Calculus of Civil Disobedience
It was the year of the first Earth Day, 1970. Social consciousness events were in the air, but that didn’t mean I could skip calculus class.
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, I finally deciphered that final phrase as “All of N”, applying to all natural numbers. Handy of him to apply it to our booklets.
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’ 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 to 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 and did Bishop Berkeley’s criticism “ghosts of departed quantities” have any validity? In a pronounced Spanish accent, she linked time with an object moving in three-dimensions in a manner novel to me.
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 total, while I got 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, 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 returning to my seat. Delores had left her large purse open on the floor. A white sheet was visible in it. Twin columns. Lin’s favorite catchalls (everywhere differentiable, continuous in a closed interval, and more) and Spanish terms next to them.
My thoughts raced. She’s cheating… yet it seemed almost sensible. Lin treated her wrongly.
He was wrong. She was wrong.
Was Delores in a trap that required a new calculus of civil disobedience? A second wrong to make a right.
Painting, Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix, Louvre, 1830