not cover this in class” across the top of it. Needless to say, in both instances it wasn’t very high.
Generally I had been a well-behaved student, but I had my moments, as I had in that fourth-grade test. In fifth grade I almost got a detention for answering students’ questions ahead of the teacher. I got so excited about a subject I didn’t even know I was doing that, until she yelled at me. This chemistry test seemed like it was setting up to be another one of those moments, except, uncharacteristically, it wasn’t a one-time event. The mark was low, as had been the mark previously and the one before that. And I couldn’t understand why. I thought I knew the work, used methods that seemed, to me, to be what was taught or what was logical, and yet somehow I could never get the right answer. And, for an over-competitive student who was used to averaging in the mid 90s for all subjects, it was beginning to look quite serious.
So, I did what I always did in difficult circumstances, I set out to try and find what the problem was. I started throwing things I knew at it in the hope it would sort itself out, in the same way some people claim to test the doneness of pasta by throwing it at the wall “to see if it sticks.” The teacher was young but also rude. There was drama at home. Lots of things looked like it could be affecting the mark, but what I guessed wasn’t really helping. I started throwing more possibilities, more things it could be, more analogies from religion that could maybe help me sort out the chemical equations. Eventually I was hurling so much metaphorical pasta-language at the subject people began to notice. And, well, when the language you know is mostly a mix of that used by imaginative old ladies and medieval church fathers, it doesn’t take much to sound more than a little crazy.
But it wasn’t the mark alone that was bothersome. Chemistry and later physics were both troublesome but also captivating, and it made no sense that something so difficult could also be so quickly becoming beloved, for seemingly no logical reason at all.
There was a bit of logic to it, though, albeit not what I was ready to admit. The world I had known up until that point was uncharacteristically stable. Most of the people I knew, too, had stopped evolving long ago, quietly conceding to live in a time that in reality no longer existed, a time when they had been young and the gilded lenses of memory showed life to be grand. Nana had settled into a life sometime between the turn of the century and the invention of counter tops. Most of the others I knew drifted between the end of the Second World War and the start of Vatican II. And that was where the universe stood and would stand, until the lid closed on the last, veil-wearing church lady, forever and ever amen.
But the universe of the physical sciences wasn’t like that at all. There, the it seemed as though the universe moved, breathed, fell apart and ordered itself again. It did all sorts of crazy things and moreover, you could actually figure out what it was doing with math, which to a fifteen-year-old girl with my background was really attractive. And this posed a problem, because, well, it’s the universe. It’s not a person you could roll your eyes at and walk past until your vagina gets a hold on itself. The universe flaunts itself at every turn, and for someone like myself who’s never had much self-control as far as ideas are concerned, it was way too much.
It didn’t help any that despite the many nice & not-so-nice reasons for religion’s existence, one of the reasons, the one dearest to me, was the deep desire to understand things, to be observant and to order things through language. It was, as some scholars believe, the point of Genesis 1, to bring order to chaos and consider it good. It was the reason Haley’s Comet had been excommunicated, because the sky had not been acting as it should and needed to be reordered. It’s a desire you sort of feel as a young person in religion, when you’re very idealistic. The more things I considered as I tried to sort out my work, the more there seemed to be a pattern in the pasta sticking to the wall, I could almost see it coming through the thousands of years of history like Harvey would later come through the paper, a desire, like my own, to understand. And here it was. People were working out what and why everything was. They were understanding.
It was a lot to notice and wonder about, and when I wonder it always spirals into many different wonderings about too many different things, both personal and philosophical to an extent that, at the time, I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me. I certainly didn’t know what to do with myself, which was problematic because at that age I considered myself quite important and serious. There were tears, conversations, exasperated states that were quieted but never consoled. My relationship with physical science became like a closet stuffed with too many things, eventually avoided so as not to be crushed by an avalanche of stuff no one is quite sure why is there to begin with.
In retrospect, I don’t think it would’ve taken much consoling for me to come right. If I think of it now, all I had really needed was someone to tell me that yes, it’s okay to be curious about things and attracted to it; you’re not in fifth grade and you’re also not 75; and yes, math-based sciences usually require more practice. In other words, you don’t need some grandiose philosophical or personal context to explain a slightly lower-than-usual grade and slightly more-than-usual excitement. You just need to maybe cut back on your extracurricular activities and do a little more math, and remember people have feelings so x’s across papers, although they may be accurate, aren’t very nice.
But no one ever said such things. I managed to suck up my sniffles and finish the courses without much damage to my average. Afterward, I decided (quite logically, I thought) that despite being first in the class and having above average marks on national tests for both math and science, my near-perfect English mark and perfect theology mark meant I was likely more suited for those fields and should probably stay there, where things were both recognizable and predictable. It was also the most practical choice should I become a nun or a stay-at-home mother in the future, which, thanks in part to Augustine’s social influence, was the expectation.
And I don’t regret having chosen the arts. I waxed poetic about it for over a thousand words in the first post, and the amount of times my worldview has collapsed and reordered itself since that test in high school is nearly beyond count now, so it wasn’t exactly a stifling choice. It’s also not like the sciences were very much discouraged at home. My parents’ house was always filled with enough art projects and experiments to make Da Vinci proud, and even Nana was a huge fan of Star Trek (not to mention Pope Francis has a degree in chemistry).
Still, the excitement, wonder and emotional drama of meeting the physical sciences did get swept away like a skeleton into a closet. It was bound to fall out somewhere eventually, and it did, which brings me at long last to the confession that started this series. Because, like Augustine, no matter how logical I thought I was or had been or could be, I had seen the universe move, and when that happens, nothing is ever quite the same.
Tim Minchin: “Not Perfect”
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