Monday, June 21, 2010

A Tale of Soccer and Calculus

I took Calculus in my senior year in High School. I did pretty well, even stayed after school when I got stuck. But when I got to University, the highest level of math they would let me take was beginning Calculus. Stuff I'd already studied the year before. Well, I had to take a math class, and I wasn't interested in most of the offerings, so I retook Calculus.

The teacher was a Polish gentleman whose name was unpronounceable by American English standards. He asked us to call him Dr K. He was brilliant, funny, and a really really big football (soccer) fan. He would start each lecture with a minute long rant about whatever was happening in the world of football and sometimes use football examples in the rare instances that was possible.

Dr K had a heavy accent, so most of the students relied on what he wrote on the blackboard to understand what he was teaching. Yes, we could follow him most of the time, but when he got excited and spoke too fast, the equations on the blackboard became vital. We copied everything he wrote studiously. But Dr K had one really annoying habit. He was prone to tiny errors, and when he spotted one he'd erase the board back to where he'd made the mistake and restart the lecture from that spot... while we were desperately trying to write the whole thing down. We would often have to start a new page and copy the start and hope we could catch up with him before he said, "Everybody got it? Ok!" and erased the equations. Which he did a little too quickly for most of our tastes.

After class one day, a group of us were talking about this annoying habit and someone said, "He should get a penalty for doing that to us!" And someone else said, "Yeah, a red card." And I said, "Why don't we?" And an evil plot was hatched. I found some red and yellow construction paper at the store, cut it into appropriately sized cards, and handed them out one day of class before Dr K had arrived.

We didn't have to wait too long. At some point in the hour, he realized he'd made a mistake and started to erase, and all of us pulled out our variety of cards and held them up. Dr K was stunned. He was literally speechless. And he looked like he was about to cry. And I suddenly felt incredibly bad that we'd done this to him, because for HIM a red card actually MEANT something. For us, it was a penalty in a game. For him it was something far more important.

I don't remember much about the rest of that year. It was twenty years ago now. I do know that only half the class finished the course, and not everyone who finished passed. I only passed because I'd already taken Calculus, at least that's my excuse. Dr K was the first in a long line of teachers who tried to get me to sign up in their department as my major, because he thought I was a natural. There are days I wish I had. But I'll never forget the absolutely broken look on his face when he was faced with a sea of red and yellow cards. And every time I see a soccer game I remember Dr K, and the last math class I ever took.


Roger Owen Green said...

great story! maybe you should have started w a yellow card...

David Oakes said...

At least it was Calculus.

When I look into the sea of faces for whom Intermediate Algebra will be "the Last Math Class", I wish I could throw a Red Card myself.

Tegan said...

Roger: I really didn't get the difference at the time. I mean, I knew red was worse than yellow, but I had no idea of the real significance.