Differential equations sounds hard, and is one of those oft-clichéd phrases alluding to difficulty, but in my experience, it isn’t nearly as much of a mind-fuck as its predecessors – multivariable calculus and linear algebra. “Diff Eq’s” is generally taken during sophomore year of college – after the freshmen weed-out period.
My teacher is great. He’s a middle-aged Frenchman who wears a V-neck t-shirt so his chest hair sticks out. He’s cynical. He’s hilarious. He also has a habit of staring at a single person while he talks. He likes me, and I sit near the front. So he’ll maintain intense, direct eye contact with me while saying something like,
“In the non-constant coefficient case, with a third-order equation we can use reduction of order to make it a second-order non-constant coefficient Euler-type formula and easily solve using variation of parameters…”
staring at me the entire time, never once blinking. And I can’t decide if it’s sort of sincere, or bizarre, or weirdly erotic.
The class is funny, too, because it’s mostly international engineering students and everyone walks in five minutes late late. The class starts at 8:30 AM, which I guess is early for college, but it shouldn't be an excuse. So the students all walk in late and the professor doesn’t say anything because it’s college and what are you going to say? And then there are the four white kids in the class, myself included. George sits in front of me. He’s probably 19 or something but he’s smart at shit. He looks older – heavy-set, big beard, smoky voice, but he’s got young eyes. He’s probably my best friend under the age of 22. He sat a few seats down from me last semester in Linear Algebra and he always had really great questions to ask, and the professor knew his name (= status). He was one of those kids that I would have hated as an undergraduate because he took everything so seriously. Back then, I was in the mindset of how can I do the least amount of work and get my degree. People like George drove me crazy.
So, George one of those kids – front row, extra-intelligent, overly mature for his age. Anyways, this kid George is in my class again this semester so I decided to sit behind him and become his friend. He always turns around to check his answers with me even though he knows I’m a dumb shit. That’s why I like him. The professor puts something on the board for us to solve. George turns around like 30 seconds later and he’s like, so I got e to the x. What did you get? I usually try to make up some excuse to start off with, like
“Uhh, actually tried some different methods… and I’m still deciding which one is best...”
But he's aware. He jumps right in and helps me out, but in a non-condescending way. He even plays along and pretends to be my pal after class. He’ll be like,
“So, what are you doing the rest of today?” or “Do you have another class?”
and I give some answer, but when I’m halfway through my response he’s already swerving off in another direction and usually cuts me off to say,
and he walks away and probably goes back to his dorm to play video games or smoke pot or have sex while I go back to my stupid graduate student office because I’m just an old idiot.
Want to hear about the other two white people? One is a girl named Nikki. She’s really sweet but can’t get over the fact that I’m old. She talks to me like you would talk to your uncle… you pretend to be pals and ignore the age barrier but there’s always the aftertaste of pretense. I can see it in the way she wrinkles her forehead when she talks to me. I’m just the old man who its in front of her (wait, do all the white kids sit in a row?). Of course all of this is sort of ironic because I’m only 26 but I swear it makes a huge difference. The fourth white person is a guy on the swim team. Actually, he sits right behind Nikki (holy shit). Anyway, He’s beautiful. Tall, built frame, long blond hair pushed back by one of those soccer player things. He brings breakfast to class every day and it’s like 2,000 calories. His eggs smell-up the whole room. The professor always jokes about “bring me some.” Le professeur also makes fun of people with Au Bon Pain cups. He’ll walk up and ask,
“How do you pronounce that?”
So, anyway, we had our first midterm and it started out well. There were 6 questions. 2 of the 6 questions were a lost cause for me because they were all theoretical. Something like,
“Suppose you had a function that looked like this and we know that a similar function behaves like this then how would you determine a formula to derive another function that looked like such and such…”
Zero idea, bro. I’m a math teacher’s worst nightmare. I memorize the formulas and crunch some numbers. I never understand the theoretical stuff. So on this exam, there were two problems like that – all theoretical – which I answered with something that will probably make its way onto some Reddit forum for mathematicians about all the ridiculous answers that students put on tests.
That means I had 4 out of 6 questions for which I was capable of receiving full credit. Remember, this is college math, so usually a 60% or so is a passing grade. If I could answer those 4 questions, I would be fine. I knocked out the first three with minimal stress – they required some messy integrations – but I think I steered myself straight. Then, the fourth one was one of those part (a), part (b) questions. Part (a) was easy: Use reduction of order to turn this 3rd order Euler equation into a 2nd order. Didn’t the professor stare at me while he told me how to do that? Piece of cake. Pièce du gateau.
But then part (b) says to solve the equation. Well, there are two different methods to solve it. I tried method 1 and it didn’t work. Professor announces,
“15 minutes left”.
Shit. Well, I erased the whole thing and stared at the problem again. I should use method 2. I know method 2 will work. Wait, will it work? Are you sure? Look at it again. I think the right side of the equation means use method 1 because it’s an x3. But does the right side matter? I thought you have to see if it’s constant coefficient or not. Fuck. I was right the first time. But it didn’t work. Well, it should have worked. Try it again.
So I wrote the exact same thing down all over again, right where I had erased it. Word for word. Do you think it worked the second time? Of course not. This is the definition of insanity.
“5 minutes left.”
Shit. What should I do? Try method 2? I even wrote, “TRY METHOD 2” on the page underneath my wrong answer. Literally. But then I froze up.
“4 minutes left.”
How is that possible? That wasn’t even a minute. Fuck. Now I’m freaking out. I could easily solve this in 4 minutes if I put my mind to it. But I’ve been sitting here for 71 minutes already and I’m exhausted. Okay, here’s what you do. Put a huge, proud box around your wrong answer and make it look right. Even though it’s obviously wrong.
Okay, the big box looks good, Check my other answers. Did I put something down for all of them? Yes. Okay, good. Time is up.
George waited for me at the door.
“Hey man, so did you get the limits of that one problem to be y squared?” he asked.
He was talking about one of the theoretical ones that I made up answers for.
“Uhh, nah dude, I think I put infinity for that one...”
George looks at me with a pitiful face.
“Oh, yea, man – I mean – I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
Yea, I don’t either. “Hey,” I said,
“How did you solve that one problem?” The one that I got stuck on at the end - the one that I put the wrong answer for, inside of a huge box.
“Oh, it’s easy, you just use method two,” he said.
“Oh okay, yea that’s what I thought… but I tried to use method 1 and it didn’t work.”
“Yea, method 1 won’t work for that one. Well, I’m gonna go back to my dorm and smoke pot and play video games and have sex but enjoy of the rest of your day regretting your stupid mistake in your lonely grad school office, man!”
Is essentially what he said.