When I was a senior in college, I failed organic chemistry.
There, I wrote it. I, the salutatorian of my high school graduating class, failed sophomore level chemistry. I didn’t even come close to passing. Can you imagine what a terrible situation that was? I was a senior, i.e., I was already done with about 80% of my major. If I had been a freshman, or even a sophomore, I could have just switched majors. As it was I had no choice but to soldier on and repeat orgo – not, as so many of my classmates did, to try and replace a C with a B or a B with an A, but to obtain course credit. F’s, of course, don’t count for anything.
How did I get to such a point? It took three years of a vicious circle. I matriculated with clinically diagnosed PTSD and depression. I chose a difficult university that I was completely unprepared for. No one told me that the 60 I got on my first gen chem midterm could’ve been salvaged to a B in the course. I looked at that 60 and saw failure.
The more depressed I got, the less energy I had. The less energy I had, the worse I did in class. The worse I did in class, the less motivation I had to try. I grew completely discouraged. My sadness sunk its claws deeper.
It would be tempting to blame my poor performance in school on external forces. Deep down, though, I know I have no excuse. I could have done so much better, but I didn’t act fast enough, and that’s how I found myself sobbing in my organic chemistry professor’s office in March of 2013, having had my third panic attack in as many midterms.
At my school, orgo midterms are two hours long. For two hours, I stared at that exam. I cried. I went to the bathroom to splash water on my face and ended up sitting on the toilet and crying. I pulled down my hair and dug my nails into my scalp willing myself, begging myself, to remember something, anything, but I kept coming up blank. At the end of the two hours, I looked about as terrible as I have ever looked. I gave my professor the poor pitiful midterm and then she took me to Coffeehouse and bought me a chai latte.
It was around that point, when I formally declared my major, that I decided things had to change. They did – slowly. I dug my heels in and refused to let my GPA drop any lower. I found myself a good doctor and an even better counselor. I got involved with theatre and with running some of the committees in my dorm. And yes, I was terrible at both of those things, but the point was I refused to stay still. I knew that the second I slowed down, my bad thoughts and behaviors would catch up with me again.
They did of course, in the autumn of 2014, when I failed orgo II. That one semester was like a condensed version of my whole time in college, where I kept getting abysmally low exam scores and being too ashamed to ask for help. The only plus to that semester was that I hated chemistry so much that I spent much more time and effort on my other science course, immunology, which I had actually chosen to take and which I loved dearly.
At this point, some of you may be wondering why I didn’t just major in English, for God’s sake, because looking at my transcript I obviously did much better in English than in my own major. I took 27 hours of English classes, which would almost have been enough to give me a double major had they been the right courses. But I wasn’t interested enough in English as a discipline; I just wanted to learn to write poetry. Narrow-minded? Probably. Stubborn? Hell yes.
I love biology. I really do. That’s why I chose to stick it out. And that’s why, despite my awful grades as an underclassman, I made no grade lower than a B in any of my upper-level electives. Yes, I did fail orgo II, and yes, it did take me all four years to grasp the concept of PCR (*hangs head in shame*), but I also got to listen to my biochemistry professor tell us about the proper type of fat to use in making cookies. I learned far too much about Marburgvirus. I isolated my first bacterial culture (Serratia marcescens, my baby), and I even got to hook electrodes to the leg muscle of an undead frog. Alongside all of that, I still got to work on my poetry.
This past semester I ditched theatre and sports and focused every last brain cell I could on orgo. I wrote 240 pages of notes and spent 12 TA sessions working on literally hundreds of multistep problems, and I walked into that final – my last ever – with a caramel frappuccino in my hand and determination in my soul. Halfway through the three-hour exam, as I took my bathroom break, I looked at myself in the mirror and could not believe that I was looking at the same person who had cried so terribly and uncontrollably in orgo I. Somewhere in that 2.5 years, I had become someone who was really worthy of a B.A. from Rice.
When I was an underclassman, I believed I had let everyone down: my high school teachers, my family, my professors, and especially myself. Right now, looking at the “Approved to Graduate” status on my student record, I don’t believe I’ve let anyone down at all.