Like father (not) like son: Showed up in chemistry class

By Jayson Jacoby May 28, 2012 09:34 am

My son, Alexander, is completing his high school career by taking chemistry and physics.

Which makes him 50 percent smarter than I am.

Or maybe it’s 100 percent.

I’m equally lost among the precepts of mathematics as I am fumbling around in convoluted formulas of chemistry and the insane concepts of physics.

This is why I labored through only chemistry in high school, achieving, by way of the dogged determination that is the clueless student’s only advantage, a flaccid “C.”

(I was pretty deft with a Bunsen burner, as well. And one time I tried to make nitroglycerine, a failed effort that seemed to amuse the teacher. Probably because I didn’t hurt anyone.)

I have few distinct memories from chemistry class, but one retains that crystalline quality which our brains, in some cruel twist of human evolution, reserve for our most embarrassing episodes.

(Actually only part of the memory is still vivid; I have no recollection at all of the details of the problem we were supposed to solve.)

The occasion was a particularly rare one: An experiment that seemed to me, if not logical, at least understandable.

I volunteered to walk up to the blackboard (it was in fact green, but, as with the black kind, you wrote on it with chalk) and demonstrate the equation.

This I did.

Then the teacher explained, in a sad sort of voice, that I had botched it.

This didn’t shock me.

I wasn’t even especially mad.

Until the teacher told me where I’d gone wrong.

The gist of the thing was that I, being nothing if not prosaic, had figured coffee would have different chemical properties than tap water, and I had as a result adjusted my answer.

No need, the teacher said, employing that same gentle tone that the scientifically enlightened use to address dolts who think Ag is the chemical symbol for argon.

In other words, in the nonsensical world of chemistry, coffee is the same as water.

A couple of nasty retorts, both involving the effects of caffeine, briefly occurred to me, but I decided I didn’t need detention.

Small wonder, then, that I never even bothered to enroll in physics.

My fragile teenage psyche couldn’t deal with the expectoration of laughter that the physics teacher (who was thick as thieves with the smug chemistry teacher, I was certain) could never have choked back had I suggested to him that I was thinking of signing up.

Alexander, by contrast, seems to grasp both subjects with a facility that is gratifying to me as a father, but awfully annoying to me as a former disgraced student.

He was pulling down an “A” in both classes at the most recent progress report, in any case.

Alexander’s achievements, and his impending graduation, have spurred in me a third emotion to go along with pride and annoyance.


Alexander was just four when his mother and I divorced.

In the 13 years since, Alexander and I have never lived more than a mile or so apart.

Yet the distance between a parent who doesn’t have custody, and his children, is not the sort of gap which can be measured, with anything approaching accuracy, by miles.

Rarely, except for vacations, have more than a few days passed without Alexander coming over to my house.

And still I feel, in these last days before he dons his cap and gown, that time, that nasty, slippery character, has gotten away from me.

Or from us, I should say.

I have compared my memories with the changes the years have wrought, the transformation of a little boy with a crewcut the color of fresh straw, to a young man who has to look down a trifle to meet me eye to eye, and I have found my memories come up short.

I can’t account for the dozens, the hundreds, of changes that went into that evolution, can’t recall whether one year Alexander shot up three inches, or was it a more gradual but steady process.

These sorts of physical changes, of course, tend to be rather sneaky that way, and are capable of ambushing even the most doting parent.

“My, how fast kids grow up,” is a cloying cliché, and a misleading one — nothing fast happens over 13 years.

The more troubling thing for me, though, than wondering when Alexander’s voice first began to deepen toward its current timbre, is to ponder how much influence I had on how Alexander’s personality was formed.

I’d like to believe I contributed quite a lot, because I’ve not heard anyone speak ill of him.

He is polite, even deferential, and my parents in particular appreciate his penchant for asking enlightening questions, and his eclectic interests in pop culture.

But when I assess our relationship, with the fair yet somehow horribly clinical eye of the purely objective, I find that my actions, much like that day in chemistry class a quarter century back, are wanting.

Too much of our time together, it seems to me, has been taken up, by my lead, with the banal and the impersonal.

Too many conversations limited to “how’s school going?” and not nearly enough that started with “so why do you like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Office’ so much?”

Regrets aside, I must not indulge now in selfish melancholy.

I am too excited anyway about the prospect of watching Alexander walk across the lush grass, a handsome young man with a diploma in his hand and all the great, bright future ahead.

Plus those ‘A’s’ in chemistry and physics on his transcript, the insufferable brat.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.