How to get an A in Chemistry

At Age 34.

With 3 Kids.

And a Husband and a Dog and a (part-time) job.

OR: The Story of My Last Few Months as a Student

Joining the ranks of the “going back to school” crowd was something I never expected to do. I used to roll my eyes at classes over the age of 25 when I was a teenager in college. They were so serious and dedicated to doing homework. Total brown-nosers. I got my degree in my mid-twenties and then joined the work-force, eventually settling for my part-time gig at Starbucks as I have three children at home. Starbucks suits me just fine, for now, but whenever I fill a mop bucket or patiently explain the difference between a Java Chip Frapp and a Double Chocolatey Chip Frap to a fourteen-year-old a bit of my soul dies.

So, last semester I decided to enroll at the community college. Nursing has always seemed like a “great option” with “flexible hours” and “amazing pay”. I like helping people. Talking about “goals” and “aspirations” helps me feel like I’m not wasting my life away, but actually signing up and paying tuition made it all very real to me.

I’ve taken a few other classes from Suffolk (the community college) over the years towards the goal of nursing but this was the first science class. I’ve fulfilled every other non-science prerequisite so I now had to face the meat of these core classes.

I heard from three fellow baristas, all young and smart, “Chemistry is fun!”. Is it though? I took a course in my undergrad years, more than ten years ago and I didn’t do so well. Granted, I wasn’t motivated and I spent way more time planning on which bar I’d frequent with my girlfriends rather than studying, but chemistry really wasn’t my jam. I scraped by with a somewhat decent grade and focused on my English degree.

So the first day of class I approached the room with trepidation. The room was completely full. A good mix of the community at this entry-level course: teenagers with speckled acne and plenty of women my age. I sat next to one and we quickly found out we both harbored the same goal of nursing. “It’ll be easy!” She said to me, clutching her 7/11 coffee, “Nursing is great!”

Our teacher was an older Indian woman in a sari. She seemed very calm, very kind; informed us she had never once failed a student and she wouldn’t fail any of us and said chemistry is easy and we would all fall in love with the science and the beauty of it.

I was impressed and felt happy. I got a great professor!

But then she started lecturing and I quickly realized she was disorganized and all over the place. A student sneezed, another student said “God Bless” and she went on a 5-minute tirade about “cockroaches” forming when one student says “God Bless” and it’s a major distraction- her little detour on her expected decorum in class lasted five minutes.

I quickly learned I would need to teach myself the bulk of the class work. I started studying. Daily. I devoted at least 45 minutes a day to the damn chemistry book. The first exam came. I had the highest grade at 83%, but the majority of students scored in the 20’s and 30’s.

I befriended a gab of older lady friends (I say older but they were all my age). They would text me questions all the time, but never questions about chemistry. No, they asked things like, “How are you doing so well?” “What can I do to do better?”. I was kind in my responses; “Well, go onto the online module at just work the problems over and over…” “I have to study a lot. I set a timer and just work until it goes off…” “It’s a lot of work but the resources are there”.

I get it. It’s hard to study something that you have zero interest in. Chemistry isn’t the most exciting science, and a lot of it feels made up. But once I got the hang of dimensional analysis figured I could tackle any math-related problem thrown at me. There wasn’t much memorization, really, you just had to get a feel for the periodic table. Moles and molarity and molecules and atoms have the same basic problem set up- you just can’t let all the words and chemical formulas throw you off.

So slowly I started feeling less sorry for my fellow students and felt more sympathy for our professor. They started rebelling against her, calling the dean, many of them eventually dropped out. They blamed their poor performance on her teaching style. The texts from them started getting very annoying; “We are PAYING for a grade she can’t fail me!” “What does chemistry have to do with nursing anyway?” “I don’t have time to study, we should learn this all in class!”

I have three children. Two were still in diapers when I started the class. I’m still breastfeeding the youngest. My husband is gone for long chunks of time. I work the closing shift at Starbucks and it exhausts me. I could find a million reasons why I couldn’t study but guess what. Between training for a half-marathon, workouts, 3-11pm shifts at the Bucks and a baby who STILL doesn’t sleep through the night, it really wasn’t that hard finding the time to study for 45-minute stretches.

And I actually grew fond of studying. Not the subject matter, really, but the process of it. Sitting down in a quiet atmosphere, playing the “study” playlist on Spotify, and really focusing on my work. No distractions. Actually concentrating on something pretty complicated and applying my brain towards something more challenging than “I, like, want a cappuccino? But with no foam? And non-dairy but extra whipped cream?”

The media obsession with lazy millennials started making sense to me. Let’s not take personal responsibility for ourselves and just whine about our 20% exam average. Our class of 35 quickly dropped to 12. Of those twelve, one other woman and I averaged high 80’s to mid 90’s on the exams, there were two men who were averaging solid 70’s, but the rest of the class took test after test with scores in the 20’s. Our professor even let us retake an exam, one that was particularly tricky (formula names and balancing) and even with the retake, which we studied for a week straight, most only got 30%. For the last exam, the professor GAVE US THE TEST to study from. The exact test, just some of the numbers or formulas were tweaked. Me and my lab partner both got 100%- those other women my age but with less children than me? 30%!

So, if you’ve made it to the bottom of my chemistry-class-bitch-fest, first of all, thanks…and secondly, the answer to this post’s title is pretty simple. If you want to get an A in Chemistry, you’ve gotta study your butt off and even if your professor has a 1.8-star rating on, it’s up to you to find a way to pass. Seriously, if this old lady with babies and a husband can manage, anyone can.

Next up for the Spring semester is Anatomy and Physiology. I’m nervous, but, I know I’ll do it. And if I can’t do well, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.