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They Don’t Necessarily Know What They Are Talking About!

Written by Jeff Drake
8 · 19 · 23

They Don’t Necessarily Know What They Are Talking About!

The following is another anecdote from my childhood This one has to do with the time I had a grade school teacher tell me a bald-faced lie, which I believed, and it probably altered the course of my life.

I attended Duluth Sacred Heart grade school from kindergarten through 8th grade. Growing up I, like other kids in my school, had to deal with an alcoholic parent. In my case, it was my uncle, who raised me along with my grandmother. My mother was just a disembodied drunk voice on the phone that would occasionally call and sometimes threaten to come and take me back home with her (my grandmother eventually shut that down). The bottom line is that my home life had its pressures, some of which, like so many kids, I bore on my own shoulders.

And yeah, it affected my school work. I was a ‘C’ student all the way, except for math, which I struggled with and got D’s, and writing and art, in which I got A’s. In 5th grade, my outside school passion was science. I was a regular young patron at the Duluth Library, known by the librarians for consuming science fiction books and hard science books. I was young, but I could explain how a nuclear reactor worked, tell you all about the atom, and I had even memorized the entire table of elements.

My friend, Dick Hadrich, had a large chemistry set in a dedicated room in his basement. Well, actually his chemistry lab was in the basement of a rooming house his dad owned on the other side of his yard. I had a smaller chemistry set at home. This is the 1960’s, so things were a bit more lax back then, and he and I began ordering chemicals from a number of mail-order companies for our home-made experiments. I remember when Dick purchased a large can of pure sodium, which, by the way, explodes on contact with water. Fun, right? We also ordered all the ingredients for gun powder, nitroglycerin and other explosives.

Eventually we decided to make gun cotton one day. If you don’t know what gun cotton is, it is essentially ordinary cotton that has been soaked in nitroglycerin. That’s right, we were making nitro in his basement. It’s not that hard to make! We had to let the gun cotton dry completely, because we read that it was extremely unstable in the wet state. So, he put it carefully on a shelf in his room and left it. What could go wrong?

The next day his dad got extremely alarmed when they were sitting around his kitchen table and suddenly heard a large explosion coming from the rooming house! Running there to see what was going on, he discovered that the basement was full of smoke. One entire wall of Dick’s room had blown out! Ruh, roh! Apparently, one of the old ladies who rented an apartment there had her son move a couch for her and he dropped it on the floor above Dick’s room. Oops! LOL! Needless to say, Dick got the strap from his dad, if I remember right, and after that Dick and I kept away from the serious explosives and worked instead on small stuff, like building home-made guns powered by firecrackers instead. They were accurate  and deadly!

I mention all this not just because it is kind of a funny story, but also to make the point that I could do science, no problem, if I put my mind to it. Sadly, my personal life was a mess in 5th grade, dealing with my uncle who was an alcoholic, my distant mother, poverty, etc. As a result, my grades were definitely affected.

I managed to get a serious bout of flu one week that took me out of school for 3 days. Upon my return, I remember sitting in that 5th grade class as Sister Patricia Ann told everyone to turn in their math homework. I was horrified, because I had never received the homework to do, given my illness. When I told her that I didn’t have the homework, she stood up from her desk, marched over to me, and slapped me so hard across my face, I thought my head would spin! I was kept after school as a result, which is when I told her that I hadn’t even been in school when she handed out the homework. I remember her face turning red upon hearing this, but she never said she was sorry. She was just silent. Later in the school year, when she handed out our report cards, I remember her calling me up to her desk, sitting down, and her looking at me with disgust as she pointed to my D- grade saying, “You will never be any good at math! You will never understand science!” I totally believed her. That’s when I stopped reading hard science books and quit even trying to understand math. I figured, “Why bother? I’ll never have what it takes.” I have often pondered since how different my life may have been had I received the proper help for my math and encouragement for learning science at the time.

I remember talking to my philosophy advisor at UMD one day. I was getting an A in a higher symbolic logic class and was working on an ancient Greek paradox by Zeno. It required some math and I was struggling with it. In our discussion, I happened to mention that I was no good at math, to which my advisor said, “What? Math is just logic and you can do that!” I guess that had never really been pointed out to me previously. LOL.

Fast-forward years later, to 2021. Inspired by my good friend, John Kennedy, who also struggled with math in his life and later mastered it and became a college physics teacher (and a hero of mine), I attended an algebra class he was teaching (remotely) and discovered that, by Jove, I could actually do the math! It was such a good feeling. I owe John big time for this!

So, if there’s any lesson to be learned here, I guess it boils down to taking the so-called advice of teachers with a grain of salt. Just because they are supposed to be the experts, they don’t necessarily know what they are talking about!

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  1. Kathleen Treb

    Once again a glimpse into who you are!!!

    Some of the Sisters of the Holy Name had similar qualities. And others were life-savers for our family.


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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