I have explained elsewhere that I had a rocky start in college, at Austin Peay State University (APSU), about fifteen miles from our Tennessee farm. This came as a big surprise to me since I had done pretty well in high school. The worst example of my underachievement in college was in math, something that I had previously believed I was good at, and this is the story of that dismal failure.

Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee, about 15 miles from the farm where I grew up.

Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee, about 15 miles from the farm where I grew up. (Photo credit)

In high school algebra, as I recall it, I was one of the better students in class. However, my classmates and I probably didn’t learn as much as we should have. Our teacher was a member of a local civic organization whose main fund-raising effort seemed to be for its members to sell fruitcakes that had been baked in loaf pans. Our teacher took it upon himself to sell half-inch slices of fruitcake—during class time—often daily, nearly every week of the class, if not every week.

You’d think that wouldn’t take much time because people generally hate and make jokes about fruitcakes. However, high school students can be persuaded to part with pocket change to forestall any real classwork from getting done. Our algebra teacher quickly learned this and he sold those precisely measured slices of fruitcake as long as he had any takers. This practice sliced away significant chunks of class time, but our teacher assured us our money would go to a great cause. I don’t remember what the cause was.

At any rate, my college advisor at APSU had me sign up for a trigonometry course. I had never heard of trigonometry, but he told me it was a natural next step from high school algebra.

The professor was well-organized and all business. He systematically went through sine, cosine, tangent, and other functions. Related ideas, each building blocks, followed rapidly.  These terms and ideas related to triangles, and I had never had geometry. Apparently I didn’t need geometry to “get” trigonometry. Everyone in class seemed to take feverish notes.

Sine, cosine and tangent. (Source credit)

Sine, cosine and tangent, main functions in trigonometry. (Source credit)

Grading in this class consisted of only a mid-term and a final exam. While I took good notes in class, and had a textbook, I didn’t spend much time studying until the night before the mid-term exam. This was the way I had learned to prepare for exams in high school. I thought college would be similar in expended effort.

The day of the mid-term exam was a harrowing experience. I had no clue about how to solve most of the problems. I sweated. I stewed. I looked around the classroom and saw everyone else working feverishly. This was a hard exam! I was the last person in class to turn in my test paper, as was my general pattern in other courses I took. I knew I had done poorly, and I had a very bad feeling about this exam.

The professor handed our graded papers back to us at the next class session. Unbelievably, my grade written in red ink at the top of the page was 8/100. Eight points out of one hundred? I had never done so poorly on any previous test or quiz on any subject—ever!

With only a final exam left to take some weeks later, I knew I was in deep trouble. Only two other students in class failed the mid-term exam, and I by far had the lowest “F” of all. I had never failed a course in my life, and here I faced the definite possibility of doing so in trigonometry.

I met with our professor to get his advice on how to change my ways. He could tell I was worried, and he gave me constructive suggestions about how to study. Beyond that, I did not go to him for individual help, feeling it was my problem and not his.

Fortunately, I had two good friends in class who did rather well on this exam, David Batson and George Marks. David was a high school classmate. George graduated from Clarksville High School and I had first met him at APSU. One or the other of them often accompanied me to play pool between classes in downtown Clarksville. But they had obviously studied well throughout the first half of the course, and I had not.

David and George agreed to help me catch up on what I had missed on the mid-term exam, each working with me at different times as they had time. They let me study their notes, discussed them with me, showed me how they had used the textbook to keep up. There was little joking around during these sessions. We all knew I was in deep trouble in trigonometry. They sincerely wanted to help.

I feverishly worked on trigonometry, both to catch up with the class and to keep up with new lectures, as I never had before. In the remaining weeks I began to “get it” and could feel I was making good progress. But could I pull up an 8/100 grade—a low “F”—to some sort of passing final grade? That was the question. I simply had to do really well on the final exam. Really well.

With the blur of studying trigonometry incessantly, along with my other courses, final exams came quickly. I felt I was ready, but I was also sweating it. David and George wished me good luck.

With the chips down, I took my trigonometry final exam paper in hand and started to work. My palms and armpits were sweaty, but I calmed myself. I knew I was going to do much better on the final, but would it be enough? I just focused and did the best I could.

Early the following week the professor posted our grades on his office door. One column showed final exam grades and another showed our final letter grade.

Unbelievably again, I made 98/100 on the final exam! My final grade was a “C” and I cheered in silence! My professor had not averaged 8 with 98. If he had, I would have had a still failing grade of 53. Mercifully, humanely, he graded me on progress made, not on a strict number calculation.

David Batson and George Marks saved my hide and my pride in that trigonometry course. I remain indebted to them. They fit this sentiment exactly:

Friends… they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.  —Henry David Thoreau

I still don’t know how to thank them enough. That math professor at APSU had a lot to do with it, too. I’m grateful to him. The three of them taught me to study, each in his own way.

Related posts: 

Campus Chills

Birth of a Memoir

Book Signing: An Author’s Surprising Homecoming

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