Math + graduation requirement + me = I’m likely screwed

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Sam Eifling is a Medill senior. He can be reached at s-eifling@northwestern.edu.


Honestly, now, shorts?

Two feet of snow on the ground, 10 degrees below damn cold outside, and there’s a guy in the front row wearing shorts. And not in some nap-time art history lecture. This guy looks ready to set the curve in a real class, a 300-level math class, the last distribution credit I need to graduate. I’m about to pop a vein in my face just trying to keep up ­ “You look puzzled back there,” the prof said this week ­ and meanwhile there’s this dude who doesn’t even need pants.

Typical math. She tempts me, she taunts me, she tears me apart. A brief history of me and math, age 11 to present: algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry and AP calculus, straight C’s. Unable to take a hint, I get to college and decide to fulfill my six-class concentration with math and statistics classes.

Sophomore year, drop a calculus class on Valentine’s Day after landing a 27 percent on a midterm. Junior year, drop a 300-level stats class after three weeks of verbally abusing the homework assignments at 4 a.m. Senior year, look up and ask whether it would have killed me to take English.

Occasionally, I have gotten in my licks. There was the A-minus on a calculus midterm two years ago. I actually did a little dance in the front of the Tech classroom when they handed that baby back. I can’t remember another time in college that I called my dad just to talk about a grade. He was proud of me. I was proud of me. Then I ended up with a C-plus in the course.

Math always laughs last, but I keep coming back for the small triumphs. For me, nailing a hard math problem is like sinking a half-court shot in basketball. I stand over conquered math like Muhammad Ali gloating over a prostrate Sonny Liston. You want a piece of this, calculus? You think I can’t find the volume of the solid that lies above the xy-plane and under the paraboloid z=9-3x+y? Bring it.

Then there’s the status I have as a math-literate journalist, which is slightly less common than the illiterate journalist. There’s the assurance that I haven’t completely succumbed to the trappings of my generation, the “Woooooo!” Generation, named after the only thing anyone under 23 can think to say when they see a television camera. Watching TRL on MTV, one gets the impression that the American dream has shifted from seeing hard work pay off to being paid to be seen. We’re a nation of brats waiting to be “discovered” by some talent scout. For doing what, exactly, we haven’t yet decided.

But that’s precisely why it’s healthy for a guy like me (who usually considers himself smart) to get smacked around by little numbers and symbols once in a while. It’s not that I don’t understand math at all. Rather, it’s just hard as hell, and it helps keep the ego in check. To get closer to God, monks take oaths of celibacy and poverty, stripping the trifles off their lives. Every quarter, I renew my vow of idiocy in the hopes that the entrance exam to Paradise is in the form of a word problem.

Failure can be delightfully cleansing, though, even over the course of a decade. It’s not easy, but don’t panic. The phrase is, I believe, keep your pants on. nyou

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