Calculus of Civil Disobedience

Published M-Anation Jan 2023

It was the year of the first Earth Day, 1970. Green placards and “Save the Earth” chants disrupted my way across the quad. “Out of my way,” I said. “My class starts in five minutes.”

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. Other fools, that included me. Chemistry. I put up with gobs of worthless math to glom onto occasional gems, like inflection points and monotonic functions.

Professor Lin faced the class. “I have your mid-terms. r of n.”

Halfway through the prior semester, my first with him, I had deciphered that last phrase as “All of N”, when he applied it to all natural numbers. Handy of him to apply it to our mid-term booklets as we might say, “All of them.”

Last semester, his habit had been to place the graded test booklets on his desk for pick up after his lecture, but this time he walked to the table where the sole female, Delores Alvarez, sat. She joined the class this semester after her family escaped Cuba.

Professor Lin tossed the blue booklet in front of Delores. “Students who can’t do the work should get out of class. No disgrace for girls not to understand calculus.” I saw a large red D- on the front of her booklet. 

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

Delores’s 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.

I knew her, had talked with the exotic emigree in the Student Union. We talked of calculus ideas too fanciful for Professor Lin to entertain. How could a zillion nothings add up to something? Did Bishop Berkeley’s criticism of calculating with “ghosts of departed quantities” have any validity? In her pronounced Spanish accent, Delores linked time to an object moving in three-dimensions. Eye opening to me.

After this class ended, 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 total, while I got ten on each partial. 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, every comment Delores made, Professor Lin ignored or dismissed with a “No”, 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 and asked about an aspect of problem 4. Lin did not glance up from the fluid dynamics journal. “Mr. Almon, I do not state what is unimportant.”

Relieved my worry was nothing, I returned to my seat. Delores’s large purse lay open by her foot. A white paper peeped out with twin columns. On the left, Lin’s favorite phrases—Justified by Theorem x, Definition y applies here, and more down the page into her purse and out of my view. On the right, Spanish equivalences.

Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix painting

A cheat sheet… yet it seemed sensible. Lin’s pidgin English never comfortably met Delores’s pidgin English.

Had Delores’s D- led her to a new calculus of civil disobedience?

A second wrong does make a right.

Hang on a second. Might this apply to other issues? Could the eco-agitators have a point?


Painting, Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix, Louvre, 1830

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