by Ari Lox
Math beyond equations
Calculus of Civil Disobedience
It was the year of the first Earth Day, 1970. 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 or so, for math majors and other fools. That included me, chemistry. I put up with a lot of worthless math theoretical shit to learn a few delightful surprises.
Professor Lin stood, lecturing already, but he faced the class instead of the chalkboard, writing equations! That was weird and distracting. It'd taken me all last semester to learn to ignore his spoken words and follow his writing. His "R of then" was much better understood as the written proposition "All of N".
He usually put our test booklets on his desk for us to pick up after class, but Lin walked to the table where Delores Alvarez sat. A math major, she had joined the class this semester after recently landing in the United States.
I had stopped over at her table in the Student Union a few times already this semester. I wanted to talk to the exotic beauty. Math was just the cover. I asked her about calculus ideas too fanciful for Professor Lin to entertain--how a zillion nothings could add up to something and Bishop Berkeley's "ghosts of departed quantities". It took me a while to get that jokey point across, but once I did, Delores became excited, talking way faster than I could follow. With her heavy Spanish accent, she used mathematical concepts that I'd only heard before in a Chinese accent.
Oh, Professor Lin stopped talking. I looked up. He tossed a blue booklet on her table. "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 glanced around the room. All the guys were looking seriously at their notebooks, hoping for 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 about Lin's marking curve. 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 five points each. When she explained her broken English justifications, they were as good as mine, but I had duplicated Lin'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 Professor Lin a question. Although he barely looked up from his fluid dynamics paper, his answer helped me.
Returning to my seat, I noticed that Delores had left her large purse open. A white sheet visible in it. Twin columns of Lin's peculiar phrasings and Spanish phrases.
She exposed a new calculus of civil disobedience. A consciousness raising event. She overturned the old maxim--two wrongs don't make a right. A second wrong may be required to correct an existing wrong.
Two wrongs could make a right.