Friday, April 17, 2009

`To Make Sense of What Takes Place'

“With how many moles of sulfur do 6.2 moles of iron react?”

For the first time in 41 years I entered a classroom where chemistry is taught and found that bewildering sentence written on the “smart board” (slate’s digital replacement). My chemistry teacher in high school was a Ukrainian immigrant who, mid-semester, broke both of her wrists when she fell on an ice-covered sidewalk while walking her dogs. Her casts were so bulky she couldn’t lift a pencil or test tube, though she sparked my small but enduring interest in her subject.

I was back in chemistry class to assist a special-ed. kid – take notes, help with the math and so forth. He hadn’t done the homework, ignored the in-class exercises, wouldn’t write down the homework assignment and spent the class, feet on the desk in front of him, reading Siddhartha. I didn’t care for this kid to begin with but his devotion to Hesse cinched it. With two or three exceptions his classmates were loud and dim, and didn’t have the math required to solve equations in chemistry.

While eating lunch in the faculty lounge, I had read John Cheever’s “The Geometry of Love,” a story about Charlie Mallory, a “free-lance engineer” who decides to manage his life with the aid of Euclidian geometry. Like Spinoza, he uses the rigors of mathematical logic to plumb and organize the world. Cheever writes:

“He felt much better He felt that he had corrected the distance between his reality and those realities that pounded at his spirit. He might not, had he possessed any philosophy or religion, have needed geometry, but the religious observances in his neighborhood seemed to him boring and threadbare, and he had no disposition for philosophy. Geometry served him beautifully for the metaphysics of pain.”

Another substitute, a woman born in Bombay, joined me at the lunch table. She, too, was reading Siddhartha but with the understanding it was a biography, not fiction. “This is not how I remembered his story,” she said. I haven’t read Hesse since I last studied chemistry so I wasn’t much help. At one point, Charlie Mallory resolves to write a book -- Euclidean Emotion: The Geometry of Sentiment – and I take it Cheever would have been amused by the recent efforts of “Darwinians” to understand every human act, thought and emotion in terms of evolutionary advantage.

I had enough time at lunch to also reread “The Country Husband,” in which the main character, Francis Weed, is told by a psychiatrist to take up woodworking as a therapeutic hobby. Weed discovers “some true consolation in the simple arithmetic involved and in the holy smell of new wood.”

The chemistry teacher was exceptional, the best I’ve worked with – confident without cockiness, enthusiastic without being annoying about it. She expected a lot of the kids but never cajoled or threatened, and kept her cool when most of them disappointed her. I complimented her after class. She told me she was a first-year teacher but her contract was not being renewed because of a “budgetary shortfall.”

Included in Collected Stories and Other Writings, one of the Cheever volumes recently published by Library of America, is “What Happened,” an essay from 1959. I found my day and this blog neatly distilled in this passage:

“…I was happy for I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together incidents as disparate as a dance in Minneapolis and a backgammon game in the mountains so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is creative process, that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next and that we possess some power to make sense of what takes place.”

The answer to the question I started with, by the way, is 9.3 moles.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I found this post via A Commonplace Blog and love the final Cheever quote.

Piecing together seemingly unrelated events and manipulating them, either by force or serendipity to advise the chaos of life - it seems an innate human device, a coping mechanism.

Some of my (now) favorite books won me over by employing this device in the lives of their characters.

I finished Bouillier's The Mystery Guest recently and was hotly frustrated with the translation at the outset - but by the end of the book, Bouillier's *magical* talent of explaining away what I perceived as mechanical faults through his narrator's reasoning with the irrational and assigning agenda to the artless happenings in his own life turned my opinion COMPLETELY around.

The science-talk nearly scared me away, but I'm glad I stuck around. Great post.

Frank Wilson said...

Hi Patrick,
I'd go easy on the kid about Hesse. Just try to get him to read The Journey to the East instead. Hesse suffers from the inanity of his Anglophone readers, I fear. He is, in German, a very good writer, limpid and lyrical. What I find curious is why this kid is a special-ed student. He is reading Siddhartha (my least favorite of Hesse's books) and not some comic book.

R. T. said...

You have me envious, though I remain unsure about which one of the following:
(1) You have a much longer lunch break than I would have thought "normal" if you had time enough to do all of that reading you have cited;
(2) You must read much faster than I could ever hope to read because I could have never read so much during any of my lunch breaks.
Seriously, though, with my tongue now removed from my cheek, I enjoy visiting your blog; I enjoy your commentary on teaching, books, and other matters; and I very much envy your patience and commitment as a teacher. My teaching environment (in the university classroom) protects me from the kinds of challenges you face every day. I extend to you a hearty "Bravo."