For decades, one sin from my distant past has come back to haunt me.
It happened my junior year in high school and involved The Bayou Swamp Thang - Carl Marsalise.
In name, Carl Marsalise was the Saranac Lake High School chemistry teacher - in reality, he was anything but. Saying he was an incompetent teacher is like saying O.J. Simpson leaves a bit to be desired as a family man. Carl shouldn't have been allowed to fly over a school, much less be in a classroom.
He was never physically abusive, and ultimately I don't think he was cruel. Just is, he obviously hated teaching from the get-to, but by then was stuck there for the rest of one very long year. So his defense mechanism was nonstop sarcasm, laid on us in a gumbo-thick Louisiana accent which we found more comical than threatening.
I still remember two of his gems. One was to Mike Shene: "Shene, you ain't never gonna amount to NUTHIN!" The other was to one of the smartest girls: "Why don't you drop this course and take somethin' you can use like Home Eee-conomics." Unfortunately, she ignored his advice and became a clinical psychologist.
He called me "Rah-bert," called my pal Henry Cochran, "Hennery," and pronounced aluminum, "ah-loom-ee-yum," and every time he did, we convulsed in laughter.
One thing I don't remember, though, is him actually talking about chemistry. The closest he came was early in the school year, when he showed us sodium (Na) and told us it exploded when it came in contact with water. This was immediately followed by the class's only "experiment," when some rowdy dropped a walnut-size chunk down the lab sink, giving us our very own indoor Mount St. Helens.
The numbers game
Unfortunately, there was a down side to all this hilarity and hi-jinks: In order to get credit for the course, I had to pass the Regents exam, something I'd never thought of since it seemed so far away. But like the objects in your rearview mirror, the Regents was closer than it appeared, and before I knew it, I had only two weeks till Showtime.
In all my other classes, two weeks and my Barron's review book were all I needed to pass the Regents. But in all my other classes, I'd had competent teachers, not some clown who'd been raised on a diet of voodoo, LSU football, and tainted gator meat. So while for my other classes, Barron's was the course review book, for chemistry it was the COURSE. In my fortnight of checking out Barron's, I learned more about chemistry than I had in eight months of Carl's "tutelage," but, still, the odds of me passing the test were almost nonexistent.
When test day came, I gave it my best shot, and weirdly enough, when I finished I thought I knew enough of the material to put me close to that magic number, 65, the minimum passing grade.
The Regents was given during finals week and we got our grades on the last day of school. When I opened my report card and looked at Chemistry, I got good news, bad news, and worse news.
The good news was I passed the course. The bad news was I failed the Regents with a 63, so I didn't get Regents course credit. The worse news was almost everyone else in the school had passed the Regents.
Of course I wasn't the only one interested in how I did on the Regents when I got home, my mother was at the door with a quizzical look on her face.
"Well?" she said.
I shook my head.
"What'd you get?"
"Sixty-three?" she repeated.
"So you failed the Regents by only two points?"
A long moment passed.
"All right," she said. "I'm going."
"To school, to talk to that gonif Marsalise."
While her face was expressionless, I knew exactly what she was thinking.
The issue wasn't her playing Mama Bear, defending her helpless cub. In fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. Instead, it was an issue of ideals. My mother, who'd been a teacher since Horace Mann was in knee pants, had one unyielding principle: She never failed a kid whose grade was within a few points of passing. She felt even experienced teachers couldn't grade that precisely, so for some pedagogical putz like Carl Marsalise to flunk me by two points was sheer outrage.
She left, and returned about a half-hour later.
"Well?" I asked.
"Well what?" she said.
"Did he raise my grade?'
"Yes," she said.
Not only was that all she said then - it was the only discussion we ever had on the subject. It was also the thing I felt guilty about for over 40 years. See, I was always a lousy student in high school, but at least I'd earned all my grades - till Chemistry. And that one, that mercy 65, I'd only gotten because my mother had gotten it for me.
The fudge factor
As far as I was concerned, it was not only ill-gotten gains, but with Oedipal overtones no red-blooded American boy would, or could, be comfortable with. And I wasn't until a few months ago, when the boy who'd never amount to nuthin', Mike Shene, told me something that turned the entire Carl Marsalise Saga on its head.
Mike's sister had been the secretary to the superintendent of schools, and as such knew where all the skeletons were buried. And it turned out, one of those skeletons was Carl Marsalise's.
At some point, long after Carl was ancient Saranac Lake history, someone in Albany reviewed the 1963 Chemistry Regents scores. And when they did, they found that almost everyone in my class had flunked it, but Marsalise had fudged the results. So while my raw score was a miserable 63, in reality it was probably a lot higher than a bunch of other kids' to whom he'd given passing grades.
The only kid I know who actually got the grade he deserved was my pal Russell Sheffrin, who of course aced it. I say "of course" because he was a mega-brain, the class valedictorian, and worst of all, a high school student who actually studied.
The "secret" of his success? He'd spent that entire Summer BC (Before Carl) studying a college-level analytic chemistry textbook. It was, to quote him, "what I used to do while other kids were learning how to talk to girls, water ski, and play baseball."
His was an admirable success indeed. But when I think of the sacrifice he made to achieve it, I'll stick with my sleazy 65 any old day.