I Had That! #46: Trig Star Award

I was not a good student in school. Though I was considered “gifted and talented” nobody was courting me when it came time for college, nor did they have a reason to. And it wasn’t because I was intellectually bored, it was because I was pathologically lazy. My gift and talent was for finding the absolute bare minimum and rolling with that.

Math class was especially bad for me. Looking back now I know that I had a succession of bad math teachers, and got convinced that math wasn’t my thing and I was no good at it. In tenth grade I took Geometry with Ms. Stott and did not fare well. 11th grade Algebra wasn’t much better. When it came time for my senior year, I had no plans to take a math class at all, since Algebra was the highest required class.

The same Ms. Stott, who knew how I’d struggled in Geometry, taught Trigonometry, and urged me to take it. “You’ll need it in college,” she said. “You can do it. I’ll help you out.” For some reason I relented.

Trig was exactly as opaque to me as everything else had been, and the supposed help from the teacher was not forthcoming. It was miserable, until I had a revelation: to graduate, I didn’t need to pass this class. I already had the credits, GPA, and math courses I needed. So I stopped trying. I didn’t do homework (which probably was not an alteration in behavior; this wasn’t all on Ms. Stott), flunked tests, paid no attention in class (though I was not disruptive). Ms. Stott noticed, and wasn’t happy, even when I explained what I was doing and why.

One day we had an out of class exercise. Some land surveyors came by and, on a cold day out in the baseball field, showed us how they used trig in their every day jobs. The next day we had a contest sponsored by them. I still remember the problem: “A surveyor is hired to find the distance of a thrown shot put at a tournament. Given these angles and such, determine which athlete won the tournament.” My first impulse was to answer, “The surveyor is getting paid to do this, so maybe he’s the one you should ask,” but instead I decided to give it a shot. I noticed that there seemed to be enough information to use the law of sines, one of the few things I remembered from the time in the class when I was trying. So I used that and banged out some numbers.

I was the first to bring the completed sheet to Ms. Stott. “This should be good,” she said, visibly rolling her eyes. She looked at the paper and the eyes stopped rolling.

“You son of a bitch.” she said. Those exact words. I was right. I had won the contest. She had to give me the above “Trig Star” plaque.

I continued my strategy and received an F in the class. I graduated anyway.

My first time through college I avoided math as much as possible. Despite more or less teaching myself out of the book in the on class I did take and tutoring other students, I still assumed I couldn’t do it. Later, after I realized I was good at math and enjoyed it, I took a college level Trig course. I had no idea how I could not have understood it before. There are, like, six things you need to know to pass the course, and they all play off each other. I aced it and now have a B.S. in Math Education.

When did I get it? 1986, senior year of High School. Yes, I went to Riverdale High School, no I did not hang out with Archie and Jughead.

Do I still have it? You damn sure know I do.

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