Friday, April 23, 2010

Amazing physics--Could anything save a wretch like me?

Three books that made my college life temporarily miserable.
-->I learned something about salvation through mathematics. In elementary school I did all right. I can do everything a simple calculator can do; I’m just slower. But freshman algebra did me in.

Always an A or B student without trying too hard, I brought home my first D, from algebra. When I showed my report card to my parents, I dreaded the worst. However, they confessed that my math disability was genetic.

I avoided further high school math classes by taking general sciences and biology. In the ACT college entrance test I ranked at the nineteenth percentile in math. Even someone of my arithmetically challenged skills could figure that 81 percent of college applicants had better math skills than I.

That ACT score, heavy on algebra, forced me into bonehead math at Loma Linda University my freshman year. That was easy: all arithmetic, no algebra. It was like being in seventh-grade math all over again. Happy days! As for the balance of my university science and math requirements for a communications/music education double major, I managed to squeeze in human physiology, geology, and other non-mathematical classes. However, there was one class I was required to take: Physics of Music and Sound.

The passage that said anyone could understand what was
to come, "even" musicians. 
The textbook, The Acoustical Foundations of Music, slightly comforted me on page 4 with a condescending statement about musicians: We artistic types would need not quite as much math skill for this class as it would take to balance a checkbook. However, I had never used logarithms to balance my checking account!

But I digress. To my dismay, most of those in Professor Lester Cushman’s Physics of Music class were pre-med math and science whizzes. They were in it for some easy credits to boost their GPA. I took careful notes of I know not what, and memorized verbiage to perfection. I could explain the Doppler effect. But I was clueless when they discussed absorption coefficients and the Pythagorean comma (proof that B-sharp is a higher pitch than C). It was all algebraic—a foreign language. I studied the text, but couldn’t comprehend. After 10 weeks it was time for the final exam.

It was a drizzly day and the classroom was cold. I shifted painfully on my hard wooden chair because I’d recently cracked my tailbone by slipping in the winter rain. The pre-medical students finished their papers quickly and practically skipped out of the room. Finally, I was alone, staring at the problems and formulas without any hope of a solution.

Mr. Cushman noticed I was stuck. He walked over and encouraged me to push buttons on my primitive calculator, which was very unlike the pre-meds’ with their buttons for “sin” and “cos” and other incomprehensible notations. I wrote the resulting numbers on the test blanks.

Two weeks later grades came out. I found my A’s and B’s in other classes, but I was astounded to see that I’d received a C- in physics, much higher than the F I’d expected and probably deserved. Because the class was required for my music major, however, anything below a C wouldn’t count. I might as well have failed, but at least Mr. Cushman had been kind to my grade point average.

I didn’t protest or challenge the grade. I’d worked hard, but to no avail. I was a mathematical bonehead and would have to retake the class at another college, as it wouldn’t be offered at my university again until after my graduation.

The handwritten grade change by Mr. Cushman, which
I've kept tucked inside the book since early 1979.

Click photo to enlarge. 
Another two weeks went by, and I received a notice from the academic dean. My grade of C- had been elevated to a C+, which meant that the class did count. At the bottom of the slip a reason had been given by Professor Cushman: “My error.” (Mind: grades were hand-written in the horse and buggy days of the late 1970s, when I was in college.) When I went to thank him, he added to me privately, “I forgot to put the other stroke on the + sign.”

How could a professional mathematician, with a famous reputation for perfection and being hard-nosed to his math students, make a mistake like that? Minus and plus signs are opposites. One meant I failed; the other meant I passed.

The only answer I knew was amazing grace. How sweet the acoustical waves that saved a math-challenged wretch like me. I once had failed, but now I’d passed. I never learned physics and never needed it in real life, but thank you, Mr. Cushman, for a lesson in salvation, grace, and a very practical love, which I’ll remember forever.

When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. Titus 3:4-5 NIV

Call it grace or unmerited favor or kindness to a known offender. I see grace as the precious undeserved gift that not only saves me for eternal life with Jesus, but gives me hope and happiness in this world as well. 

Amazing Physics
By Christy K. Robinson
Adventist Review, July 18, 1996


  1. Jonathan Varnell wrote:
    :-) I had the same problem with Geometry, only I finally began to grasp its parameters around the time I played music full time. But my math deficiency showed itself in full force again when I tried to no avail to become an electronics wiz. I passed with a C+ overall, but it was the math that brought me down.

    Needless to say, no one has ever hired me for my Associate's degree in electronics. ;-)

  2. Tim Rhoton wrote:
    Thank You Christy, this may be an interesting read to help my eleven year old daughter. =)

  3. I had a dream not four months ago about failing Mr. Albertson's algebra class...again. But I'd always been better at literature and English without hardly trying. It's good to know I'm not alone.

  4. Mike, I won't cast aspersions about Ken Albertson, because he wasn't my 9th-grade algebra teacher. My teacher, who shall remain nameless, was at Glenview School.

    Funny, though. I've met several people in their 30s and 40s who still dream about missing college classes all semester and now it's time for the final exam and they're panicked. I dreamed that in my 20s and 30s, too. Weird, because I earned my own tuition after 9th grade, all the way through university, and I was religious about attendance and academic deadlines.


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