I was the smartest man alive. This wasn’t arrogance, conceit or some false air of pretentiousness—this was a scientific, empirical fact. The class average was a 40 percent. And here I was, sitting in chem lecture, with a gaudy “75” bursting out of a red circle at the top of our first quiz of the year.
Up until that moment, I had considered switching out of the class. I was an English major—what was I doing in a freshman chem lecture, taught by a man who was widely known for being one of the hardest professors at Boston College?
But 35 points above the class average meant that I could be one of the greats: a world-renowned scientist, carving my name in history alongside the likes of Einstein or Newton or… Einstein. I can’t think of another example. I’m an English major, after all.
Let’s step back in time for a moment: freshmen orientation, day one. High school was in my rearview mirror—a whole three weeks ago—but in my mind, a decade could’ve passed. Coming from a small all-boy’s school in the Boston area, I was ready to take the leap from being a big fish in a 40-fish pond to an even bigger fish in an ocean of 9000. I was invincible.
Registering for classes with my schedule perfectly planned out, I was ready to take on the world. But then one of the classes I wanted to take was full. And then another. And then a third. Time was running out: We had to move on to whatever team-building “what-kind-of-mineral-would-you-be?” icebreaker that was planned next. To fill my schedule, a professor suggested knocking out my natural science requirement early. She asked if I liked chemistry in high school. I replied, “kinda.”
Flash forward back to chemistry. Molecules, moles and matter mashed into my mind, mowing over my usual musings on Mark Twain and Karl Marx. H2O was still water: I was at least certain of that.
Well, that and the fact that I was no longer at the top of the class. In fact, I was much closer to the bottom. I was drowning. I swam through the textbook, but instead of buoying me with knowledge, it clogged my gills. I was no longer the majestic Great White at the top of the food chain, preying upon the academic curve. Instead I was now the minnow, darting nervously in the shallows, simply trying to survive with an ever-elusive “B-.”
But I missed my mark, and it wasn’t even close. As the semester drew to a close, I faced stark reality; I had fallen below the curve on nearly every major assignment, and, by the time finals came around, I was simply praying to pass the class. Which I did. Barely. My GPA is still on the 12-step road to recovery, as is, to some degree, my pride.
With that class, however, came a lesson that is best learned early in one’s college career: Do what you love. I worked hard in that class, I persevered and I didn’t quit, but I just didn’t have the tools or the math background to excel. I sunk my life into that class, going to the extra help sessions, living in the library and dedicating hours a day to the frustratingly impossible online problem sets. I still visibly gag when I hear the words “Mastering Chemistry.”
At the end I had little to show for it. Still, I’m glad I had the experience. I came out ready to recommit myself to academics and to stick my thumb in the hole in the wall that had been hemorrhaging floodwater all over my transcript.
This might sound like I’m trying to discourage optimistic and fresh-faced freshmen from trying new things. I’m not. College is precisely the time to branch out. But I realized that it is also a time to realistically assess strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge strategically. It may just take freshmen chemistry to figure that out.