Tag Archives: calculus

Why I’m Not An Engineer

When it came to my engineering career, the handwriting was literally on the wall.

When it came to my engineering career, the handwriting was literally on the wall.

Several young people I know are starting college during the upcoming week and all the preparations got me in a nostalgic mood and turned my thoughts towards my own sojourn into “higher education.”

I went to college planning to get into a career where I could make a lot of money. This mindset sprang from my daddy’s measuring stick for success, which is wealth. I had three possible lucrative careers in mind. First, I could go the “doctor” route. I knew that would be a mistake though because of a tour of the Gross Anatomy Lab at MUSC in Charleston. I’m not the most squeamish person, but someone left a partially dissected hand out from under a sheet and that sight combined with a hot dog lunch and the smell of Clorox and chloroform made my innards rebel. I spent a good part of the bus ride home face down in a plastic bag.

My second thought was “lawyer,” but Mama threatened to disown me if I stooped so low regardless of the money involved. With those two doors shut, I set off to registration intending to become an engineer. Fewer ventures which started so innocuously have ended so completely in the toilet.

Since Engineers do a lot of math I figured I’d best get started so first I registered for calculus. At this point, I feel I should disclose something, I take to math like a cat takes to water. To me, math is akin to witchcraft and its practitioners should be burned at the stake. Still, if I was going to make that mass of Benjamins everyone expected, I was going to have to conquer math.

Here’s where things got ugly. As a senior in high school, against my better judgement, I took AP Calculus, BUT — as I’ve written before — I was gifted with a math teacher who was second to none. Because of Mr. Brady’s skill as a teacher and my seat next to Greg Hindman, I took the AP exam and made a 3 of 5. That was a mistake. The guy signing me up for math at Clemson looked at my test score and determined I would skip THREE SEMESTERS of Calculus. My first semester at university I was in Calculus 208. I didn’t know it, but I was a dead man walking.

Calculus 208 was an eight o’clock morning class in a lecture hall just smaller than a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane hanger. Moreover, I hadn’t seen a crowd like that since the last Laurens / Clinton football game. Half a mile away in the front of the room hung a projector screen larger than the main screen at the Oaks Theater movie house. Binoculars would not have been out of place. Strangely, I seemed to smell hot dogs and chloroform and my stomach began to ache just a bit.

I found a seat about halfway to the front next to a huge, good-natured country boy named Joel from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He and I exchanged some typical Southern small talk and then the professor walked in talking like an auctioneer with a truckload of cotton bales to get sold and precious little time to do it. He introduced himself as something like Dr. Rafsanjani or such then turned to a whiteboard under the projector. He wrote and spoke five solid minutes and I may have caught every third word, but when he finally put his marker down and looked at us, I understood every thickly accented word he said,”Class, I vill not beat around bush. De equations on board should be familiar to you from earlier Calculus. If you can not integrate, derive, and further manipulate each WITH EASE, it is veddy unlikely you shall pass dis course. I have teaching since you were children and know vhat I speak. If you do not recognize how to work dese equations, it vill be advisable for you to drop dis class now. I have drop add slips. Raise hands if you need one. Dere is no shame in knowing one’s limitations.” I looked at what he’d written. ONE equation looked somewhat familiar. The rest could have been Arabic or Sanskrit for all the sense they made to me. I looked at Joel; he looked at me, and we both slowly turned and raised our hands to get a drop slip.

We ate breakfast after we dropped the slips off. Joel planned to drop back to beginning Calculus 106 and start over. I knew better than to try. People mistakenly call me smart. I am not smart, I have a good memory and blossom under good teachers. MATH people are smart. Bill Gates is smart. Mr. Brady wasn’t here; Greg wasn’t sitting next to me and I had no idea how to begin studying the arcana Prof. Raj had scratched on the board. I dropped back ten and punted.

My engineering career derailed, I went back to my room and pored over the major catalog trying to find something I could succeed in. It didn’t take long to figure out ANYTHING remotely science or technically related went through Calculus 208 — or worse. By lunchtime, I’d made the only choice I could. I was going to go into education and be a teacher. Even then I had to settle for being an English teacher instead of the science teacher I’d wanted to be because all the science education majors required that godforsaken Calculus.

So there you have it. I’m not an engineer raking in the big bucks for one simple reason — I can’t do the math. Of course, I guess it’s better to know that now than to find out after a bridge I designed fell into a river and killed a lot of people. Things have a way of working out whether we want them to or not.

Love y’all. Have a good school year, and keep those feet clean.

Coo coo ca choo, Mr. Brady!


Mr. Brady circa 1989. He taught me Algebra II and Calculus. Finest math teacher ever.

Fate, if you believe in it, is an odd and capricious thing.

If Larry Brady had been able to fold proper paper airplanes, I would never have learned calculus in high school, so I would have been forced to take it in college — most likely with a thickly accented professor — and failed it miserably thereby not finishing my degree and likely dooming myself to a life of more misery and failure than I already have endured.

I guess one could safely say I owe a lot to Mr. Brady.

Budge and I were talking about math last night. Why, I don’t know. It’s one of those strange conversations married people have. Anyway, Budge HATES math. I blame Dad. Patience is not one of Dad’s cardinal virtues. He scarred her for life when he tried helping her with her algebra homework.

So we were talking about different kinds of math and Budge mentioned that she didn’t understand trigonometry. In about 15 minutes, I’d explained to her what it was, who used it, and why. I also gave her a rundown on mnemonics for the main trig functions. She wanted to know why it was so easy for me to learn and remember all this when she’d had such an impossible time with her high school math classes.

I answered her, “That’s easy; you never had Mr. Brady for a math teacher.”

As he explained to us in class in one of the precious few moments we managed to bump him slightly off topic, had Mr. Brady managed to conquer paper airplane origami at North Carolina State University, he would have pursued a degree and career as an aeronautic engineer. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the hang of folding the paper the way this particular professor wanted it folded so he changed his major to mathematics and ended up, somehow, as a teacher. I’m not certain on the mechanism of fate, but I do know that fortuitous alignment of the stars resulted in a generation of math students at Laurens District 55 High School being blessed without measure by putting one of the most gifted instructors to every pick up a blue Marks-A-Lot overhead pen into the classroom.

Lest anyone reading this think Mr. Brady was so memorable because he was easy, happy-go-lucky, loosey-goosey, and tried being our friend, PLEASE get a grip. Mr. Brady had a dry sense of humor, genuinely enjoyed teaching, and loved three things above all else — basketball, math, and his two daughters, one of whom was my classmate.

He was friendly, but he was a teacher first. He was one of the most organized human beings I ever met — at least in the classroom. Most of all though, he was decidedly NOT an easy teacher. Earning Cs in his class was honorable, Bs were a sign of hard work, and As — well, As in Mr. Brady’s class were the Maltese Falcons of the LDHS55 math department.

What made Mr. Brady unique was his ability to teach any concept, no matter how abstract or outrageous, to anyone. I am convinced, within two semesters, he could teach a lab rat to play “Ode to Joy” on a miniature grand piano. He knew no less than five ways to do any problem. If, by chance, a brain-dead stoner in one of his classes couldn’t “get it” using one of those five ways, Mr. Brady didn’t get mad or frustrated — he made up a sixth way on the spot, just like he made up all his classroom examples — on the spot. Now, in case that doesn’t impress you, try making up a problem involving L’Hopital’s Rule on the spur of the moment to get an answer that is neat and easy to use as a teaching example.

He was amazing.

Lest anyone think Mr. Brady was one of those Ivory Tower Birds who could only teach the cream of the crop, be advised that he taught EVERYTHING in the math department. Remedial Mathematics to AP Calculus, he taught them all with the same passion and expertise. He was one of the minuscule fraction of teachers who could — and would — teach all students well and without complaint.

We spend a lifetime trying to forget some teachers. Others, we remember, but for all the wrong reasons. We recall many personalities, but precious little of the subject matter they once imparted to us. Mr. Brady wasn’t like that at all. I suppose the best way to finally impress upon you the man’s ability as an educator is to reveal that I made a 3 on the AP Calculus “AB” Exam at the end of his class. I can’t remember how many of us passed with a 3 or better, but it was a typically phenomenal ratio for his calculus classes. He taught me so well and so thoroughly that I still maintain some knowledge of calculus today — 21 years later — having never found a reason to use it.

The man was good. He was a teacher par excellance and I hope that, wherever he is today and whatever he’s doing (he’s retired, but that’s all I know), he’s reaping a generous reward for making two otherwise unbearable years a little brighter for me.

Good on ya’, Mr. Brady, wherever you are!

Love y’all and don’t remember to wash your feet.

Author’s Update September 6, 2006: When I first published this entry on my blog, I sent a copy to Mr. Brady’s daughter, Sally, to pass on to her dad since I didn’t know where he was living or any of his contact information. Sally wrote me back telling me how much she appreciated the tribute, but that she would be unable to pass it on to her father. Unbeknown to me, and to my great and lasting sorrow, Mr. Larry Brady — finest math teacher ever to pace the classroom — passed away in January of 2006 after a series of strokes. I had no idea.  Resquiescat In Pace, Mr. Brady, and thank you so much.