Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
I am certain that my 11th-grade chemistry class pals and I used the name of the 35th element, bromine, as an only-sort-of ironic nickname for one another at some point during the course of the class. I don’t have any specific memories of doing so, but when I remember who my lab partners were, there’s no chance that we didn’t. Along with portmanteaus like “Broseph” or “Broso” (for Spanish class), calling your friend “Bromine” in chemistry class was surely hilarious exactly one time but was still repeated many more times.
I approached chemistry class in high school with the bare-minimum level of seriousness needed to get a grade that wouldn’t stand out on my transcript. As a junior, I knew that the sciences were not my favorite subjects and that I wouldn’t be pursuing any major in college that would require more science classes than the core curriculum. I was there to get by, more or less, not really to learn.
My lab partners, who were all men, had similar outlooks on the class—we were not going to be the type of people that would inspire each other to do better than we needed to. The teacher of the class, likewise, was kind of a goofball and did not bring any kind of rigor that would require us to try harder. We were all just killing time.
I had a lot of fun messing around with these guys. We had a kind of camaraderie that colors the warmest memories of my high school experience, where shared circumstance brings a level of intimacy that has to be worked for in other settings. Not all of high school was this way, but sometimes routinely sitting in the same room, facing the same direction, and being presented with the same information with the same stated goal is enough to feel close to someone. This closeness only compounded when the stakes felt low, and they felt pretty low in chemistry class. Nothing was serious. This was 2011 and Breaking Bad had just hit Netflix, so we probably said, “yeah, science!” in our best Jesse Pinkman voice anytime anything remotely interesting happened. I had to stay after school once because I put a magnet into a full jar of iron filings during a lab activity on magnetism.
While memories of chemistry class are ultimately good, I do sometimes think about what I missed. I wish I knew more about chemistry than I do. Most of what I have retained about chemistry comes from my middle school science teacher (who was exceptionally good) and not from any high school classes. I now know that education is valuable on its own merit and is more than just elaborate job training. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to “pursue” the sciences, I wish I would have taken what was in front of me more seriously.
And I also think about having a mindset where calling someone “Bromine” felt even a little funny. I do not have this mindset anymore. I suppose I grew out of it mostly, but it also feels emblematic of a type of masculinity that I’ve hopefully left behind or refined. Toxicity is dose-dependent, and I don’t think that my lab partners’ and my boyishness was enough to be poisonous, but it could have become so if not antidoted with further self-awareness and empathy. Maybe parts of it did become toxic in me or my lab partners.
I miss the type of forum that high school chemistry class provided, where important information about the world outside of ourselves is presented and important information about the world inside ourselves is learned.
Jordan Petersen Kamp graduated in 2017. He works as the Controller for Trellis, a certified Herman Miller furniture located in West Michigan. In his spare time he enjoys talking about the books and albums he looks forward to reading and listening to someday—the ones that he’s definitely heard of but not heard or read yet.