They were the Mutt and Jeff of the New London High School science department. Chemistry teacher Solomon Gordon was short round and placid while A. Jerome Goodwin, who taught physics, was tall, spare, and sharp. I had more in common with Mr. Gordon, height, shape, and religion, than I did with the Swamp Yankee Mr. Goodwin but, when faced with choosing a required science course in my senior year, I elected to take physics. While I would have been more comfortable with Mr. Gordon, chemistry is conceptual and invisible On the other hand the classical physics taught by Mr. Goodwin was mechanics and visible.
Two years earlier I was in my sophomore year and found myself in Miss Maura Sullivan’s Modern European History class. She was no nonsense, demanding, and no one’s fool. I found that out when I tried when I tried to bamboozle her with my esoteric, yet disorganized, cornucopia of historical knowledge on the essay questions on my first test.
The test grade, a B- which brought a smile, was on the first page. The grin quickly turned to a grimace when I looked a page two and saw a neatly printed note in red ink, “Mr. Rocketto, see me!” My classmates went off to lunch while I sat in a straight backed chair next to her desk and subjected to the most terrifying interrogation of my young life.
Miss Sullivan began by telling me she thought I was a bright young man with a broad and deep knowledge of history, a positive start which sparked a brief silent sigh of relief. Then the other shoe dropped. Seeing right through me she went on to accurately note that I was disorganized, lazy, and lacked academic discipline. She told me I had great potential and would not put up with any slackness on my part and if she saw any after this little chat, woe betide me.
I left the room under her spell for she was one of the great motivators and teachers I ever had. She may have regretted the conversation because for the next two years I was sitting in her classroom for two classes every day, Ancient History, United States History, World History, and The Renaissance to the French Revolution. In all I spent a quarter of my high school years in her classroom.
Some years later I found myself as the department head of a high school science department. One of my annual tasks was to assign teacher’s course assignments, which I did based on each teacher’s interest, student request, and the exigencies of the schedule. I tried to be as fair as I could, but I selfishly used my position to avoid teaching chemistry. My perfidy was guided by something I had read in Miss Sullivan’s Modern European History class when studying Victorian England. Historian and moralist John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton,commented that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. One year it was impossible, and I found myself facing 30 students and a 190 days of tackling a course which I had no real background in or interest in teaching.
Making the best of the situation I boned up on the Periodic Table, atoms and molecules, states of matter, chemical reactions, solutions, gases, acids and bases, atomic and electronic structure, and a whole host of other boring things chemical.
But a funny thing happened during the first class in September. As I taught the subject I had avoided in high school I swear the shade of Miss Sullivan appeared to me and I unconsciously began to mix history I learned in her classes with my chemistry lessons. It was not planned but, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Topsy, it “growed.” While I covered the essentials of chemistry my lessons were more like a history of the discipline.
One of my best days was discussing the father of modern chemistry, the French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier. It combined my love of history and shooting with my miniscule knowledge of chemistry and it was a tour d’force. His major claim to fame was changing chemistry from qualitative to quantitative. Among other things he named hydrogen and also oxygen and the role they play in combustion, and discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same. Lavoisier also helped construct the metric system, although I am convinced that the only interest we have in the United States in the International System of Units is 9mm.
Lavoisier’s research into combustion gained him a seat on France’s Gunpowder Commission where he succeeded in producing better gunpowder b developing improved methods of granulating it, ensuring the homogeneity of the components, sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter-the mention of which drew its fair share of hardly concealed snickers from the more worldly wise of my students-and thereby increasing its supply,
During that time, a young Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours was a student of his at the Régie des poudres, the government agency responsible for the manufacture of gunpowder, Dupont would later say that the Du Pont gunpowder mills in the United States “would never have been started but for his kindness to me.”
In spite of his dedication to France, Lavoisier, had deep associations with the old political and social system, the Ancien Régime, andfell afoul of the French Revolution which had recently and violently overthrown it. Lavoisier was brought before a tribunal and convicted, without hearing or trial, of having plundered the treasury of France and of adulterating the nation’s tobacco with water. He quickly found himself with arms bound behind him, standing on a tumbrel, bound for the Place de la Révolution, and a date with le Rasoir National.
Eighteen months after he was guillotined Lavoisier was exonerated. His personal effects were delivered to his widow Marie Anne with a brief note reading “To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted.”
I like to think that when I delivered that lesson Miss Sullivan was looking down on me from the Great Teachers’ Room In The Sky with a slight smile of triumph and self- satisfaction for setting me right. As she sipped her coffee I have no doubt that she looked across the table at Mr. Gordon and Mr. Goodwin and, with a twinkle in her eye, winked.