Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Sneeze in Chem 30

As most of us are, I was raised with certain expectations of etiquette; I was expected always to carry a handkerchief in my right hip pocket. Fundamental issues of etiquette were not to be questioned in my family of origin; they were to be remembered. (For example, to remember how one uses a spoon when eating soup: "As the ships that sail to sea, I push my spoon away from me.") One of my early and very minor rebellions at Carleton was to disregard this habit of always carrying a handkerchief, thinking it 'prissy'. I was two years into my ‘college experience’ before I appreciated the consequence. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, what people are embarrassed about usually makes a good story. (Maybe he was being cynical; I can't tell.)

Anyone in pre-med at Carleton had to take Chem 30, Quantitative Analysis, from Professor Ramette. Among chemistry professors, Richard Ramette was notorious for comporting himself with a barely concealed arrogant sneer. No supercilious snob; the man was just plain ruthless. He had no tolerance or compassion for individuals who didn't perform, and he clearly enjoyed intimidating people. There was a girl who took Chem 30 the year after I did, who always brought her German Shepherd with her to classes; the well-behaved dog lay quietly on the floor next to her. Seeing her and her dog on the first day of Chem 30, Ramette smiled grimly and commented, “That dog will probably do better in this class than most of you.” [Nervous laughter from the class.] For some reason, I still have my textbook for Chem 30 sitting in a bookshelf; it's sort of like a Purple Heart—I took that hit/wound in service of a goal, and lived.

The class was held in Leighton Hall, in one of the large and airy lecture rooms on the West side of the building with elevated rows of seats going up to the back of the room. The chairs with little ‘armrest’ surfaces to write on were lined up in rows closely packed together. Susan Cray (Class of 1971) and I often sat next to each other in Chem 30, commiserating about slide rule errors and speculating in general as to what the hell was going on in this course, anyway. Susan was a beautiful, charming girl with a sophistication and demeanor possessed only by girls (a whole year) older than I was. That she felt inclined to be friendly towards me and seemed even to enjoy talking with me was deeply touching and helped my vulnerable male ego more than she could know.

One week in the late fall of 1970, a particularly nasty cold was going around school. Many of us had runny noses. My head felt thick and heavy; the voices of people talking to me sounded like they were coming from under water. As best as I can recall, I must have been managing my runny nose by manfully sniffling and swallowing [gross], but in any case getting along without a handkerchief.

So, I'm sitting next to Susan in Chem 30 class, and half way through the class I begin to get an acutely distressing sensation behind my nose, deep in my face. Sneezes usually begin as a mere tickle, and various strategies can be employed to distract the physiologic imperative to follow. Not this time—I felt like a bug was slowly crawling up my nose into my head, and this irresistible itch was going to get involuntarily scratched no matter how I felt about it. It started coming from a point just in front of my brain, and knew it was hopeless; the lid was coming off.

In a single, juicy blast I managed to express nearly a cupful of runny, gelatinous goo down the front of my sweatshirt. Any clinical distinction of it being clear and non-purulent was of no consolation. Susan looked at me with equal parts of sympathy, revulsion, and puzzlement (i.e. “How in the world could you let that happen?!”) I didn't know whether I got anything on her, but that seemed beside the point. Ramette stopped talking, turned, looked up at me, and seeing the mess on my chest looked at me with equal parts of amusement, contempt and indifference. I hadn't felt this embarrassed in a classroom since second grade when I got sick after a lunch of bad chow mien and threw up on Natalie Forster, a sensitive, refined and delicate girl, who sat in front of me. But this time there was no kind and understanding Mrs. Brachagen (my second grade teacher) to send me to the school nurse's office while she cleaned up the mess I'd made.

How can I describe what followed? I just sat there next to Susan in the middle of Chem 30 class with a cup of snot smeared down the front of my sweatshirt, wishing to God I could disappear into the floor. I felt trapped—as though I needed to wait and be granted permission by the lordly and formidable Richard Ramette to leave his class. (We didn’t call him “Richard the Lizard Hearted” for nothing.) What if I tried to leave and he said, “Where do you think you're going?!” If that were to happen to me now, I'd say, “Please excuse the interruption—I'm covered with snot and need to leave now.” However, back in the fall of 1970, I just sat there in my desk for the last 15 minutes of class and wanted to die.

There was simply no way to hide the shimmering glop of mucous spread down my chest and stomach. I didn't want to see the looks on people’s faces in Chemistry class or outside of Leighton as I escaped after class across The Bald Spot to my dorm room in Davis to change.

At the next Chem 30 class later that week, I wasn't sure whether I dared sit next to Susan. But I did, and as I sat down she smiled and gently teased me, “Are you feeling better?” The best I could do was say, “Oh God … yes, thanks.” Bless her; she was kind enough not to press the subject any further. Maya Angeliou once said that we may forget what others have said, and we may forget what others have done, but we always remember how others made us feel.

For years I'd hoped that people would forget that day (I will always remember it). And most have likely forgotten, having more important things to remember, wonder or worry about. So why am I bringing it up here and now? Because it's much better to remember and laugh--to take away the power of the embarrassment--than it is to continue worrying that others may remember what a complete idiot I looked that day.


Susan said...

Your comment over at O Mighty Crisis re Navy Seals was too funny and your banner photo way too sweet cheers from another "any" dog will do (but a weakness for red retrievers) lover in Nova Scotia

Jocelyn said...

See? See, Todd?

Your comment was no big deal--quite the contrary, as Susan's presence here reveals!

I was in Leighton there with you, as I read. I was imagining the room I took Russian Literature in.

Anyhoo, my thoughts are totally off your main point: 1) you had chow mein the 2nd grade? Wow; 2) you sure do remember each and every lovely young lady who ever sat next to you...

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