A passing grade

As seems to happen with greater and greater frequency with each passing year, I recently received an email asking for reminisces or memories about a former teacher who recently passed away.

In this case, it was Catherine Boczkowski, my third-form chemistry teacher.

I was fortunate enough to attend a high school whose faculty contained — and continues to contain — many beloved teachers who possessed the rare blend of expertise, dedication, and compassion required to be a great educator. Even in this cohort, however, Dr. Catherine Boczkowski was recognized as a luminary.

I don’t doubt that there will be many people who provide stories about her warmth, humor, dedication to her students and her responsibilities within the department, and her flawless skill at the blackboard. Therefore I will not add to these, but instead will share a story that I believe may be unique, and that I haven’t shared before.

I came to the school in my third form, and enrolled in the standard introductory third form chemistry class. Dr. B. was my teacher. I had had no former experience with chemistry, and I found the subject both challenging and interesting. Dr. B. praised my rapid adjustment to the rigors of the school, and urged me to pursue studies in the field. In my heart, I knew that I’d never be a chemist, because the smells in the lab always gave me a headache, but I couldn’t refuse her encouragement. None of my other teachers had ever hinted that my performance in the classroom might actually lead to some sort of career.

My marks for assignments during the term were strong, but I knew I needed a good grade on the exam in order to achieve an A for the term, and therefore I was determined to do well on the final examination. The night before, I secretly studied well past lights-out. In the morning, I overslept and barely reached the field house in time to start the test.

For readers unfamiliar with the school during that era, many of the final examinations, particularly for the larger courses, were proctored in the field house. Long rows of desks filled the basketball courts and the wrestling areas, and students from different courses were intermixed in a complicated pattern to ensure that students were not tempted to cheat. While you were solving an equation, the student on your right might be translating passages from Latin and the student on your left might be writing an essay on post-war Japan.

I arrived late, and a proctor ushered me to one of the few remaining chairs, and asked me what class I was in.

“Dr. B.’s chemistry, I answered.”

He reached into his folder, fished out a test and handed it to me. I began working through it immediately, thankful that I hadn’t been locked out on account of my tardy arrival.

The first problem, which is traditionally just an ice-breaker, was difficult. The second and third problems were harder. The fourth problem seemed familiar in form, but required math that I hadn’t seen before to balance the equations. I started to worry, but I worked through the problem and eventually solved it.

It was clear that I had not studied enough, but I was determined to do my best. After taking so long on the fourth problem, I was certain that I was far behind the pace and would not be able to complete the exam. Therefore, instead of continuing on through the problems in order, I decided to skip ahead and answer the questions that looked easy first, to assure that I’d have all the easy points tucked away before time ran out.

Unfortunately, there weren’t many easy questions, and eventually I reached a question that I didn’t even know how to start. The question contained several terms that were unfamiliar, and weren’t mentioned anywhere else in the exam. I was completely stumped.

It was permitted to ask the teachers for clarification on the problems after some time had elapsed. I could see some of my classmates scattered around the room. I was sure that some of them must have reached this question already, but none of them had asked for clarification. I hadn’t noticed them asking any questions at all. I could see them writing steadily. They didn’t seem puzzled. I was thinking for long moments before trying each new approach, while answers were flowing out of their pencils as quickly as they could write.

I’d always had some doubts about whether I truly deserved a seat at this school, and now these doubts ran rampant. I was utterly out of my depth.

I raised my hand, and Dr. B. came over to my desk.

“I don’t remember this word,” I whispered, pointing to the mysterious passage on the exam. “Is it a typo? Or can you give me an example?”

She leaned close to read the test, and then stepped back, shaking her head. A smile flashed across her face, and then was replaced by a look of serious concern.

“Danny, oh, Danny,” she whispered, “What are you doing here?”

I had been asking myself the same question.

“I mean,” she continued, “Why are you sitting in the row for my Advanced Placement students?”

She took the paper from me, and handed me the proper test.

“Better hurry,” she whispered. “You don’t have much time left.”

The questions on the third form introductory chemistry seemed much easier, and there were no unfamiliar terms. From time to time, I looked up and saw Dr. B. reading through my first test, making notes, showing it to another chemistry teacher, who seemed to find it amusing.

It took every second of the exam period, but I finished all of the questions. As we were dismissed from the examination room, Dr. B. stopped me.

“How did it go?” she asked. I was embarrassed by my mistake, but proud that I’d finished exam.

“I think I did OK.”

“I think you probably did too. By the way, you might think of taking Advanced Placement Chemistry in a few years. Once you’ve taken the prerequisites, of course. After all, you’ve already passed the final.”

Rest in peace, Master Catherine Boczkowski.

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