Education

Betty Sitton, R.I.P.

My high school chemistry teacher died last week.

Betty Sitton taught Chemistry II my senior year of high school. This was 1988 at Cistercian Prep, in Irving. The course was a real challenge, one that I was not equal to, at least not on Mrs. Sitton’s terms.

Memory is a funny thing, but as I recall, the trouble started somewhere around electron probability clouds. Trying to explain the concept, Mrs. Sitton, a deeply religious, patient woman, compared electrons to the Holy Trinity. Something about not being able to directly measure it but knowing, nonetheless, that it existed. I forget exactly. More than 30 years have elapsed (!). But she brought religion into a science class, and I took that as an invitation to abandon the formal study of chemistry and occupy my mind while in Mrs. Sitton’s class with more worthy matters. I was not alone.

Along with a small number of classmates, we invented the penis game. The game went on to become a thing at Hockaday and eventually make its way into the 2009 comedy 500 Days of Summer. Watch this scene if you want a giggle and aren’t offended by the word “penis.” The game involved two players, each taking a turn saying the word louder than his opponent. The rest of the class served as judges. Mind you, we played this game while Mrs. Sitton was trying to teach us chemistry.

In the most memorable game ever played, I uttered the word so loudly that, while Mrs. Sitton had her back turned to the class, my opponent’s only move was to stand on his chair and shout it with his hands cupped to his mouth. I am not exaggerating.

This led to the invention of the Melvin Q. Schatz Award for Excellence in Chemistry, which, as far as I know, was given only once. I can’t recall who the honoree was.

Mrs. Sitton was forced to kick people out of her class with some regularity. She always did it calmly, formally. “Mr. So-and-so, please excuse yourself from my classroom.” Like that. At which point the evictee became eligible for the Melvin Q. Schatz Award for Excellence in Chemistry but only — and this was crucial — if he leaped up and rang the fire alarm bell in the hall with a pencil. Those of us in the classroom would always wait after someone had been ousted to see if he’d remember to walk to the end of the hall and ring the bell. Ding. Then we’d laugh, and the official standings would be updated.

Another insult to Mrs. Sitton: we invented our own scoring system for chemistry tests that heavily weighted time spent taking the tests. Correct answers were important, but finishing times counted just as much. A number of us would race through tests, answering questions we knew the answers to with certainty, skipping questions that took time to puzzle out, bearing in mind the need to score at least, say, a C on Mrs. Sitton’s grading scale, but wanting to turn in the test as quickly as possible to get extra points on our secret Schatz Scale. There were times when a student would sprint to the front of the classroom and slap down his blue book after working for only 15 minutes of an allotted 50.

As I say, this was senior year. I took Mrs. Sitton’s final exam pass-fail, confident that I could muddle my way into a D. I remember those final weeks at Cistercian as ones filled equally with fear and excitement. Many of my classmates knew where they were headed to college. I’d managed only to get a spot on a waiting list for the school I wanted to attend.

On the day of our commencement ceremony, as family and friends found their way to folding chairs set up in the gym where I once intentionally made a basket for the opposing team (a story for another time), Mrs. Sitton pulled me aside. As you can imagine, we didn’t exactly get along. It’s hard to place any blame on her for that. So I was thinking something like “Oh, God, here we go. Mrs. Sitton is going to give me cheesy graduation advice, try to make up for the hellish year she just put me through.” I was a real peach.

Instead Mrs. Sitton informed me that I’d failed my chemistry final. I can’t recall exactly what she said after that. I got a little dizzy, thinking she was about to tell me that she’d see me in summer school. But she said that she’d decided to give me a passing grade, even though I hadn’t earned it. She acknowledged that it had been a challenging year — for both of us. She said she’d thought about it a lot and couldn’t figure out where we’d gone off track.

I thanked her profusely, and I apologized. For everything.

Mrs. Sitton died Thursday in Midlothian, in a home that she’d built with her husband, Jim. They were married for 47 years. Here’s part of her obituary:

Betty was indefatigable as she taught all day, held counseling sessions, and then hit the road to church where she would spend long nights both working and praying in her community to help build the church she so loved and in which she so passionately believed. … Betty will be sorely missed by the countless lives she touched as wife, daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, teacher, and counselor.

I won’t miss Betty Sitton. But I’ll never forget her. She had a difficult job that I worked hard to make even more stressful, and she chose to repay me with kindness. She taught me something more important than chemistry.

hox vobiscum

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