“Oh my God. Who do you think got 32?” – Lynn Nottage, I AM THEATRE
When I watched Lynn’s video, I groaned in sympathy. Anyone studying anything to do with biology has to take organic chemistry at some point. As my own professor put it drolly, “It tends to be…a watershed.”
It was for me, in the fall of 2001. At the time I believed—as I had since I was fourteen—that I wanted to be an astronaut and go to Mars, and that there was no higher purpose. It meant majoring in biochemistry and spending summers at NASA. It all sounds very sexy, and for a long time, it was. I drove to work at Johnson Space Center in a Rent-A-Wreck, but for how badass I felt, I might as well have been driving a black Lamborghini.
But even by the time I took Orgo, I’d begun to notice little things. For example, I fantasized about writing fake papers and publishing them in fake journals. (One was “Spring projections of the sweet corn ballets” in Botanical Choreography.) I wrote a chemistry paper in the form of a travel narrative, from the perspective of muscopyridine, an aromatic molecule made by the Tibetan musk ox. (I dug it out. I’d named the paper “Dispatches to the Homegland.”) I signed up for an acting class, a creative writing class, a feminist theology class—all of which, I told myself, were just the “distractions” to balance out my scientific workload.
Those were the constructive modes of rebellion. But sometimes I committed downright self-sabotage. On my first Orgo exam, I actually corrected a problem in the Organic Chemistry exam itself, because I was so sure I was right, and the professor was wrong, that it was benzene, not cyclohexane, that was the reactive molecule. I was wrong, of course. I don’t remember if I got a 32 on that exam, but I’m sure I didn’t do much better.
When I look back on that bizarre behavior, I see that it was a form of self-assertion. I was trying to say No. This is how I see the world. I have to say so. I didn’t stop at that one Orgo exam, like Lynn did—I went on for four more years, earning decent enough grades to land a spot at MIT—until the cognitive dissonance was too much to bear. I hated going to the lab. I loved going to improv class.
I look back through my diaries from that time, and rarely do I mention science. Instead there are ideas for stories, paeans to people I love, and longings for fantastic worlds. It’s like I was still driving the car, but I wasn’t even looking at the road—I had my head out in the wind. What I’d thought of as distractions were my actual life’s calling.
So I quit graduate school. I crashed the car and walked away.
What car are you driving?
Is it going where you’re going?
If not, is it time to crash it?
(I promise you’ll survive.)
Monica Byrne is a writer and playwright. Her work has been produced by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Manbites Dog Theater, Arts Center Stage, PinkySwear Productions and the Elsewhere Museum. Her play What Every Girl Should Know premieres in Durham Central Park in April 2012. She’s been awarded residencies at Vermont Studio Center, the Elsewhere Collaborative, and La Muse Inn in France; she’s also been awarded the Durham Emerging Artist Grant and the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Grant, and was a finalist for a 2010 EST/Sloan commission. She holds degrees in biochemistry from Wellesley College and MIT. Her Internet homes are at monicabyrne.org and monicacatherine.wordpress.com–come visit!