Vestigial Thoughts

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Learning from Books

Many moons ago I sat in my 10th grade geometery class taught by Mrs. Matlock. I was a long haired punk kid living Arkansas, and I was angry at everone and everything: the world, my teachers, all the kids who told me I was going to hell for not believing the same thing they did, small town America... many I was sweating contempt. One day, Mrs Matlock -- to whom I was quite a pain in the ass -- was sick and we had a substitute teacher, Mrs Hefflin. I was a smartass, and I wasn't selective about it. At one point, Mrs Hefflin looked at me and asked me if I had taken Algebra II. When I told her no, she said something to the effect of: "Good, so I wont see you in calculus when you're a senior". To me, this was some kind of a challenge. I filed it away in my head and thought about it.

The following year I started dating a girl named Brooke while I was in the 11th grade and taking Algebra II, and it seemed that I was destined to finish highschool taking advanced math and trigonometry. I was talking to Brooke's dad Mike, and he told me how useful Calculus was. He basically said that I should take it. I explained to him that I needed trigonometry to take it, and I couldn't take that until my senior year. Somewhere along the way, perhaps I was talking to my guidance conselor who would eventually have an affair with the married secretary in the office, the option of taking trig over the summer at the local college, Arkansas Tech University (ATU), came up. Alas, ATU wasn't offering trig that summer; though I did take the freshman chemistry class.

However, all hope was not lost. I still had a chance to throw this in Mrs Hefflins face. It turns out that Mike was willing to teach Heather (Brooke's sister) and myself Trigonometry over the summer. I spoke with Mrs. Hefflin and she said we could each take an equivalency exam at the end of the summer. If we passed them, then we could take calculus. Mrs. Hefflin gave me three copies of an old trig book and classes started a couple weeks into the summer. Mike worked at a the control room used for training at the Nuclear plant, and we would meet in his office. It was largely a self study type of class where I would read throught the book, try to understand the examples, and work on homework problems. Every couple weeks Heather, Mike, and I would meet in his office. There he'd introduce new concepts and answer questions we may have had.

Eventually, the summer ended. Calculus started and we were never asked to take an exam over trigonometry. I didn't feel the need to push the point. I was a little nervous about starting a class where I didn't "feel" I had the prerequisite, but I still did well in calculus. Mike was right also, that's probably one of the most useful math classes I took. I was talking to Mrs Hefflin towards the end of the year. I reminded her about the conversation we had during my Geometery classes two years prior. Her response was something along the lines of: "I said that?". It's ironic because I was driven partially by spite, but I failed to spite her. It worked out well because she really was a nice lady, and I have a lot of respect for her.

That whole experience taught me a couple things, though I didn't realize them until much later. The first realization that I came too almost a decade later was that I was a major asshole when I was younger. I'm not sure much has changed, but there is something to be said for being selfaware in this reguard. The second thing I learned is that with a little patience and persistance, I can learn almost anything from a book. It's difficult for me to put into words how much this has helped me both in and out of school. This is something I realized in graduate school when I was trying to take information from across diciplines and combine it all together into something coherent -- at least I like to think it is coherent ;). It's also really helped me in the Peace Corps where I taught classes pretty far from my area of expertise.

Note: I still have a lot of respect for structured education: It is important because it is how many people prefer to learn. Good guidelines for what to learn and the order in which things should be learned for any given field or subject are also products of this methodology. Lastly, exposure to topics indirectly related to the primary subject of interest is a good biproduct.