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Mr. McNeil's lesson in the alchemy of learning

Chemistry was my hardest subject in high school. Math escapes the cellar spot only because I had a shaky grip on the times tables and could sometimes add and subtract correctly. But I liked chemistry very much, in spite of an almost-total lack of comprehension. It was mysterious and powerful and, for me, unknowable. I treated it with deference and respect.

My teacher, Mr. McNeil, had a perfect love for chemistry, which he demonstrated by acquiring a PhD and coming to my rural high school to share his enthusiasm. The trouble was that excess chemistry facts in Mr. McNeil's head seemed to have used up most of the space. There was little room left for words, which I badly needed from him in the form of explanations.

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He'd stand in front of me, smiling and nodding, his thin, freckled hands stirring the air. "It's ... well, the atoms, you know ... they react! The electrons here, too many, really ... something has to change!" I could feel his genuine wish to transmit what was inside his head, an earnest hope that by his force of will and love of chemistry I would see the big picture. It didn't work. I really needed more words.

Learning by experiment wasn't helpful either. The only bit of knowledge that stuck fast was that it was sometimes dangerous to mix certain chemicals. Even water, which had previously escaped my notice as a chemical at all, might suddenly blow up if it was combined with acid in the wrong way. I knew I could never keep it all straight. The one thing I felt sure of was that water could be combined with more water without any danger. I bypassed the test tubes full of smelly, iridescent substances and did all my experiments with plain H20. It was monotonous but completely safe.

BUT there was one part of chemistry I learned perfectly. A large poster of the periodic table, Mr. McNeil's favorite piece of art, hung at the front of our classroom. He frequently stood gazing at it, tapping at his favorite elements with a long pointer, saying, "Yes ... ytterbium, Yb, quite different from Y, yttrium. The atomic weights, you see...." He would trail off, looking at the poster in trance- like reverie. I knew just how he felt. I loved the periodic table, too. There it was, chemistry spelled out, something I could memorize.

And I did memorize it, all of it, even the atomic weights. I could recite it with my eyes closed. It was the words, the text to nature's grand oratorio with music I could not hear. Beethoven knew a good melody even when he was deaf, and so did I.

Report cards came out at the end of the year. I glanced past the A's in English and history and the hard-won C-plus in math. Mr. McNeil was known was a tough grader. Since the only questions I got right on the tests involved the periodic table, and all my experiments involved mixing water, I had little hope. But there it was, a bright red A. In the comment column he'd written, "Good effort."

I still haven't decided if he was remarking on his effort or on mine. But it doesn't matter.

The "A" I earned was for the class I took, chemistry appreciation, a different class from the one the other students were in. I never took another chemistry class. My recitation of the periodic table nowadays would be full of gaps and mistakes. But I still like chemistry, and in my mind I see the elements dancing and swirling in ways I don't grasp, and a kind teacher who understood both them and me.

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