Common App Essay #4

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

What I am about to say will cause me to completely lose the respect of my former students and current colleagues, especially my math buddy, Crystal Hayduk, then – crossing fingers – I will earn it back.

Here goes.

When I opened the BC Calculus AP exam on the spring of 1979, I did not recognize a single thing. I did not know what a second derivative was nor a secant line. I always picture taking the exam in the choir room at the high school (with its auditorium seating) and, once I recognized the predicament I was in, I recall sitting for a long time trying to figure out a way out of the room without everyone seeing me.

Sure I had earned a solid B in class, but that came from incrementally understanding what to do with the numbers and symbols facing me on each particular day. I had no idea how it all worked together, and, in all honesty, I don’t think anyone ever explained why I might need to know the area of the shape formed under a curve.

Later that spring when everyone was sharing AP scores, I was reluctant to share mine. I’d say, “Oh, man, that test was hard.” Or, more vaguely, “Glad that’s over.” I never admitted to my result, which was a score of 1.

I think you get a 1 (on the 1-5 scale for those of you who don’t know) by signing your name and making a few marks on the page. I had done that, but nothing more.

So problem: I wasn’t nearly as smart as I was supposed to be, especially after all of those years of good teachers in a great system with throngs of others equally talented.

When selecting freshmen classes at Miami University, the first thing I did was to sign up for an 8 am 5 credit hour calculus class. Monday through Friday, first thing, before most people were even thinking about getting up.

I needed to know if I was as dumb as I felt, and I needed to prove I could do better.

I went every day, sat in the back of the class barely taking notes. I just listened. I tried to see the point and make the connections that had been previously lost on me. I did my some of my homework, but mostly I helped the others on my corridor who were taking calculus for the first time.

I must have gotten it because I had the highest score on every test every time. I broke the curve (a curve whose area I could now measure). I broke it so badly that, at some point, the TA teaching the class decided to drop me off the curve altogether.

One day after class she asked how I knew what I knew especially because I didn’t even seem to need to take notes or hand in homework. I explained what had happened senior year in high school. That I had failed and I needed to know why.

And, that’s pretty much been my modus operandi for all problems. I want to know why and where I went wrong, then I want to fix it. It works for most things: overcooking pork, conquering Google Drive, or repairing friendships.

Other times, that strategy falls flat. Like when you need to make amends to your mother after she has died or want to question hiring practices (especially when you are not the person who has been hired). Then, I find it best to use the completely opposite and equally effective technique: letting it go.

That’s the big point of problem solving, after all, isn’t it? To know and train your response. To build recovery muscles.

There’s no way to live error-free; there is no point in assuming life should or will go smoothly. I needed – when I was very young – to know that I could solve my own way out again, I could always count on me to recalibrate. Except, of course, that year or two or five when I was depressed. Then I needed medicine and a weekly session on the couch.

I have relearned the lesson of self-determination many times. It will get rocky. You will open the day’s docket and it’ll look like goobly gook. You won’t recognize what you are being asked to do and you won’t know how to proceed. Then you will remember that you have the capacity and inclination to figure it out. Instead of needing to know the area under a curve, you will need to know the swerve of the curve – so, you will duck and twist in a new direction and rectify the differential between being lost and certain. It’s a certain kind of calculus, this recovery. The kind of calculus I use every single day.

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3 thoughts on “Common App Essay #4”

  1. Calculus can do that to a person. I know it did it to me. Breezed through Differential and ran into a wall with Integral. Sank what otherwise could have been a very nerdy career in science. But rather than conquer the obstacle I ran to the lower (for me) hurdles and took “physics for poets” and the like and settled for a BBS–and that wasn’t for Business Studies. Did I solve the problem? Obviously yes and no. Kind of revised the problem which is a proven BS technique: When you’re losing on Topic A, shift quickly and cleverly to Topic B, and they’ll never know what hit ’em. Could have missed my calling–not science, not math, but advertising, hucksterism, televangelism, comedy. Can’t honestly call it a wasted life. Every once in a while I’ll look back on something I wrote and laugh or cry or say out loud, “Damn,
    that was good!”

    1. I could see you as a comedic huckster, but not everyone is smart enough to keep up with you (me, for example). Thanks for reading my blog, Jim. I always look forward to your take.

    2. Damn, that’s good – for sure, Jim! I love getting these drops of insight from you. I JUST FOUND the comment section on my blog (the configuration changed) and now I am responding eons too late.

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