For the Love of Physics

Last semester, when teaching a literature course to some incredibly lovely, interesting and intelligent science students – as a whole, by far the nicest and brightest group of young people I have encountered in my eight years of teaching – I had what can only be described as a revelation: science (and the people who study it) is much much cooler than I ever gave it credit.

When I was in grade 10, I took what would become my last chemistry course. If I remember correctly, my teacher’s name was Mr. Doerkson – which was pronounced Durkson, though you can imagine how much pleasure a class of 14 year-olds derived from a little accidental mispronunciation. I remember Bunsen burners and goggles and test tubes, and my instinctual talent for ending up with the worst possible lab partner, but mostly – though I am ashamed to admit it – I remember that the door to the chemistry lab was right across the hall from a locker belonging to the object of my never-been-kissed desire, “Joe Jackson.”

He was in grade twelve, and seemed a man to me, though he was really just a boy with a good tan and a wardrobe consisting of super-cool concert t-shirts, including the Joe Jackson one he was wearing the first time I laid eyes on him. He also had a Clash t-shirt, which was the one that pained me the most, as I had implored my parents to let me go to the concert, and felt sure that if I had only been able to acquire and sport my own Clash shirt, a signifier if there ever was one, it would be clear that we were meant to be. As most high school crushes are, it was an unrequited love, and much later, at a university party, I realized that his good looks and taste in music could not make up for his lack of having anything interesting to say.

I also took biology, but only because I had a knack for memorizing things, and found that it was an easy way to keep my average over 80, a necessity if one wanted to earn the prized Rutherford Scholarship – a $1,500 award, which at that time paid for about three years of university tuition. But I digress…

What I did not do in high school – because I was too much of a chicken, and because I had a very misplaced notion of what it meant to be cool – was take physics. And this despite the fact that I loved math, and found it extraordinarily easy, though this love was something I was only able to really come to terms with in university, when my desire to do something other than read books and write essays about them saw me return to the bosom of algebra and calculus.

Which brings me back to 2009. Realizing that I was a committed art-snob, for most, if not of all of my educational career, who didn’t take any science courses or even hang out with anyone who took science courses, I decided to rectify the situation. I approached the chair of the Physics department who was thrilled at the idea that I might like to sit in on a course. He found the appropriate level and gave me the name of the teacher, but when, on the suggestion of someone much wiser and less prone to whimsy, I thought about the likelihood of my sticking with the class when the onslaught of mid-term essays began in October, I made the responsible decision to postpone my enrollment.

Basically, I chickened out.

Instead, I watched enthusiastically as my students discussed their essays on the benefits of 2-pistol engines over battery-operated models and the likelihood that the sun was going to eventually burn us all alive, and waxed effusive over their ability to talk articulately about holographic data storage and the American army’s development of what are essentially Golderak-esque giant robots. At times I commented uncertainly that perhaps they were veering too close to science fiction, but always with the gnawing feeling that they just happened to know more about the subject that I did.

This January, when I found out that I would not have a teaching load, I realized there was nothing standing in my way. I found out who was teaching the introductory Physics course and asked him if he would let me sit in. I was warned by various folks that I would probably find the course hard, and when he switched over to teach the high-school science refresher course, I decided to follow him there.

My decision to take this course, which meets four times a week – though after much consideration, I opted out of the Thursday labs – has garnered a wide range of responses, from bewilderment, to admiration, to outright concern. The most perplexed are my fellow students who cannot for the life of them fathom why anyone would take a science course, let alone, any course, for fun. Their confusion cannot be solely attributed to their age or station in life, however, as many of my friends and family have expressed similar emotions. Many of those who do get it have expressed their own desire to take on something they either feared or thought they were no good at when they were young – like math, or playing the violin.

The pleasures of taking this course have been many: the satisfaction of learning something so tangible, where there is a really clear sense of when you are wrong or right, and the way that my brain feels afterward, that there are parts of it that are working for the first time in years, having lain dormant for far too long. There is also the fact that I find math and science quite enjoyable, and useful, and even at this level, challenging. And, as a person whose life choices started to make more sense when I came across the concept of horizontal ambition – the desire to move horizontally through life, pursuing a host of new skills and interests, rather than focusing one’s attention on the more vertical pursuit of excellence in a particular field – this foray into Physics is exactly what I needed at this point in my life.

Now, for the challenges. In addition to the fact that I have had to learn how to study again, and suffered the indignity of getting only 60% on a quiz – though my actual test scores, I am happy to say, made up for it – there are challenges being a 42 year-old woman, in a class of mostly 17 and 18 year-olds, at the school where you teach. Though I agree with my teacher’s pedagogical approach on many levels, he’s made it impossible for me to be the invisible presence that I had hoped to be, outing me, in my absence, as the person who received the highest mark on the mid-term exam.

There are some dudes who I get along with quite well, and who are, perhaps not surprisingly, mature students trying to get their lives back on track and so know why they are there and what they want to get out of it. The rest of the class could be divided into three groups: people who I suspect would like me just fine as a teacher, but who refuse to acknowledge me as a peer, people who have recognized me as someone who, despite owning a dollar store calculator, usually gets the right answer, and people who I would have to work really hard to like as a teacher – such as the girl who took her gum out of her mouth and stuck it under her desk so she could eat her sandwich. I had always wondered who these gum-sticking people were, but when I pictured the culprits in my mind, they never looked like her. My efforts to engage her in a discussion as to why there might be better places to leave her gum held no sway, and she has refused to make eye contact with me ever since.

For the most part, it has been a pretty awesome experience. And when I tell you that I was thrilled to learn why a string of Christmas lights goes dark when only one bulb has burned out, and that I am looking forward to doing my homework calculating resistance in electrical circuits, you will not be surprised to hear that I am praying that my fall schedule will allow for a little introductory mechanics.

Sweet, sweet physics. What took you so long?

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