"You must be one of those super-kids who skipped high school," I say.
His skinny shoulders blades rise and fall. "Not really. I'm just doing a cross-over program and taking my science class here."
I like this little guy immediately. He's much smaller then any of the kids I used to teach in high school. I have the sudden urge to take him under my wing. Show him the ropes. Be the cool older-girl-chem-partner who talks to him about Ipods, and which local hang-outs have the cheapest wings on Tuesdays. I could help him beef up his college essay. One thing is for sure- he'll definitely brag about me to his high school pals. I smile at him and swing my hair off of my shoulder. "Wow!" I tell him. "Smarty pants!"
We watch a half hour video about lab safety. When the video is over, the teacher turns on the lights and tells us to start working on Lab #1 in our books, a 'Dry Lab.' "Mostly just an overview of conversions. Shouldn't take you too long and you're welcome to leave when you're finished."
"That rocks." I whisper to my new friend. He gives me a shy smile and turns to his book.
The room goes quiet. The only sound is the furious scratching of pencils from all of the students except one. Me. It's been thirteen years since my last chemistry or math class, and the page full of equations in front of me may as well be in Russian. I have absolutely no clue where to start, and the teacher has left the room.
I stare. Across the table from me, someone flips to the next page.
"Um," I say, leaning over to the little guy. "Where did you get that number?"
He opens his book to a page of conversions factors and points.
"But that's a positive number...?" I falter.
"If you put the number on the bottom, you just make it negative before you cross multiply."
"Oh." I say. Then, "Why?"
He tries explaining for a minute, but he doesn't do a great job. He looks a little confused too, although not about the material.
A few more minutes go by. The teacher is still gone. I sketch an octopus on the side of the paper. Eight legs.
Finally, I whisper to the boy, "So, where are you going to college?"
He looks up. "Don't know. I haven't thought that far ahead."
Oh no. "Are you a junior?"
Oh God he's a sophomore. He's a zygote. And he's racing through the problems with neat little numbers that all line up. I study his work, trying to orient myself. "Okay, um, how did you get that number up there?"
He looks down at this paper, starts pointing to an equation, and then hesitates. "I really don't know how to explain it," he says, obviously feeling bad. He looks over at my page, the octopus, then up at me, and I see it. In his eyes. Not annoyance, not anger, but pity.
And let me tell you, you've never felt shame like the shame that comes with having your skinny little lab partner, who is exactly half your age, feel very, very, very bad for you, on the first day of what is amounting to be a very, very, very long year.