Guest Post: God Is a High School Chemistry Teacher

by TopHat

(TopHat blogs at With Your Mutual Approbation and the bee in your bonnet. She has 2 children who take up her knitting time, but she forgives them for that.)

In tenth grade, I took chemistry from Mrs. Youel. I went through the utterly nerdy stage of writing all my notes so that they could only be read by looking at them in a mirror. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that Mrs. Youel would ask us to turn in our notes and I lost 10 points on that because of readability. So that relationship started off on the rocks.


When I got to my senior year I chose to take chemistry because it was considered the most difficult of the AP science classes and so I figured I’d get it out of the way before college. Of course, that year, the old AP chem teacher decided to stop teaching AP chem and so Mrs. Youel took up the challenge.

It was a tough class. Our school was serious when it came to AP science classes: instead of an extra lab period twice a week, we had two periods of class every day. There were only 16 of us in the class and we worked hard, but also had some fun. Mrs. Youel had made up some cheesy pencils for us: “Youel like chemistry!” And she joked and bantered with us. We blew things up for Mole Day while at the same time hosting a Mole Day food drive for the local food bank. and at one point it was required that we memorize and sing the Tom Lehrer Element Song while pointing to each element on the periodic table for a grade.

I was generally a good student, and by the end of the first “semester” I was sporting a B+.

On the last day before winter break, Mrs. Youel told our class, “I know you all have worked really hard this semester, so if you want to come to me before you go home today and ask me to change your grade, you can.”

It took me a while to process that: did she just say that if I came by and said, “Hey I deserve an A,” she would give it to us? Coming from a background of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

After school ended, I rushed over to the science wing of the school and waited. I was a little bit down the hall, not yet at the room; I wanted to see if any of my fellow students were going to take up this offer first. I stood there for 10 minutes (which is a lot in after-school time) and no one went to Mrs. Youel’s room. So I went.

I found Mrs. Youel cleaning up materials before the break and she greeted me and I said the customary hello.

“You said we could come in and change our grade?”


“I think I worked hard and should get an A.”

“I think so, too.”

And that was that. It was followed up with “Have a nice Christmas,” thanks yous, and goodbyes.

I am grateful to Mrs. Youel for not only a slightly higher GPA that term, but for one of the sweetest working examples I have of the Atonement in my life. I think that in the end, Judgment will not be a stressful, intense day, but a day of many wonderful surprises.




Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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29 Responses

  1. MJK says:

    I would have given you *more* credit for backwards reading notes as long as I didn’t think you’d done it to annoy the teacher specifically.

  2. Diane says:

    Please don’t interpret what I’m about to say as being rude, I’m not trying to be but, I’m not sure this is a lesson in atonement.

    There are many studies out that show many teachers show bias when assigning grades. So, much so, that some schools and universities are hiring outside resources to grade papers, test etc. That way how a teacher feels about you can’t be factored into a grade.

    • Mellina says:

      Speaking as a teacher, I will not deny grading bias. I know it is there. But I think you missed the point of this story. It was not about the grade itself. It was about the willingness of the student to approach the teacher and discuss and come to terms with the situation at hand.

      A grade is a judgement of a student’s work similar to how we will be judged for our works. We will also be judged by what is in our hearts and minds. The teacher left an open invitation to allow those that came to her to let the grade(judgement) be affected by what the student thought and felt according to her heart and mind.

      While it may not be a perfect analogy for the atonement, I still see it as an “everyday example”.

      • Diane says:


        I am not doubting what you say, you present a good discussion point, how do we know that this same teacher did not apply the same rule to other students? we don’t that’s why I’m not so sure this is really a good example of everyday example

    • Jessawhy says:

      I know this is true. My Con Law teacher used to stack his papers in order of how well he thought the students would do (he told me this because he told me my paper was near the top of the stack) then he would read through them and grade them.

      And while I was flattered that he expected my work to be good, I was a little disturbed at the obvious bias. Is this a common way to grade?

      • Amelia says:

        not really. I do know plenty of teachers who will scan introductions, thesis sentences, topic sentences and then separate papers into piles of which grade they think they’ll fall into before in depth grading. And I’ve certainly known my students well enough to know when I can rely on one of them to consistently produce excellent work. I have occasionally read such a student’s work first to get a sense for the high end of performance on a particular assignment. And I’ve done the same for students who perpetually underperform or seem unable to do well even with effort. Part of the reason for doing that is I recognize that part of writing a paper is responding to a prompt I have written as a teacher. And sometimes prompts are not well done, no matter how hard I try. If I have a top performer who does unusually badly, I’ll be a little more careful to consider whether my prompt had a problem which could have affected student performance, etc.

        Anyway. I taught for seven years. I don’t deny that bias shapes some grades. But I also think that most teachers genuinely attempt to assess work on its merits, not on whether they like or dislike a student. I have failed one of my favorite students on an assignment that he just completely missed and I’ve given very good grades to students who annoyed the hell out of me because their work merited it. I don’t think I’m all that unusual.

    • TopHat says:

      Like I said down-thread more, I really don’t understand how this relates to the story or why it doesn’t make it a good analogy for the atonement. Every student in the class was given the same grade-saving opportunity, so I’m not sure how teacher bias plays in here. I know that there were some explanations below, but I’m really still kind of lost. Could you be a little more elaborate on this? I really want to understand.

  3. Whitney says:

    The problem with this analogy is that the disciple of Christ knows that she will never deserve the “A.” Compare this to the over-inflated sense of entitlement displayed by so many (middle-class) students today, who think their own judgment of their work is correct while their teacher’s judgment is apparently wrong or somehow unfair.

    Sorry, as a TA I have to deal with that sense of entitlement A LOT.

    • TopHat says:

      See, this was the first time I even considered that I might deserve a grade other than the one I was set up to get. It might be different for other people. Even in college, I felt like I was at the mercy of the professors’ whim and it wasn’t until my senior year that I realized that the professors do want us to get good grades and want us to come with questions during their office hours for help. I had major authority struggles and even when I was doing research alongside my advisor, I dreaded and got that sick-pit-in-my-stomach feeling every time I was to meet with him about the research because I was sure he was going to get on my about how I hadn’t done good enough work that week and that I needed to step “it” up- even though we were really equals in the project (it had even been my idea and I had approached him to work with me). So for me, this story is very dear because I feel like that teacher was trying to tell us that we are worth something. But I’m one who had the “you aren’t good enough and never will be” idea really engrained in my person.

      • spunky says:

        I think like you do, TopHat, and see this as an example of the atonement. I was the same– I thought teachers wanted to find everything wrong they possibly could with everything I did. It wasn’t until I left college for a while, then went back with a more mature focus that I had some confidence, and wasn’t afraid to speak with professors. However, I saw that as a result of my outside-academic/professional/real life development. Would have been nice to have that self confidence sooner. In a way, I think it is a degree of maturity– just like we need to be mature enough to understand that we need the atonement, because even when we try really, really hard– we still screw up. Thanks for sharing. This anaolgy is perfect for me and I cherish it.

    • Amelia says:

      you know, I TA’d (which in English grad student parlance actually means “taught” since it was all stand alone teaching, never just assisting a professor) and taught for seven years. I certainly encountered my share of entitled students (like the one who threatened to report me for giving him an A- and was worried it would keep him out of medical school). But. I have to say that I met a hell of a lot more students who either were just plugging away doing their thing without being either overly entitled or overly motivated or who genuinely worked hard and wanted to learn. I know that it’s realistic to acknowledge that there are plenty of entitled students out there, but I also find this comment off-puttingly cynical and a wee bit judgmental.

      And I disagree with the notion that anyone who is actually a discipline of Christ will know that she doesn’t “deserve” the A. As a follower of Christ, I believe that anyone, including myself, who makes a genuine effort to love others and seek understanding of their world and the other people they encounter in it will deserve the A, regardless of the mistakes they might make. Not because of perfection of performance. But because of diligence and hard work combined with our God/dess’s love for us and understanding of our intentions and hearts. Which is exactly what this teacher did for Top Hat–she recognized hard work and diligence and good intention; she understood the potential in her student; and she rewarded those things. Not because the only way to “deserve” an A is by being perfect, but because we “deserve” to be rewarded for things other than (and I would argue more important than) perfection of performance.

      • Olive says:

        I love this:

        “I believe that anyone, including myself, who makes a genuine effort to love others and seek understanding of their world and the other people they encounter in it will deserve the A, regardless of the mistakes they might make. Not because of perfection of performance. But because of diligence and hard work combined with our God/dess’s love for us and understanding of our intentions and hearts.”

  4. Diane says:

    Top Hat

    I have to apologize to you. I think I may have taken the topic off in a direction other than what you attended, and that truly wasn’t my intention, maybe you can flesh out a little bit on how, and the why you feel this is related to the atonement? I’m not sure the grading topic is related, but, If you explain it further I may acquiesce.

    • TopHat says:

      I think the intro probably through things off. I wanted to give a little background on my relationship with the teacher, but it wasn’t really related to the main story. I probably should have left that out.

  5. TopHat says:

    Sorry for not coming in and commenting sooner! Church this morning and I’m on the west coast!

    I guess I see this experience to be a lot like the story of the people of Israel and Moses and the serpent on the staff, where the people only needed to look and then they would live. The offer about the A was given to the whole class. As students, we just needed to come in later and ask for it. For me, it was a strange thing to do, because I have major authority issues. I grew up with the idea that adults were bigger and better and I was at their whim when it came to grades, permission for anything, etc. This experience taught me that the people in authority, my teachers, are not a “them” but are on my side. It was the first time I was able to say, “Hey, I deserve an because I worked hard!” I really felt empowered, which I rarely felt in school. And now I’m off-topic!

    But I do see the atonement a bit like this. I don’t think God is out to punish us. We repent and our sins are remembered no more. Similarly, in work for the dead, everyone is given the opportunity to accept their baptism and Christ as their Savior, no matter what they happened to do in life. That’s how I see this story: everyone in the class was told they could come and get an A if they wanted.

    Obviously this analogy will fall short, as do all analogies about the atonement.

    I hope that was a better explanation. I tried to focus on the story and not to talk on and on at the end about it. Maybe I should have. 🙂

  6. Caroline says:

    I can easily see this an an atonement analogy. Your teacher extended mercy to anyone who tried hard and asked for it. I like to think of God in the same way — extending understanding, compassion and giving all of us the benefit of doubt, even though we didn’t technically deserve it.

  7. April says:

    I like this analogy for the atonement. I think it is a good analogy for prayer, too. We are given the opportunity to ask for what we need and someone is listening and receptive.

  8. nat kelly says:

    I’m surprised at how many people have taken exception to your analogy, TopHat. I think it’s simple and lovely.

    Pleasant surprises. Oh good heavens, I sure hope so!

  9. Diane says:

    You know it always makes me angry when people state they are surprised when people object for whatever reason, the main point of an OP. As long as people are respectful in their disagreement, which I was, and still am, I really don’t see the problem. The point of any OP is discuss, I didn’t think it was to automatically agree.

    I can make an analogy on any number of things gospel related, however, I know that they might not always be correct and I can’t get upset if someone disagrees with correlation I’ve made

    • TopHat says:

      I’m ok with disagreement. I was thrown off when I first saw the disagreement because I couldn’t figure out what exactly was the problem: was it the analogy? was the issue simply about what my teacher did, but not about the analogy? And because this is one of the primary ways I filter my understanding of the atonement, I’m still not sure I fully understand the disagreement. I’d be ok with more explanation, if you want to elaborate, Diane!

      • Diane says:

        Top Hat

        I’m not upset with you, or your explanation, I understand where your coming from, I may not agree, but that’s okay.
        I was upset by Nat Kelly response to those of us who disagreed with what you wrote. The tone of the response came across as largely dismissive and marginalizing what those of us who didn’t agree with what you stated..

        I don’t expect anyone to always agree, I don’t think that’s necessary, but, I don’t like being dismissed.

    • Maureen says:

      Analogies will always fail in some respect, otherwise they would just be identical stories. The point of analogies is to take some concept that is hard to understand or some story that is unrelatable and bring it side by side with a concept or situation that is understandable and relatable. So with analogies it is not about correctness. It is about seeing past the inevitable failing, how it doesn’t correspond to the original story, and seeing how it does relate so that you can better understand that which is difficult to understand.

      Many figure the atonement and all that is associated with it as a difficult concept to grasp. TopHat used an analogy of looking at God as a teacher, grading as judgment, and her experience of receiving leniency concerning her final grade as mercy/partaking of the atonement. You saw the failing in comparing God to a human teacher in that the human teacher will (probably) have bias. Others looked past (or didn’t see) that failing to the central point of the analogy. Which I see as that just like TopHat had to ask for the grade she wanted, mercy from God has to be desired and that desire acted upon by asking for it.

      Just because the analogy did fail in the way you saw, doesn’t make the analogy incorrect or incapable of teaching something about the atonement. And just because others looked past or didn’t see that failure, and focused on the intended lesson doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree with or condemn you. I see your point in how the analogy fails and think it’s valid. I also see the merit in understanding the need to ask for mercy.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    I’m with Nat and TopHat…I feel like Judgment Day will be a day of pleasant surprises. Oh, and I don’t think it’ll be called “Judgment Day,” maybe “Happy Reunion Day” 🙂

    A lovely post, TopHat!

  11. Ziff says:

    Love this story, TopHat! Thanks for writing this. You said above (sorry to continue a threadjack) that maybe you shouldn’t have given so much background information. I actually thought it was very effective. I read the title of your post, but then got involved in the story and forgot that you had mentioned God (yes, I have a short attention span), so I found it kind of abrupt when you drew an analogy to judgement at the end. But abrupt in the best way, like you were whacking me in the head (gently) with this much sweeter way of viewing judgement than I had previous considered. Nicely done!

  12. Alisa says:

    I love this post. Great analogy. I’ve also taught for 8 years, and I don’t think I have it in me to be as generous as your chemistry teacher, but I can imagine an environment where everyone did their best, and put in a ton of time to learn and help others out, and then the teacher honestly feels that every student would deserve an A if they would be willing to ask for it. Great example of what a loving God would do for those who do their best to build up a Zion community in their every-day interactions.

  13. Melyngoch says:

    I actually really liked the set-up with the backwards writing, because I immediately thought the point of the story would be, is God the kind of dude who’s going to give you a celestial B because you broke a rule you didn’t know was there on an assignment you didn’t think would be graded? I’m much too disposed to think of God that way myself, which made the reversal in which the teacher becomes unexpectedly forgiving rather than unexpectedly condemning all the more effective.

    (And of course the analogy doesn’t work if you generalize it to all teachers and all students and all classes, because there are too many biased teachers, entitled students, and worthless classes; but if you read let it just be a story about one student and one teacher and one class — and I like to think of the Atonement on the individual level like that way anyhow — then it works beautifully.)

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