Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Chemistry Lesson

Author’s Note: The following post is largely historical fiction--the parts for which I was present are a dramatization of what I remember (as is the case for so much of this blog); the parts for which I was not present are almost exclusively speculation and works of the imagination.

The test questions embedded in the text are borrowed from past tests and practice questions made available to the public by The College Board.

7. At a constant temperature, the behavior of a sample of a real gas more closely approximates that of an ideal gas as its volume is increased because the
(a) collisions with the walls of the container become less frequent
(b) average molecular speed decreases
(c) molecules have expanded
(d) average distance between molecules becomes greater
(e) average molecular kinetic energy decreases

It’s May 2001. I’m a high school senior, and though there is still a month left to the school year, in many ways the 12th grade culminates in the week that follows.

I registered for three Advanced Placement courses that year--English because I liked and performed well in the subject; Calculus and Chemistry for the prospect that succeeding on those AP exams might excuse me from taking math and science courses in college. Accordingly, I didn’t really sweat the AP English exam. And though it was among the most work-intensive courses of my lifetime, I had a good teacher and developed an unlikely aptitude for calculus, such that when the time for that test came around, it was carried less weight of anxiety than a sense of relief for having an outlet for the skills I’d painstakingly developed over the preceding year.

Then there was Chemistry.

It’s not that I hadn’t studied, and it’s not that I had a poor teacher--in fact, I’d contend Mrs. Lorenz was one of the best science teachers I had ever had. But when push came to shove, the mechanics of science rarely interested me. When I probably should have been discovering connections and unlocking profound knowledge, I instead focused on the rote memorization of vocabulary and formulas, and doing my best not mess up anything too profoundly in the lab (which, to be perfectly honest, usually consisted more of staying out of my lab partner’s way than actively contributing much of use).

My performance in the AP Chemistry course had been uneven. I did well enough early on, but when difficult concepts compounded upon one another I had a tendency get lost. I mixed up my terms, over-thought questions, and made careless computational errors.

So, when May rolled around and the AP Chemistry exam lumed, I really did need to buckle down and study. I started constructing elaborate schemes for how I would re-read a chapter from the textbook each night, side-by-side with my class notes, and drill practice questions.

My actual behavior didn’t approximate my ideal behavior all that well. I squeezed in ten-to-fifteen minutes of lip service chemistry study each night after the rest of my homework, and before stealing fifteen minutes of my own to write bad poetry and to get six or seven hours of sleep.

There was little hope. One of the few factors to spur me on was the notion that if I did poorly on the AP exam it would mean that the whole year had been a waste--that I would have endured an extra year of especially challenging high school science only to have take more science at college.

And then my grandfather passed away.

All of the following statements about the nitrogen family of elements are true except:
(a) It contains both metals and nonmetals.
(b) The electronic configuration of the valence shell of the atom is ns2np3.
(c) The only oxidation states exhibited by members of this family are –3, 0, +3, +5.
(d) The atomic radii increase with increasing atomic number.
(e) The boiling points increase with increasing atomic number.

In chemistry, families of elements are defined by common properties, and conveniently fit into the same column of the period table.

And perhaps such commonalities--some beneath the surface, some purely superficial--are what best defines the bonds within my family. After all, a number of us have been prone to living like hermits. To live frugally. To be critical. Not to express our emotions.

The family I’ve known has always been quite small. No cousins. The lineage on my mother’s side of the family is a bit muddied, and all I’ve known it for sure most of my life has been my mother, her brother, and their mother. On my father’s side, there was him and two brothers, one aunt through marriage. One set of grandparents intact until Bock Wong Chin passed away.

He had been ailing for years. First liver problems that caused him to give up alcohol, and his pot belly dwindled away until he was bone thin. His body failed him in the years to follow. After a major surgery, he looked to be on the upswing. But one day out of the hospital--just after he and my grandmother had moved into a new, smaller apartment in a building for senior citizens and the disabled—he collapsed. He would never get up again.

The phone rang at 5:36 a.m. My father knocked on my door at 5:42, almost an hour earlier than he’d ordinarily start pestering me to get up and get ready for school. He didn’t open the door, but rather stood outside and said, “Bock Wong is dead.”

Which of the following best describes the role of the spark from the spark plug in an automobile engine?
(A) The spark decreases the energy of activation for the slow step.
(B) The spark increases the concentration of the volatile reactant.
(C) The spark supplies some of the energy of activation for the combustion reaction.
(D) The spark provides a more favorable activated complex for the combustion reaction.
(E) The spark provides the heat of vaporization for the volatile hydrocarbon.

I decided not to go the funeral. If I went, it would mean missing the AP Chemistry test, and the only opportunity to make it up would be to take the test at the end of the summer. If there was one prospect even less appealing than having wasted a year of extra science studies, it was the idea that I’d spend my last summer before college, too, still studying. Even if the extra time could have objectively allowed me to spread out my studies and really learn the material, I wasn’t particularly interested in that option.

Still, I felt poorly for missing the funeral. For his final few years I’d felt a not entirely logical drive to make peace with my grandfather.

You see, when I was little, I remembered overhearing him talk to his pet Doberman pintser, Ginger, late the night before we would leave, reassuring her and perhaps more so himself, “Diane come back soon.” Diane was my sister, and I took it that he defaulted to naming the elder of his grandchildren.

Except when my sister left for college and stopped joining us on our pilgrimages to Queens, my grandfather did not start lamenting my departure. Instead, he moved backward, telling the dog, “Tommy come back soon,” referencing my father.

So, in the trips to follow, I made an effort to my smile at my grandfather more and talk to him more, to demonstrate I was worth missing.

As I share all of this--recollections that I don’t think I ever actually shared with anyone--it’s easy to interpret skipping my grandfather’s funeral as spite. That if he didn’t care to miss me, I wouldn’t care to miss to him. On the contrary, I think the desire for him to know that I cared, even after he died, was strong enough that it made it harder for me to miss the funeral.

In place of attending his funeral, I dedicated my performance on the AP exam to him. More than a vain attempt to stay especially focused or work quickly to answer every question on the test, it meant spending the weekend alone in the house, totally devoted to study. I took all of my schemes about incremental preparation and truncated them to that weekend, dedicating a two-to-three hour study period to each unit of study over the course from the year, and tackling a more or less random sampling of test questions in between to stay sharp, not to linger too long on one topic at the expense of the others.

I approached it not just as a big test, but the test of a lifetime.

I had my spark.

Relatively slow rates of chemical reaction are associated with which of the following?
(A) The presence of a catalyst
(B) High temperature
(C) High concentration of reactants
(D) Strong bonds in reactant molecules
(E) Low activation energy

I imagine an alternative version of myself. One who said screw it to the AP test and went to the funeral. Indeed, in the aftermath of the day, my father has said more than once that it may have been a mistake for me not to come--that he met all manner of people he hadn’t known existed, and that I probably should have done the same, as small as our known family and its social circles have been.

I see my father in the navy pin stripe blazer that he loaned to me semiformal dances, a mismatched black button up shirt, and the beat up pair of the only dress shoes I’ve ever known him to own. He stands in his typical slouch, an arm folded behind his back, gripping the far elbow, and tips forward and backward from his heels to his toes while my grandmother shakes her head in little spasms, dabbing at her face with Kleenex in such a way that it is nearly impossible to tell if she is crying or coping with her seasonal allergies.

And I meander the distance between them, to my uncles, who I’ve never had all that much more to say to than my grandfather. My uncle John alternates between solemn and trying to talk to me about how I should have played on my high school basketball team. How I’m tall enough that I might have earned a scholarship to at least a D3 school.

I settle on standing by my mother in what will ostensibly be a quiet spot since neither of us are big talkers and we are among the most obviously white people in a crowd of Chinese faces. We watch for connections, trying to determine who is who amidst mostly Cantonese conversations. An old Chinese man with a single hair that stretches and curls an inch and a half from his chin introduces a young woman to a man who’s sharp black suit, whose age probably splits the distance between the others. I think one of them might be a cousin. Or perhaps the old man is an old army buddy of my grandfather, a one-time fellow survivor who is now coming to terms with another fallen comrade.

The young woman shakes the middle-aged man’s hand daintily and says something that makes him laugh. And as I look on, the entire entourage turns to face me, and before I can react they're walking toward us.

The middle-aged man shakes my mother’s hand first. Then mine. He speaks in a slow, broken English. “You daughter-in-law. Grandson.”

I affirm what he’s saying and he shakes our hands again. The old man follows suit. His hand is dry and cold, the young woman’s cold as well but smooth, almost glossy like she just moisturized. They tell us their long Chinese names that I forget as soon as I hear, and I can’t quite discern how they knew my grandfather, even then, but the old man manages, that he was, “the best man.”

What volume of 0.150-molar Hcl is required to neutralize 25.0 milliliters of 0.120-molar Ba(OH)2?
(A) 20.0 mL
(B) 30.0 mL
(C) 40.0 mL
(D) 60.0 mL
(E) 80.0 mL

I walked to the McDonald’s a mile and a half from home. It was ostensibly a study break, but I spent most of the journey repeating in my mind the definitions I started recording on makeshift flash cards that afternoon, ripped from loose-leaf paper.

A sub-narrative took hold in my mind as I speculated if there were a critical point at which fatigue from over-studying neutralized the benefits of studying. Or if I were just trying to talk myself out of soldiering ahead. Talk myself out of my vision for carrying my food home and sitting at the kitchen table with the chemistry book laid open, flat in front of me. I had reached the mid-point of the book, when the pages read and unread were equal enough that the book would keep itself open without having to hold down either side.

So I made my fast food order. They were running a special that gave me four cheeseburgers for two dollars. I figured I could ration that out to dinner that night, lunch the next day. More realistically, I knew I’d eat them all in one sitting, and that that would be fine if it kept me at the table, kept my eyes on the page, got me through another chapter or two.

A bell jar connected to a vacuum pump is shown on the right. As the air pressure under the bell jar decreases, what behavior of water in the beaker will be observed? Explain why this occurs.

I’m standing with my father when a man in a blue suit and tie all the same color as my father’s blazer approach us. He’s balding from the front with a mane of dark brown hair flowing from the back and sides into a ponytail that reaches just past neck length. Another white face, who has gone from my grandmother to one of my uncles to us.

“I wanted to pay my respects,” he says to my father. “I went to your old man’s laundry the last ten years, ever since my wife left me.”

My father shakes his hand and nods, not so much encouraging the man as telling him he has been heard and he can feel welcome to move on. But the man persists.

“Thirty-six years old, and can you believe I’d never done my own laundry. My mother used to do it for me, then my ex-wife. So find myself standing in front of dryer, a roll of quarters in my hand and damn near every piece of clothing I’ve got in my laundry bag. And your father sees me. You know what he does?”

My father meets his smile halfway, awaiting the punchline.

“First of all, he turns me around--tells me I ought to use a washer first.” The man laughs too loudly. The other mourners look at him, but he doesn’t seem to notice, slapping a hand hard against my father’s shoulder in a way that I’m sure he means as affable even when Dad leans away from him. “Then the guy helps me sort my colors from my whites. He’s handling my smelly socks and my dirty Jockeys. Not in a perverted way or nothing--it’s just that he wasn’t above it. He saw I was in over my head, and he helped me out every way he knew how. Hell of a guy.”

The most unlikely thing about the situation is that as this man presses down upon my father, as he inadvertently and unconsciously spits on him he talks, my father doesn’t tell him to go away, and doesn’t walk off himself. Instead, for the only time in my life I could swear I see my father grow a little misty-eyed behind his spectacles. This man who used to call me a wimp for crying too often, and who more often chided my grandfather than he expressed any pride in him--recalling times when he beat him as a child, and mocking his insistence, as a grown man, that professional wrestling was a true sport without predetermined outcomes.

In that moment, my father feels profound pride. And sadness. And for the first time, I recognize him not just as my father, but as somebody’s son.

A hydrocarbon gas with an empirical formula CH2 has a density of 1.88 grams per liter at 0 degrees Celcius and 1.00 atmosphere. A possible formal for the hydrocarbon is
(A) CH2
(B) C2H4
(C) C3H6
(D) C4H8
(E) C5H10

I don’t remember what an empirical formula is today. Or what factors affect the rate of a chemical reaction. Or any characteristics of the nitrogen family.

I hardly remember anything at all about taking the AP Chemistry test.

But I do remember the preparation.

And as I write, I’m reminded of one of the lessons from Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” about the value of what he termed “head fake” learning--the process of learning a skill or bit of wisdom without knowing it, through an apparently disparate process.

I remember studying for the exam learning a whole new lesson about hard work and commitment--about dedicating a process to someone else and meaning it. About what it meant to not allow myself to fail.

I never studied chemistry again after that spring, and didn’t have to in part because I scored a four out of five on the test, which the College Board defines as “Well qualified to receive college credit.”

And just the same, I learned a lesson about family. While my father doesn’t talk about his father all that often, Bock Wong’s name came up every now and again in the years to follow, mostly when we were in New York again talking to my grandmother, or one of my uncles. Sometimes they poke fun at my grandfather for the poor card player he was, or the way he would eat too much until he made himself sick. But then there are prouder stories. Tales of his time in the army, and how for a period of time he served as a mortarman. That over a period of three years he achieved the rank of Private First Class in the infantry and earned an honorable discharge.

Whether he wants it to show or not, I’ve seen in my father hints of pride.

And so, I have glimpses of the man my grandfather was, and I know I missed out on the biggest chance I’d ever have to know him when I missed the funeral. To this day, I wonder if it was the right choice. Because even for these stories I might collect, it’s still tantamount to reading about chemistry as opposed to working a lab. Studying words on page is one thing; it's another to experience a chemical reaction.

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