I have been thinking back on my school days a lot lately. Maybe that stems from having a son who is a senior in college who is taking some very difficult classes now and has some pretty difficult professors. Or maybe it stems from my son in high school who also has some pretty difficult AP courses this year, his senior year in high school.
Last weekend, I received an e-mail from my son’s high school AP chemistry teacher. She wanted me to know that she was concerned about my son’s understanding of AP chemistry, and wanted me to encourage him to stay after school for some tutoring help. He was struggling. She told me that while he was to be commended on his tenacity to try to understand the material in class by reading the textbook himself and trying to figure it out on his own, she felt that he would learn and gain a better understanding of the material if he would go to her for help. Her e-mail concluded with the following sentence:
Again thank you very much in advance for encouraging ____ to come in for help. He is such a great young man and I want nothing more than for him to leave this year fully understanding chemistry.
My first reaction after reading her e-mail was that I wanted to clone this teacher and have a million more like her. I was more than grateful to her for letting me know my son was struggling in her class. I had been to parent/teacher conferences in mid September, had met her and been very impressed with her. She seemed like she genuinely cared about her students and above all, wanted them to leave her classroom at the end of the year having a good working knowledge of chemistry. She let me know at that time that she was available for after school tutoring almost every day.
I majored in animal science in undergraduate with an emphasis in pre-veterinary medicine. I lived and breathed getting into veterinary school. It’s all I thought about. Overall, I considered myself a pretty good student. My minor was chemistry, which just happened to be my worst subject. It was a subject I did not like (mostly because I just couldn’t seem to understand the stuff). I never made better than a C in most of my chemistry courses, and in the end, I was usually left hoping and praying for that C.
When it came time to take Organic Chemistry, I signed up for a professor who other students had warned me not to get. I didn’t have a choice as all the other classes with the other professor who taught organic were full (now I know why). This class was insanely difficult. This professor was impossible. He was my ideal vision of the worst teacher ever. I got the feeling that he didn’t like any of us nor did he care to be teaching any of us. Going to him for help usually always ended up with him belittling me and me leaving having not learned a thing and feeling worse off than when I started out for help. So I never went to him for help. I studied and studied and for the life of me, couldn’t do any better than C’s, D’s, and F’s. Each test, I entered the classroom thinking I had a decent understanding of the material and was sure to improve, but each test, I flunked. Then word got around that this particular professor- this professor that I had for Organic Chemistry- was quoted as saying that he enjoyed seeing students fail, because it “built character.” I should have dropped his class at that point like a hot potato. But I didn’t. And I’m still asking myself why. I thought to myself that I would just keep working as hard as I could and somehow I would pass. I didn’t. I was taking the course with a good friend and despite all our efforts, we both made our first ever F on a grade report. (That exceptionally bright friend, by the way, went on to get a Ph.D in Biochemistry). That semester, I had straight A’s in all my other classes and a big fat F in organic chemistry. As a matter of fact, there were 36 students in that organic chem class and 18 of us failed! Now, if my mathematical calculations are correct, EXACTLY 50% of the class failed! Furthermore, I learned that there were NO A’s, and only 1 B. The student who made the B was an acquaintance of mine (also a pre-vet major), who was extremely bright and who had a 4.0 GPA going into this organic chem class. He was only points away from making an A, but this professor would not budge, nor would he grade on a curve.
I was devastated with my F. I had pretty much been an A and B student throughout my college years. How would I ever get into veterinary school with an F on my record? I didn’t think I would. I later heard that a whole group of students had gone and complained about this professor to the higher-ups but since he had just received tenure, were told that “nothing could be done.”
Thankfully, I received some good advice from a veterinarian (who had also failed organic chemistry). He advised me to register for organic chemistry at Tennessee State University during the summer. He assured me the professors there were excellent and I WOULD learn and pass organic chemistry. So that’s what I did. I spent the entire next summer at TSU taking both semesters and both labs of organic. The two professors that I had, both for the classrooms and the labs, were excellent teachers. They were both elderly men whom I came to respect and admire. They knew their stuff. They both had an excellent sense of humor and they made an extremely difficult class even sorta fun. They refused to move on until the entire class understood the material (unlike Mr. Professor who enjoyed seeing students fail because it built character). We moved at a very fast pace that summer and had tests every single day on what we had learned the day before. We were called at random to the board for daily board work (something that I will admit traumatized the heck out of me at the time, but it sure made me learn the material…. after all who wants to make an idiot out of themselves in front of the entire classroom?)!
In the end, I made 4 straight A’s that summer- one A in each semester and one A for each semester’s lab. I was overjoyed. I had worked hard and it had paid off. And most importantly, I actually had understood organic chemistry!
I don’t even know if Mr. Professor who liked seeing students fail because it built character is still even living now, but I often wish that I had written him a letter. I had this strong overwhelming desire to mail him a copy of my straight A grades in Organic with a letter of how much I learned that summer from a couple of excellent professors who cared. I didn’t. Something deep inside told me that it wasn’t the right thing to do.
I guess my question to you, the reader, is: Do you think failure builds character? I’m not sure that this was the problem I had with this professor. I think maybe it was the part where he said he “enjoyed” seeing people fail. It was almost like he had some sort of sick perversion with seeing students fail his class. That’s the part that bothered me. Let me know your thoughts.