It’s Wednesday, 5pm, and I’m nervously awaiting my grade in Organic Chemistry, the class I’ve been quietly suffering through since January. Heightening this anticipation, I’ve been getting barraged by a stream of anxious texts from my classmates all afternoon, kids for whom this matters a great deal more than it does with me.
“How’d you do?” “Think he’ll curve?” “The final was so hard!”
It all started on a whim. A local community college was offering it at a time that worked with my full-time schedule, and it was super cheap ($300). Why not? Never mind that I’m a year younger than the teacher and twice the age of every student in the room, current nurses and future doctors who talk of entrance exams and hangovers.
Fortunately, most of them haven’t probed too much. What they know about me is that I’m some sort of “computer guy,” that I’m married, and that I’m taking the class for no clear reason.
And that I’m much older than all of them. I want to elaborate that while some men have midlife crises, others take college courses that have no bearing on their lives. But they usually tune me out when I talk – it’s so hard to compete with the allure of social media.
There’s another piece of weirdness about this experience. This campus, this community college in the heart of Houston’s Third Ward, used to be my high school. The classroom where I have been studying OChem stands on the ancient burial ground that once housed my algebra and history classrooms.
And stranger still, not all of that old HSPVA campus is gone. Several times during the semester, I found myself standing in hallways that had barely changed thirty five years later: the main rotunda, the theater, the dance studio. HSPVA before it moved to Montrose. And me, a fresh Kentucky transplant thrown head-first into an open campus slathered in culture and diversity. That first week, I saw two dancer boys making out in the courtyard. I joined a funk band. My insulated upbringing changed forever as I became immersed in the school’s diverse student body. More than the music training I received there, I’m most grateful for the life awakening this campus provided.
These kids simply have no idea how surreal it’s been for me to be back here again.
Why am I here then?
So a few years ago my wife got cancer. She’s cured now, thankfully, but at the time, we didn’t know what to expect. Because we are powerless in these situations, my solution was to learn everything I could about the disease itself. The more I read, though, the less I understood. I began buying textbooks at used bookstores. Then I found a few online courses in biochem and physiology. Yet the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew about the body and biology and ultimately, chemistry.
Since my last formal chemistry class was thirty years prior, I decided to spend a few months re-learning what was long forgotten (online, of course). After three months of self-motivated homework sets and flashcards, I decided I was probably as ready as I could be.
Organic Chemistry, or “orgo” as it’s known, is not just the course you take after general chem, it’s a rite of passage. Notorious for forcing poor pre-meds students to assimilate hundreds of random, seemingly unconnected facts, it serves as the first major weed-out for anyone seriously considering a career in medicine. My image of it has been one of flashcards and study groups and strange arrows connecting electrons in a dance whose beat most of us can’t feel.
And so here I am, three months later killing time while the teacher laughs his way through my attempts at mechanisms and reactions.
Okay, time to log in and check my grade again.
Second highest grade on the final. Not too shabby, old guy!
During this course I couldn’t resist creating my own study apps. Here’s the AngularJS OChem reaction site I created and shared among disinterested students.
Later, I started working on a molecular builder app and a more elaborate version of the above app. I never finished it but it’s still kind of cool