I sat in math class on a Friday morning, listening to the instructor talk about finding derivatives of vector functions. It seemed simple enough… just write the vector components of the function and find the derivative of each component. When I registered for classes, the name “vector analysis” made me think the class would be difficult, especially since I wasn’t entirely sure what a vector was, but so far the class had been easy.
I wished that had been true of all of my classes.
After math class, I walked to the Memorial Union. I only had an hour between math and physics class, and I had finally figured out that I did not have to go all the way back to my dorm room between classes. This quarter, when I had a gap of an hour or two between classes, I would go find a table at the Memorial Union and read or work on homework. I tried to do math homework today, but I was having a hard time concentrating, dreading what was coming in an hour when I got to physics class.
Physics was in a small building called Ross Hall. This building had a lecture hall of about 200 seats on one side and another lecture hall of about 100 seats on the other side. Inexplicably, the two lecture halls were called room 55 and room 66, with 66 being the larger one. I still didn’t understand how rooms were numbered in some of these buildings. Upstairs from the two lecture halls were 12 small laboratory rooms with numbers in the 150s and 160s. That numbering was consistent with most buildings on the University of Jeromeville campus, with the room numbers being 100 greater than the room numbers below them, but I still didn’t understand why they didn’t just start with something like 1 and 101. I’m a numbers guy. I think about these things.
UJ offered three different physics classes: Physics 1, a very general class that counted as a general education requirement for non-science majors; Physics 7, focusing on concepts and procedures, designed for majors like biology and pre-med; and Physics 9, teaching all the details and theory and mathematics behind general physics, for students of engineering, the physical sciences, and mathematics. I still hadn’t declared a major, but all of the majors I had been considering, including physics itself, required this last physics class, so taking this class was a given for me. Unlike most year-long classes, Physics 9 started in spring quarter, and continued through the following winter, April to March, so that incoming freshmen would have two quarters to learn calculus before beginning physics.
Physics was easy in high school. Most science classes were easy for me. Science, like mathematics, followed consistent logical rules. In real life, there were scientific concepts that didn’t follow these rules, because humanity’s knowledge of the universe was incomplete, but those were not the kinds of things taught in high school.
Because physics was so easy for me in high school, I expected physics to continue to be easy in college. My professor, Dr. Collins, taught one thing differently than the way it was in the book, and I didn’t quite understand it the way he explained it, but I understood what was in the book just fine. I had a midterm last Monday, and I expected it to be easy, because physics was easy.
Expectations are often different from reality, and this was why I had felt so discouraged after actually taking the physics midterm. This was also why I felt a sense of dread walking into 66 Ross today, because my graded midterm was there, waiting for me to go pick it up.
The lobby for the lecture hall had a long wooden shelf where instructors and graders could leave exams to be passed back. The shelf was only a couple inches deep, with vertical compartments to hold papers so that students could flip through the papers looking for theirs. The papers were separated alphabetically. I found D and looked for Dennison. I nervously removed my paper from the shelf, reassuring myself that it couldn’t possibly be that bad.
It was that bad.
It was even worse than that bad, actually.
I walked into the lecture hall and took a seat in the back. I felt too ashamed to sit any closer to the front. I felt like I didn’t even belong at this university getting grades like this.
54 out of 120. That’s less than 50%, and in the high school grading method I was used to, less than 50% is an F.
I looked through my paper to see what I got wrong exactly. As I looked through the questions, I noticed something that sunk my already low confidence through the floor.
The grader had counted incorrectly. My grade was actually 44 out of 120. That was certainly failing.
Dr. Collins began speaking from the front of the classroom. “Your midterms are in the lobby, if you haven’t gotten them yet,” he said. “I curved them like this.” He put a transparency on the overhead projector indicating what score corresponded to what letter grade. Apparently I wasn’t the only student who did poorly. 54 out of 120 was being curved to a C-minus. 44 out of 120 was still curved to an F, though. I wasn’t sure how the curve worked exactly. I never did figure out if there was a set formula which instructors used to curve grades, or if they just looked at how everyone did and separated them into five letter grade groups.
This entire quarter was about mechanics: velocity, acceleration, force, torque, energy, momentum, that kind of stuff. It seemed pretty simple. But somehow, I just didn’t understand what to do with the information given on the test. A lot of the problems weren’t like the homework, and Dr. Collins had included one problem, out of six total, which entirely involved the part of his instruction that wasn’t in the textbook.
I had a hard time concentrating on the lecture that day. I should be concentrating harder with the kind of grade I got on that test, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact that I had failed a test. I had never failed a test before. School was the one thing I was good at, especially classes like physics.
At dinner that night, I looked around the dining hall for a place to sit. I saw Skeeter and Bok and a girl from another building whom I knew to be Bok’s friend from high school. I saw Megan with some girls I didn’t know, probably from her building. I saw Mike and Ian and Gina from the third floor of my building. I decided to ignore all of them and sit by myself. Why bother sitting with friends when I would probably fail out of UJ at the end of the year and never see these people again? I was an Interdisciplinary Honors Program student. I wasn’t supposed to fail a test.
My plan to sit alone didn’t work, though. Taylor and Pete and Charlie saw me sitting alone about five minutes later and approached me with their trays of food.
“Can we sit here?” Taylor asked.
“Sure,” I muttered. I thought about telling them I wanted to be alone, but that didn’t seem right.
“How’s it goin’?”
“What’s wrong, man?”
“I bombed a physics midterm.”
“Is that all?” Taylor said, almost laughing. “I’ve bombed a few tests this year, and I’m still doing fine.”
“It’s not funny,” I said, a little louder this time, looking down at the table and not making eye contact. “I thought I knew all of this.”
“Sorry. I know it’s tough. But try not to let it get you down.”
“I’m trying. I can’t help it. It’s all I can think about.”
“This really isn’t the end of the world,” Pete said. “Which physics? 9A?”
“My class just got the first midterm back. I got a B-minus. I think it was a rude awakening for everyone. How bad was yours?”
“44 out of 120.”
I should have taken Pete’s class, I thought. Pete’s instructor probably goes by the book and doesn’t add his own thing. Unfortunately, it was too late to change my schedule for this quarter. I would try signing up for 9B in the fall with a different instructor. Maybe I’d have an easier time with someone other than Dr. Collins… that is, if I get to sign up for classes in the fall at all, and I don’t get kicked out of school for failing first.
“Are you doing anything this weekend?” Taylor asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Maybe that’ll be good. Just rest, and study physics so you’ll do better next time.”
“We’ll see, I guess.”
The others started talking about their plans for the weekend. It was Friday night, so they all had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship later that night. I finished eating as they talked about JCF and the speaker for that night. It sounded like they were going to have a fun night. I didn’t have anything like that to look forward to, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have felt like going anyway.
I spent the rest of Friday night in my room. I wrote emails to the girls I knew from the Internet whom I had been talking to. I checked all the Usenet groups I followed, a few for fans of bands I liked and a few for fans of sports teams I liked. I got on IRC looking for girls to talk to, but no one I knew was on and no one in the chat was talking to me.
I read for a while. I had been reading It by Stephen King. My mom was a big Stephen King fan, and she had read this book when I was a kid, when the book was new, so she had told me a little bit about the book over the years. The book was very long; I had been reading it for over a month, and I still had over a hundred pages to go.
Around ten o’clock, I walked down the hall to use the bathroom, then walked up and down the entire length of the second floor to see if anyone was around. As I turned the corner and got closer to my room, number 221, I saw Liz from room 222 come out of the stairwell and walk toward her room. She heard me walking and turned around. “Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling.
“I bombed a test.”
“Oh no. What class?”
“I’ve heard that’s hard. I only have to take the 7 series.”
“This never happens. Physics was always easy in high school. What if every test is going to be hard for me from now on? What if I fail and get kicked out of school?”
“You’re not going to fail out,” Liz said reassuringly. “Everyone has a bad day sometimes.”
“I guess. I’ve never done this badly on a test before. I’m scared.”
“I just got back from JCF. The speaker tonight spoke on God’s unconditional love. You know what that means, right?”
“I think it means God loves me no matter what?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yes! Paul wrote that nothing could ever separate us from the love of God. Greg, you are still a beloved child of God even if you bomb a physics test. Even if you fail out of school. You’re not going to, but even that isn’t the end of the world, because God loves you, and he has a plan for you.”
“No. I know. God brought you here to Jeromeville for a reason, and it wasn’t to get all down on yourself. Can you at least think about that and try to cheer up?”
“It’ll be okay, Greg. It really will. I’ll pray for you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it. And I’m going to start going to office hours and studying harder.”
“See? You have a plan. That’s good. But don’t ever forget that God’s love for you is not conditional on your grades.”
“I won’t forget.”
The rest of my weekend was fairly uneventful. I had physics problems to work on, and this time I read the book far more carefully as I was working. I would not get caught off guard again by a difficult midterm. I had one more midterm in three weeks, and then the final exam.
The more I thought about what had happened with this physics midterm, the more I realized that the answer to one of the open questions about my life was taking shape. It was time to make a decision. On Tuesday morning, after math class got out, I had a three hour gap until my chemistry lab, so I went to the basement of Marks Hall. A display on the wall had various forms for students; I checked to see if the one I needed was there. It was. REQUEST TO CHANGE MAJOR. I picked it up and filled it out, with “Mathematics” as the requested major. I read through the fine print explaining that some majors were impacted and needed prior approval or other conditions; I was pretty sure Mathematics was not impacted in that way. I submitted the form and left.
My next stop was Dr. Collins’ office hours. His office was in the physics building, next to the chemistry building and Ross Hall and not too far from Marks Hall. Like the chemistry building, the physics building did not have another name. Dr. Collins’ office was on the third floor, and when I got there, a line had already formed out the door. Four students were in front of me waiting to ask questions. I listened and took notes on all the other students’ questions.
“What can I help you with?” Dr. Collins asked when I got to the front of the line.
I showed him my midterm. “You counted the score wrong. Or your TA did. I only got 44, not 54.”
Dr. Collins looked at my midterm and thought for a few seconds. “It was our mistake. Don’t worry about it.”
“Yeah. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“I was confused about this problem.” I got out my textbook and pointed to a problem I hadn’t been able to solve from last night’s homework. I listened as Dr. Collins reminded me how coefficients of friction worked, and how to calculate kinetic energy.
“Thanks,” I said. “I think I get it now.”
“You’re welcome. See you in class tomorrow.”
I had my chemistry lab that afternoon. The laboratory classrooms for general chemistry were in the basement of the chemistry building. The hallways in the basement were dim and a little scary, painted a drab yellow, with lots of pipes and electrical conduits visible on and near the ceiling. The lab rooms themselves looked exactly as one would expect them to look given what the rest of the basement looked like; this was the perfect setting for a laboratory. My lab partner for this quarter was a girl named Marissa. She was a sophomore, a biology major, thin with a somewhat dark complexion and medium brown hair. We met last quarter, when we were also in the same lab section for chemistry, and on the first day of lab of this quarter, neither of us knew anyone else in this lab section, so we decided to be partners.
I arrived about a minute before Marissa did, about five minutes before class actually started. “Hey, Greg!” Marissa said when she got to our table. “How are you?”
“I’m doing okay. I just submitted a change of major form.”
“Changing your major? From math to what?”
“From undeclared to math.”
“Oh! I thought you told me you were a math major. You hadn’t declared it yet?”
“I was thinking about a few different majors. Math, physics, maybe chemistry. All the classes I was good at in high school. I’ve been leaning more toward math. I bombed a physics midterm last week, and that made up my mind for good to do math.”
“Oh no! How bad was it?”
“I failed. The grader counted my score wrong, and with the curve, the incorrect score would be a C-minus. I was honest and told him about the mistake in office hours, and he told me not to worry about it. But still, if I’m doing that poorly on the first physics test I ever take, it’s not going to be my major.”
“I get that. My roommate from last year was an engineer until she bombed her first calculus final. Now she’s an art major.”
“Wow. That’s a big change.”
“Yeah. Do you need chemistry for a math major?”
“No. But you need it for everything else I was considering. I’ll probably finish out the Chem 2 series, I like chemistry, but I won’t be taking any more after that.”
“Yeah. Well, good luck with your new major.”
I went to Dr. Collins’ office hours once a week for the rest of the quarter. I reread every chapter of the physics book in the week before the second midterm. I paid more attention in class and did my homework right away so that I would remember what I had learned. I was determined not to fail the next midterm. I had never before studied so hard for a science class.
Three weeks later, as I walked into 66 Ross knowing that I would get the second midterm back, I remembered what Liz had told me after the first midterm. I was still a beloved child of God no matter how I did on this test. I had done so poorly the first time that I felt like I was ready to fail again. I wasn’t going to be shocked at a bad grade, since I had already done poorly in the class so far, but I was at least hoping that I did significantly better. I kept trying to remind myself that God loved me even if I failed physics, but it was hard to wrap my head around that. This was the first time anyone had ever told me that God still loved me even if I failed a class, and while it sounded right in my heart and in my mind, I still could not really wrap my head around that concept.
I pulled my midterm paper out of the letter D section of the rack of returned papers, and I nervously looked at the top of the paper. I gasped and almost dropped the paper when I saw that I got a perfect score. A perfect score, after having failed the last test. I had the highest grade (well, at least tied with everyone else who got a perfect score) in a class of 200 students. I smiled wide as I walked to my seat. My hard work had paid off.
At the end of the quarter, I somehow still ended up getting an A in the class. I don’t know exactly how the professor calculated the grade, and I felt like I didn’t deserve the A after doing so poorly on the first midterm. But I wouldn’t complain. After that first midterm, I knew that I needed to change what I had been doing. Life gets me down sometimes, and the best I can ever do is get back up and try again and see what I am actually capable of. The hard work in physics continued to pay off as I continued to get As in all three quarters of physics, and I never failed a test again for the rest of my life.
However, this experience also taught me that physics was not my strong point. I did not enjoy the level of work I had to put in to get good grades in physics. Mathematics was more enjoyable and came more naturally to me. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with a math degree, but I was definitely making progress now that I had a goal for the rest of my time at UJ.