December 30th, 2007

math: life is complex

Adventures in Geometry

This entry probably won't make much sense. I apologize in advance, but I threw out several put-together versions before saying, "Screw it."

We had an assignment to turn in every week in geometry, and Dr. Lewin chose the best eight (wow, it feels really weird to be using the past tense to refer to a class I just took) to count for our homework grade. We definitely received more than eight assignments during the semester, so we could afford to skip one if life decided to beat down on us. I chose to skip the one due right after my presentation in that class, even though I really should have done it. Great, fine, whatever.

Then she assigned one last assignment due on Tuesday, the first reading day. I thought of my homework grades and thought, "You know, I should probably do this one." So I did it and turned it in, hoping I'd get it (along with Dr. Lewin's comments) back early enough to open the envelope containing my final exam and not feel pressed for time as I worked on it.

Tuesday came and went. Wednesday, the second reading day, came. Mira, her boyfriend, Sarah, and I were studying in the math center when Mira and I started discussing the nonreturn of the last assignment. We went up to see about it. After all, neither of us felt like we could truly open our exams until we had gotten these back and talked to Dr. Lewin about the assignment, if we had to.

"So you're saying I should put all this off and start grading yours?" she said not unpleasantly.

"Pretty much, yeah," I replied not snarkily.

We went to see Dr. Wiseman about changing the schedule of modeling next semester (from MW 1:00-2:15 to MWF 1:00-1:50), and off we went. (It worked, by the way. I checked AscAgnes a few days back, and sure enough, the class is now Monday/Wednesday/Friday instead of Monday/Wednesday. Sweet.)

An hour later Dr. Lewin came down to the math center to retrieve something. The math center was quite barren by this point, as most of the materials had been removed in preparation for exam time. (I'm guessing special exams are held there, as self-scheduled exams aren't normally allowed in there.) She told me that she had finished grading my assignment, and maybe we should chat about it. Oh dear, I thought.

The end result? She didn't actually grade the assignment because I, in my blazing rush to get the thing done, had screwed up the entire thing. I had made conjectures opposite what was really supposed to happen, missed vital steps in proofs, and even gone around in circles with one proof. It was a mess.

This wasn't the math I know and love, I thought as we went through everything. This makes no sense. Not because I had no idea what's going on, but because something just wasn't clicking and saying, "Yes, I think that should make perfect sense." None of that. I knew all the ideas, but when it came to putting them together? Blank. Absolutely nothing.

This was a foreign concept to me, this nonintuitiveness in math. I'm used to math being hard. In fact, a lot of it is hard for me. But once I have the ideas down, I'm used to things just making sense to me, even if I have no idea of how to go about proving why those things should make sense. For the first time since I had started exploring this mathematical wilderness, I had lost my compass. I rely on that compass. I was perfectly okay with lines no longer being perfectly straight, this jump from Euclidean geometry to all sorts of crazy geometries. That part didn't faze me at all. What bothered me was the lack of intuition, the lack of direction I felt right then.

At that moment, I really was a lost little girl looking for some sense of direction, and I just couldn't find it. I tried to hold in the tears that were fighting their way out. This worked fine for awhile.

Right before I left, she asked if I was okay. Well, saying that I was would be a big fat lie, as I was nearly reduced to tears by that point. How could I explain this lack of direction in a place where I thought I could rely on it? Finally I was honest and said no, I wasn't okay. How could I be, I thought, when my sense of direction was gone, and I still had this dark path to navigate with her final exam?

She asked if I was sleeping and eating okay. Yes, I was sleeping okay--as well as one could sleep during the crazy exam time, anyway. Eating? Of course. Sure, I had been camping out in the math center and in the library and taking half my meals at Mollie's, but I had been eating as well as I could under the circumstances.

Was it the exams? Oh gods, yes. The French paper I had barely started due at the end of exams, and abstract algebra because I needed that ridiculously high grade to get an A in the class, and physics, where I was just worried in general, and let's not forget her own final exam, which of course was going to be hard because it was a Lewin exam, but was going to be doubly hard for me because I just didn't get geometry

Would I use my mother as an emotional punching bag of sorts? Well... no. Not because she's a bad mother or anything, but then I remembered my nearly snappy comment earlier where I nearly apologized for sounding like I was talking to Mum. We're really not that close, to be honest. It's not because she's a bad mother or anything. It's because if I were to spill my guts in such a manner, she'd probably just tell me I'd be fine. Really. I've supposedly grown very tough this way. (Incidentally, during this conversation, Mum did call. I did eventually call her back, but I never told her anything about this. It might even be called ironic.) This is the sort of thing I'd use Dr. Nbook for, and maybe (just maybe) a couple of friends.

Was I a touchy-feely person? Well, maybe. Under the right circumstances. Sort of. Then would I like a hug?

Actually, that didn't sound like a bad idea. So we hugged, and I found myself crying on Dr. Lewin's shoulder. Now, I can be a very tense person, especially during that time of year. After we parted, she said, "You make life extremely hard on yourself." I'll never forget those words.

Why? Because as much as I don't intentionally, I sort of do. I mean, I used to make it so hard that I couldn't keep up, back when straight A's were the standard, and they weren't all that difficult to get. Now I keep--strive to keep, even--life enjoyable, always looking out for those little joys in life, although to an extent she is right. I still haven't gotten over that first sting.

She finally reassured me that her final exam wasn't monstrous. I took her word for it and left her office for the math learning center again.

Monstrous? Oh, it was monstrous. I found myself feeling around in the dark on countless occasions while taking the exam, trying to figure out why such and such would or wouldn't work for the proof, what the 'several cases' she mentioned in one problem actually were, what exactly was going on. I was up late into the night working on the exam and on the French paper, trying to make these work together while saving abstract and physics studying for the two days before I took each exam.

I turned in that geometry exam Tuesday afternoon at 4:45. I didn't finish one part of one problem, but I knew there wasn't much more I would be able to do to it in fifteen minutes, so I turned it in. Sweet, sweet relief.

And then Christmas Eve came, and along with that, our geometry grade breakdown on Blackboard. I made a 77 on the final. I was not expecting that in the slightest.

Geometry did shake my world beyond the ways I expected to be shaken. It just shook me in the exact opposite ways that I expected.

But then again, life is never the way we expect it to be, is it?