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An essay accounting of one girl's Dantean journey through the bowels of chemistry class Hell.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Such are the words emblazoned before the gates of Hell. That, and C141.
It's eleven forty-four in the morning, and I head to my next class. It's fitting that it's a downward staircases, given where I'm headed. I can practically feel the temperature rising.
I have French before it, listening with interest but without effort, devoting it rather to pursuits of a scribbling-in-notebook nature. After the coming ordeal, I'll do the same thing over again in Latin, my favorite class. But for the moment, I must arm myself for conflict, with calculators and textbooks and notes from the whiteboard till my hand aches. I fight a losing battle, it seems, with my hated nemesis, Honors Chemistry.
It is not as if I have no love for the wonders of science. Far from it- in later life I hope to pursue the science of veterinary medicine. I expect this surprises you, given the attitude I've displayed. Although I would point out it is a far cry from the construction of canine phalangeal structures to converting moles of sodium chloride to grams. It is the particular demands of chemistry, by name the mathematical ones, that make it so much a struggle for me.
Things of its nature tend not to take much of a hold in my mind. The deeper delved into my thoughts, the more the activity has to do with heroic last stands, witty repartee, and underlying thematic theory. I am at heart, you see, a storyteller. Fitting also, then, that I parallel this tale of mine with an epic poem. I, the reluctant Dante, have a journey to make.
In the classical work, Dante, the novice, follows Virgil, the master, through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the hateful fires of Hades. I myself am guided through a slightly less fiery but equally onerous expedition- that of the class of Honors Chemistry.
Surely, I tell myself, surely the depths of the Inferno must be worse. Of course, remarks a bitter little voice in the back of my head, Virgil didn't assign Dante homework. Dante was allowed to work on his poem in peace. Dante didn't have to take tests. Dante didn't have to drag along a textbook of a weight that might make it suitable for use as ammunition in a catapult. So worse perhaps- but not much worse.
I undertake this journey for my personal betterment, so I'm told. Doesn't mean I enjoy it. Doesn't mean I want to go. I will, however, as a form of catharsis, take the time to construct a comparison between this and obscure allegorical literature. If elaborate Hell metaphors spring so readily to mind at this, there's certainly something that must be said. Yes, I believe there's a satire to be made of this, and my pen and omnipresent notebook are quick to my hands.
That's it. Creatively express the powerless rage.
Honors Chemistry, C141. Abandon all hope. Check. Onward I go.
I presume, with the unapologetic arrogance I'm known for, to compare myself to one Dante Alighieri, a Florentine poet of time-tested talent of which wiser heads should not even speak of their own ability with in the same sentence. As he himself, Dante the Poet, constructed the character Dante the Pilgrim, and sent him on a journey through the planes of the afterlife, so shall I send myself through Chemistry class.
Though the differences between our expeditions are not inconsiderable. Dante had to make but one solitary journey through the pit. Mine have lasted an hour and half a day, usually five days a week, for the last nine months. And, I might add, the Pilgrim also did not have much to struggle to understand- human weaknesses, the lifeblood of the Pit, are comprehensible, graspable. Not so the intricacies of chemical science. I'd wager Dante's head doesn't ache half so badly as mine did at the close of our respective journeys. Remind me again who suffered more.
Though the previous year the topic in this area of study, Biology, gave me no trouble, that lack of difficulty does me little good now. When there is nothing one must strive for, one does not learn how to strive. And when one suddenly must, one is, naturally, unable. At this, I can just see the demon that is Chemistry gleefully clapping his taloned hands. You've grown complacent, little storyteller, chuckles the Chemistry Demon. You did not need to work hard, you must have become lazy. That, my dear, must be remedied. Fear not- you will learn due prudence.
Apparently, someone sees fit that I must be punished.
The theme of Dante's Hell is symbolic retribution. As one sins, so one is punished. My sin is to be literary-minded, and I shall certainly pay for it here. A talent that comes naturally to me, one that had no teacher but the examples set by the masters, read in book after book celebrating the wonder that is the written word. This wonder is my power, and it is strong.
Strong, yes. Yet entirely useless to me here. It's not as if I can overcome it with classical literary conventions. "Back, foul beast of percent yield- I can detail the Thesean Progression!" How I wish.
To think mathematically does not come easily to me. Its rigid structure and definite form do not appeal to my learning style. I prefer rules that are not hard and fast, the layers and minute complexities of language and speech, all of it so subtle that it can only be grasped through observation and judgment, not from any formula. The use of numbers and the use of words have little in common- at their most basic, one is a power that must be taught, the other a power that cannot be taught. Though I don't need to learn the latter, I am confounded by the former. So I cannot, so I must. There is symbolic retribution, poetic justice.
Leading me and the rest through all this is our personal Virgil, the master who would teach me through braving this Inferno. Virgil, the virtuous pagan that leads the Pilgrim through the pit. One of those whose life warranted no punishment, but whose faithlessness barred him from Paradise.
Our Virgil is a servant of numbers, that which reigns in my Hell. Except that he cracks puns. A jarring combination, and- to put it mildly -not always a welcome one. Often Virgil offers these agonized attempts at wordplay, attempts more tortured than any suffering soul. And with every one, the pit echoes with the tormented moans of the damned. As if they do not endure enough.
Stick with numbers, Virgil. You've less luck with words.
Of my own offering of words, this very work, I am rather proud. While a rather unusual project, there are several reasons to why I undertook it in the first place. None of them are bemusing, really. To entertain, firstly- always, to entertain. More even that that, to show I've something of a brain in this head after all. Virgil, before anyone else, sees me at my intellectual worst. This, though, this bright and brilliant flashing of my rapier wit, is me at my intellectual best. I'm not stupid, far from it, in fact, and I would have no one forget it.
All that, and the fact that I'm a showoff at heart. Don't think I'm unaware of how glaringly pretentious the language is. And what's that? Why, yes, I have read Dante. How kind of you to notice. And Shakespeare. And Sophocles. And-
But I digress. Be still, my raging egotism. This is hardly the place.
There are other denizens of the pit that the master attends to. My guide pauses now and then to demand of the demon Geryon, in a voice of utmost exasperation, whatever it is that he wants. One would think a many-eyed giant would be a little more impervious to Virgil's piercing glare. There Sisyphus, the greedy Corinthian king, eternally rolls a great stone ball up a steep hill, but as he nears the summit, the ball escapes him and tumbles back down again. Every time it seems as if the task is completed, it turns out that it has failed, and then the whole wretched business must be begun over again.
Though our Sisyphus would have to be a queen- Virgil must have volumes written on her. Rarely is she without a word when for what seems the thousandth time, we discover we're not really finished.
Such is the nature of Hell and school- it never truly ends. Eternalize, Virgil is fond of saying. Yes, eternalized suffering in the depths of the pit.
Lovely. Now he has me doing it.
Hell is, at any rate, forever. But then, one is not to pity the damned souls in Hell. They brought it on themselves; they suffer as they deserve to. This, unfortunately for me, indicates that no matter how dearly I wish it was, it isn't Virgil's fault that I'm showing myself to be a poor student. As often as I may want to, in my more enraged and less rational moments, I place no blame there.
Nor can I be too fiercely jealous of those who suffer less. Over there, Cerberus, the massive three-headed hound that allows no soul to escape, bays nonsense. "Random," he snarls. "Indeterminate. Indiscriminate." His roaring annoys Virgil, for all that among all of us here he suffers least. Inexplicably Virgil bestows a nickname on the beast: he knows him as "Dave". So adept was this beast at serving Hell's agenda, he became part of Hell himself. I'll credit him this: he is good at what he does. He doesn't struggle- therefore I envy him bitterly, but have no right to resent.
Onward we go, as Sisyphus and Geryon and Cerberus continue with their own work. There are nine circles to pass through as the pit tapers downward. As I call them, atomic structure, stoichiometry, bonding, nomenclature, oxidation-reduction, thermochemsitry, frequency and wavelength, energy level diagramming, and periodicity. Each one has an accompanying mortal sin, to which all the committers are punished accordingly. As we travel deeper into Hell, the sins grow worse. What, though, will we ultimately meet? What damning vice is base by even the standards of Hell?
Is it Violence? Lust? Greed? Misuse of significant digits? None of these. The greatest sin in Hell is pride. Pride, the root of all evil.
One principle part of Dante's journey is to learn to let go of base mortal pride. Only then can he achieve the enlightenment Virgil hopes to lead him to. Ah, how the parallel there leaps off the page.
I entered my Hell, just as Dante did, with the same goal of learning in mind, entering under the same sign that would end all hope. Hope, though, is abandoned more readily than pride.
Pride is, above all else, my sin. I pay for that here as well.
The Chemistry Demon, delighting in my torment, would have me learn humility. You, little poet, says he, must be taught modesty. You will learn with hours of futile labor, agonized bitterness, and grade after ignominious grade. Your pride will cost you, little poet. It must be taken from you.
I see what the Chemistry Demon would have me pay for. It's a disappointing display, really- I'm self-aware enough to recognize it, yet not mature enough to get past it. For all the trouble it brings me, I cling to my stubborn pride.
I am not the sort that asks for help. I am not the sort that needs help. I am not average. Average, how I loathe the word.
And so I trek onward, wading through blood and fire and significant digits. Because I don't want to be that sort. I cannot to accept that my performance represents me. You wonder what I've learned this year. Shame, I've learned, perhaps. Humility, never.
Perhaps I've not learned enough.
I've the Mountain of Purgatory to travel through next. I'll moan, I'll complain, I'll write satire that references classical Italian epic poetry, through I'll go anyway. But I need a summer vacation first.