John Pechonick was my favorite chemistry professor in college. He was a short, muscular man with bushy eyebrows. One of my friends described him as looking like a cross between Popeye and E.T. When he spoke, the words seemed to come out the side of his mouth in a sound that was almost like a growl. My freshman chemistry class was scheduled for 1:20, the first time slot right after lunch. He expected us there at 1:00 sharp to start working on the questions he had written on the chalkboard. If you weren’t writing something, he would stand by you, look over your shoulder and nudge your arm with his leg to encourage you to write something. He didn’t like anyone to wear caps in his classroom. He wouldn’t tell you to remove your hat. He would say, “I didn’t know we were having a game today! If I had known, I would have brought my bat and glove!”
One day in freshman chemistry, Mr. Pechonick was lecturing about the different states of matter. He told us that both temperature and pressure determine if water is a solid, liquid or gas. During his presentation he told us that that when a skater is gliding across the ice, the pressure of the blade against the ice actually changes it from a solid to a liquid. So he argued that you don’t actually skate on ice, you are skating on water.
I listened to him and felt like I was following what he was saying. I don’t know if he thought I wasn’t paying attention or if he was concerned that I didn’t understand but he decided to ask me a question. He said, “Wheeler! What do you skate on?” I took his question as a personal question. I had never been ice skating so I said, “Roller skates!”
He thought I was just trying to be funny. I was sitting on the front row of the classroom in a seat to the far right of the room and he was standing next to a chalkboard on far left side of the room. He started running at me. Before he got to me, he stopped running and slid up to my chair in his penny loafers. He had a chalkboard eraser in hand and held it cocked back and shook it as he growled at me. His growl turned into words and as he shook the eraser he told me, “I oughta knock you out of that chair!” He didn’t and if he was mad at me, he got over it soon.
Mr. Pechonick had a lasting impression on me. He is one of the main reasons I ended up majoring in chemistry. I think I had a lasting impression on him too. One of my good friends took freshman chemistry the following year. When he was covering this material with her class, he called on her. He said, “Lucius! What do you skate on? And don’t say roller shakes!”
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