Sunday, March 18, 2012

Going Fast

I was talking with a group of my kids the other day, and they told me that this is their favorite of my stories - their favorite 'Tell-That-One-Again'.  So, I thought that, just perhaps, you all might enjoy it, as well. . .


Have I ever told you that I'm a bit of a Math NerdI thought so. . .  In college, I started out as a Math major ('cuz, you know, I like math just that much), but even after I switched my major to Mechanical Engineering (after I ran afoul of my first Abstract Algebra class), I still used up most of my 'elective' credits on Applied Math classes.  So yeah - I'm kinda weird like that. . .

The main pre-requisite for most of the Applied Math classes I wanted to take was the first term of a three-term sequence of Advanced Calculus (and I will nod sympathetically with anyone for whom the words 'Advanced' and 'Calculus' seem just a little over-the-top redundant).  I was the least bit leery of the class going in, since it was one of those hard-core 'math-major'-type classes, and at that point (and fresh off my dubious experience in Abstract Algebra), I wasn't sure if I was gonna be out of my league, or not.

The professor, who also happened to be the Assistant Chair of the Math Department, was straight out of Central Casting.  He walked into the classroom on the first day, wearing a tweed jacket, complete with suede patches on the elbows.  His hair was a bit unruly; his glasses slid down the bridge of his nose, and he had a pipe clenched firmly between his teeth (I don't recall if he ever lit it, or if it was just a prop, or satisfaction of an oral fixation).  As he spoke, in an odd, unidentifiable accent that reminded me of Simon Bar Sinister, the cartoon villain from Underdog, he paced slowly back-and-forth across the front of the room, always gazing off somewhere above our heads, or, when he was facing the windows, at the sky.

"I see," he drawled, as he looked over the class roster, "that we have. . ." he paused for dramatic effect, as he worked his mouth into a sneer, "engineers in the class this term."  The Math building and the Engineering building were directly across the street from each other, and the class, although taught by the Math Department, was being held in the Engineering building.  There was a fair bit of (usually) good-natured trash-talk that passed back-and-forth across the street, to the effect that engineers like to wave their hands past all the 'important parts', and just get to the punch line as simply as possible; or, conversely, that the mathematicians were all anal about proving stuff that was obvious to everybody.

Anyway, poor undergraduate that I was (both of the other engineer-types were graduate students), I was the least bit, uh, concerned by Dr. Bar-Sinister's obvious disdain for folks of my ilk, and began wondering if I'd made a mistake by taking this class.

"Don't worry, though," he assured us.  "When we get to the hard parts, I'll let you know, so you can put your heads down and take a nap.  And I promise to wake you up when we're done."  The math-types all laughed at his rapier-like wit at the expense of the rubes from across the street.  And my worry started to morph into something a little more like being pissed.  But, I needed this class, to get to the ones I really wanted to take, so I just chuckled along with the crowd, and resolved that I wasn't going to be run off so easily.

The class was duly rigorous, but before long I grasped the 'basic tricks', and I started to enjoy what I was learning.  But the mid-term exam was looming, and that would be the real 'acid test' (uh, so to speak) as to whether I was 'getting it' as much as I thought I was.  So I was appropriately apprehensive as the mid-term drew near.

I have mentioned the Christian community that I belong to, haven't I?  Anyway, I belonged to the community even back then, and we had a community Day of Fasting coming up.  I checked the calendar, and. . . oh, no. . . it was scheduled for the same day as my Advanced Calc mid-term.  Which heightened my apprehensiveness the tiniest bit - I didn't want to be groggy from the fasting on a day when I really needed to have my wits sharp.  But, you know, whatchagonnado?  I'd just do the best I could; I didn't need to kill the class, I just needed to pass it. . .

The appointed day arrived, and I had an hour between the class just before Advanced Calc, and the fateful exam.  I wasn't feeling too bad from the fasting, but I figured, just to be safe, I'd stop at the grill next-door to the Math building, and grab a cup of coffee - a large cup of coffee - which, I reasoned, wouldn't count as breaking my fast ('cuz yeah, I was just that anal about it), and would help me be alert for the exam.

I got to the classroom a few minutes early, and took my seat.  In short order, Dr. Bar-Sinister arrived, handed out the test sheets, and told us to begin.  Almost immediately, I began to quiver and tremble, from the effects of all that caffeine on an empty stomach.  I was, literally, shaking in my seat, buzzed on coffee.  Inwardly, I berated myself for unmindfully sabotaging my exam, even as I did my best to focus as I worked through the test problems, shaking all the while, sitting on the edge of my seat, making quick, darting movements with my pencil as it flew across the page.

In the fullness of time, I was on the last page, and duly finished the exam.  I checked my watch.  It was 20 minutes since the beginning of the class.  Uh-oh.  I started to panic.  This was a hard class; there was NO WAY I was going to finish that exam in 20 minutes.  I took a deep breath, and went back to make sure that I hadn't missed any pages; I hadn't.  Then I did as thorough a second pass through each problem as I could muster in my hyper-caffeinated state.  Finding no obvious, glaring errors, I sighed heavily.  I'm sure my shoulders even sagged in discouragement.  I was convinced that I had inadvertently scrambled my own brains, to the point that I couldn't even find my own mistakes.  There was nothing to do but shuffle up to the professor's desk, hand in my exam, and leave.  25 minutes into a 50-minute class period.  As I slumped toward the door, twenty slack jaws, and twenty pairs of eyes belonging to my fellow-students, followed me as I left.

I was sure that I had blown the exam, and on an epic scale, and I cursed the combination of my bad luck at having to fast on an exam day, and my own foolishness at thinking that a cup of coffee on an empty stomach would be a good idea.

Two days later, I found myself back in the same classroom.  The first order of business was the return of our exams.  Dr. B-S moved deliberately around the room, placing the exams face-down on the desk in front of their owners.  One or two of the students sighed or groaned as they turned their exams over, having gotten a worse grade than they'd hoped, and I inwardly steeled myself for a similar fate.  When the prof placed my test face-down in front of me, I paused, and took a deep breath.  Then I turned the paper over.

At the top of the page was a circled, hand-written '97'.  My first instinct was that I'd been handed the wrong test.  But, my name was written at the top, and the handwriting was undeniably mine.  I couldn't believe it.  I flipped through the pages, and found the small error that had cost me three points, then I sat back and smiled.  Ninety-seven; no kidding. . .  The student next to me noticed my score, and I heard him mutter, under his breath, ". . . and he finished in 20 minutes. . ." 

And, just to bring the story to a nice, round closure, at the end of the term, Dr. B-S posted the final grades on his office door.  I happened to be there at the same time as the other two engineers in the class.  I was pleased and elated, and just a little surprised, to see that I'd earned a grade of 4.0.  Both of the other engineers smiled, and said that they, too, had made 4.0s.  I scanned quickly up and down the list, and there were only three 4.0 grades given.  All of them to . . . (pause for sneer) engineers. . .


  1. Congrats man. As an Engineering Science major in CC I had to manage Calc 1-4 to get my degree. I didn't fare quite as well as you but I know the fear and trepidation of which you speak.

    Caffienne, though, can be a reasonable, if fearful, spot-fix. At least prior to addiction .... but that's another story.

    Feel free to stick it to them hard core math dudes .... as an engineer who morphed into Computer Science I endured much at their hands. Or, er, mouths. Mouthy bunch, they are.

  2. SCORE! Literally! I can't add much from my own experience except for taking Quantitative Business Analysis (the dreaded QBA at our school)...all I took away from that experience is that I am now able to write 300+ formulas on a half sheet of paper (that's all that was permitted), if that need should ever arise again in my lifetime.

    College Daughter had a terrible time this year in a 4th level philosophy class (only thing that would fit into her crammed schedule with clinicals) and a professor who didn't think much of the nursing profession.......

  3. ok, you know my feelings for math but i do like that you and the other engineers put the snide dr. and math students in their places.

    now if you'll excuse me, you've activated my math allergy with the mere mention of advanced calculus and i need some benadryl before i blow up like a puffer fish.

  4. I always finished my math exams in about 20 minutes too. My college didn't have engineering, so I can't speak to that competition. But I figure you either know it or you don't.

    And if you know it, then it's not that difficult so why waste the rest of the time when you could be having more coffee? ;)

  5. Xavier - Not to break my arm patting myself on the back, but Advanced Calc is a whole 'nother animal from freshman/soph Calculus.

    And, the math/engineer trash-talk I experienced was mostly, as I said, good-natured. Nothing like what passes between, say, Woverines and Spartans. . .

    Bijoux - It's a good thing we go to college in our late teens/early 20s; nowadays, even if I could fit 300 formulas onto a half-sheet, I couldn't read it.

    And what's not to appreciate about the nursing profession? Sheesh. . .

    Lime - So sorry I triggered an episode for you. Take [Pi] aspirin and call me in the morning. . . Or, you know, just have a piece of pie. . .

    And take a moment to appreciate that your life is better because some of us do math. . .


    JM - I was occasionally known to finish an exam in less than the allotted time; I just didn't expect to do it in that class. . .

    And, as re another cup of coffee - that day, I might have spontaneously burst into flames. . .

  6. i am even more allergic to aspirin than i am to math...anaphylaxis ensues. are you trying to kill me?

  7. Lime - Yeesh! Why didn't you tell me you were allergic to aspirin? Read the previous post, then, and leave a comment (since I know you're an inveterate namer of inanimate objects. . .)


    (oh, I am so bad. . .)

  8. Not that I've ever nailed an exam of similar difficulty -- and likely not one math-related -- BUT... I totally can recall that feeling of finishing an exam MUCH earlier than was expected and after checking and re-checking... Well, there's not much to do but walk up to the front and hand it in. And in every case that it happened, I was always pleasantly surprised by my (really) good mark when all was said and done.

  9. Oh don't I know it! I tutored a friend in college through Adv Calc 1 my last semester at college. Having never taken it myself .....

    Got him up from a 2 to a 2.9 in just over half a semester but I think I popped a few thousand brains cells doing it.

  10. Great tale. I always love the type of story where the "intruder" into a certain society succeeds (think "Beverly Hillbillies", although I'm in no way equating you with Jethro Bodine.)

  11. Flutter - Yup; that's about it. . .

    Xavier - Advanced Calc'll do that to ya. . .

    Suldog - Well, see, I started out as a math major, so I knew quite a bit of 'the drill'. But they didn't know that. . .


    (When one of our teenage boys dumps half a box of cereal into a mixing bowl, we call it a 'Jethro Bowl')

  12. "Jethro Bowl"

    You know what? I have always liked huge bowls of cereal, and every time I pour one for myself I think of Jethro. I'm glad to find I'm not the only one with a mind that conjures sitcom images connected to my day-to-day life.