Clicky pens

a package of three BIC pens with one on the side of the container. There are four scribbles on the side: black, blue, green, and red

As I was getting ready to drive my son to school this morning, I heard the rhythmic clicking of plastic snapping against plastic, a slightly sonorous clicking sound. My son was holding a fat blue and white pen, a BIC 4-color ballpoint pen. With his thumb, he was sliding and releasing each of four thin plastic rods on the side of the pen.

“Have I ever told you about my organic chemistry class in college?” I asked him. 

I took organic chemistry my sophomore year of college as part of my biology degree requirements. About 300 of us sat in the Kennedy Hall lecture auditorium for organic chemistry lectures by Dr. McMurray, the author of a commonly used college textbook. I’d taken general chemistry with McMurray the year before in Baker Hall, a lecture hall with a mezzanine. Using an overhead projector with a scroll of clear acetate and four overhead pens (red, green, blue, black), McMurray drew molecules and organic reactions using black for the bonds and colors representing the elements carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. 

a blue textbook, with "McMurray 3 Organic Chemistry" at the top. There are two balls filled with clear fluid in the main image.
The edition of McMurray’s orgo book that I had in college. Brings back memories and sensations of all sorts.

Dozens of times throughout each orgo lecture, as he switched pens while drawing bond-element molecules, 300 students’ pens clicked from one color to the next. My memories of orgo include a percussion soundscape of 300 “clicky pens” harmonizing with Dr. McMurray’s overhead pens. I ended the story to my son here, with the ridiculous visual-soundscape of clicky pens in the organic chemistry lecture. Considering my son uses an ipad for notes and homework, my orgo clicky pen story falls into the “back in my day” tall tale category. It’s a verifiable experience. I know there are people reading this who share this clicky pen memory from their own orgo class experiences. 

What isn’t verifiable is my internal experience of that class. I can still unearth the sensations from layers of quiet panic related to that class. It’s a Pavlovian experience for me; if I hear the click from that kind of pen, I am taken right in my mind and body to the sensations of being in that orgo class. Orgo never seemed to click for me (pun intended). The best I could do was remember chemical reactions long enough to get a passing grade on a substantially adjusted bell curve. I never “got it.” Except that I got that I didn’t get it. 

Friends, I was not getting it. That was more than 20 years ago. I can now name that there’s a reason I wasn’t getting it. Mental rotation is challenging for me. In the image below, one is asked if the two images are identical when rotated. Just looking at it makes me feel uneasy. (PS don’t explain it to me in the comments. I don’t want the answer. I’m sharing my experience of just looking at that problem.)

two 3-D shapes composed of green blocks. They are snake-like in shape
Example problem based on Shepard & Metzlar’s “Mental Rotation Task”: are these two three-dimensional shapes identical when rotated?

I couldn’t rotate the organic molecules in my head. Organic chemistry has a lot of mental rotation problems in it: L- and D-forms, isomers, boat and chair forms. I put them all in a mental bucket I have named ‘chirality problems.’ It was beyond stressful to sit in high-impact tests and not be able to rotate molecules quickly enough within the testing period. I felt such distress that there was nothing I could do to belong in the club of very smart people who were doing well in organic chemistry. They seemed to be able to do a thing I couldn’t seem to figure out.

My identity was embedded in belonging to a family/social/intellectual community, which was wrapped up in academic achievement. Not getting it felt like something was wrong with me. I put a lot of effort into both trying to get it AND trying to make it look like I was getting it. I wanted to “get it;” it’s personally satisfying to feel competent. I wanted to feel competent at organic chemistry. It’s that deeper layer – that not being competent at something is also a threat to my belonging in important communities – that was particularly challenging.

In probably second grade, I remember being walked to the art and music classroom to take an IQ test. While I didn’t know at the time it was an IQ test, I did know that kids who did well at it got to do special, fun things as a group separate from the rest of the class. There was a timed mental rotation problem on that test; I had to make a rotated stack of blocks based on an image provided to me. The complete confusion I felt was intense, especially under time pressure. I remember wrestling and agonizing with the problem in my head as long as the test monitor allowed me. 

Whatever score I got, I didn’t get to participate in the special things my group of friends did. That was a very lonely, isolating, rejected, and abandoned feeling. And in relation to my family, I remember feeling embarrassed about it. I had failed to prove I was smart and deserved to belong. It’s possible I thought that I’d never go to college because of it. Side note: It bugs me that the IQ test was given in the art and music room, two activities that have always been social and fun to me. Way to buzzkill the art/music vibe, IQ test. 

I know now that the feelings I had in organic chemistry with mental rotation problems were probably a mixture of my 19 year-old self mixed with hauntings of my eight-year-old self trying to belong in family and friend groups. Mental rotation problems show up in places besides IQ tests and organic chemistry problems. While playing with Legos with my son, I figured out that Lego car door pieces pose some mental rotation problems, too. There is a driver door and a passenger door. I understand that they are mirror images of each other, but I have to hold one in each hand and deliberately, consciously, slowly think about it. Maps pose a similar challenge; I have to turn the map in the direction I am moving. The buried feelings of old embarrassment, shame, fear, agitation come up. And I have to deliberately say, ope, there’s another chirality problem. 

Eight red lego car doors are laid out in two rows, 4 driver-side doors and 4 passenger-side doors. They are on a large grey lego plate.
Lego car doors have ‘chirality’

Many of you reading might have similar, almost-imperceptible difficulties with mental rotation. What’s the cause? I don’t know, it’s probably some combination of potential ability I was born with and what skills were nurtured. Is it something to worry about? I don’t know, I manage my life ok and ask for help if it’s essential to the task. My son picks the Lego car doors for me when we’re building a vehicle together. I use Apple Maps because it rotates to match your first-person perspective of movement. I don’t do chemistry problems. NB I can play Tetris mostly just fine, except when the S or Z piece drops, and then I have to keep spinning it to see if it will work.

Block drawings of the seven shapes in Tetris
The Tetris shapes, S and Z are not my favorite.

Chirality problems aren’t just mental rotation problems for me. They have a rich, fraught emotional and relational history for me. And that clicky pen? It’s not just a BIC 4-color ballpoint pen. 

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