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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Educational · #2188407
Math and the Status Quo

Calculus of Civil Disobedience

Robert Hamill

It was the year of the first Earth Day, 1970. Social consciousness was being raised in outside activities, but that didn't mean I could skip math class.

I was a sophomore in college that spring, had an apartment off campus. No girlfriend, though I wanted one, but no hassles, which pleased me.

I slipped into my normal seat at the second table in Professor Lin's fourth-semester calculus. It was a small class, 15, for math majors and other fools. That included me, chemistry. I put up with gobs of worthless math to glom onto a logical gem now and then.

Professor Lin faced the class. "I have your exams, r of n." In the prior semester, after long wondering why he started discussions with "r of n," I realized that was the mathematical phrase, "All of N".

His habit was to place our test booklets on his desk to pick up after his lecture, but this time he walked to the table where the lone female, Delores Alvarez, sat. A math major, she had joined the class this semester after escaping Cuba for the United States.

Professor Lin tossed the blue booklet in front of Delores.

"Students who can't do the work should get out of class. It's no disgrace for girls not to understand calculus." I saw a large red D- on the front of her booklet.

I knew her, talked to her in the Student Union several times. I wanted to talk with the exotic emigree. I talked of calculus ideas too fanciful for Professor Lin to entertain--how could a zillion nothings add up to something and what did Bishop Berkeley's criticism of "ghosts of departed quantities" imply? It took me a while to get that jokey point across, but once I did, Delores became excited. Despite her pronounced Spanish accent, she tied together mathematical concepts that I heard of but didn't understand. She was not D- student.

I glanced around the silent room. The other students studiously examined their notebooks, wanting this ugly scene to be over.

Delores' eyes glimmered with moisture. This was wrong. I knew it was. She knew calculus better than I did. But while I debated what to say, the moment passed. A hot flush ran up my neck, the neck I had protected.

After class, I commiserated with her, agreeing his marking was severe. I showed her my B, 3 right with 2 partials.

She showed me her booklet. Lin wrote, "Not clear" on her three partials, giving her just five points each, while I got over ten on each. She explained in broken English her reasoning. They were as sound as mine, but I had duplicated the professor's favorite phrases.


For the rest of the semester, Professor Lin ignored Delores, continuing with his lectures as if she were the ghost of a departed quantity.

During the final exam, I went up to the front desk to ask him a question. Although he did not glance up from the fluid dynamics journal, his snapped answer helped me.

Returning to my seat, I noticed Delores had left her large purse open. A white sheet was visible in it. Twin columns of Lin's peculiar phrasings and Spanish phrases.

She had discovered a new calculus of civil disobedience. A consciousness raising event for me.

She overturned the old maxim--two wrongs don't make a right. A second wrong may be required to correct an existing wrong.

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