Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Empathy

Back in the 80's I was busy going to night school to get my degree while I was stationed in England. One class I needed was Calculus. Stephania Wandaczewitz, a Polish emigre, taught that class for the University of Maryland along with a British teacher whose name escapes me. Stephania had a fearsome reputation as a tough teacher and many prospective students canceled out after they learned she was slated to teach. I didn't want to wait so I signed up.

The talk about Stephania was spot on. She was tough. She had a brilliant mind that comprehended Calculus thoroughly. If you've ever taken Calculus, you know just how much trouble that can be. Here we have someone trying to explain something that most people don't understand and those people, we students at the time, constantly saying, "Huh?"

One day after a student asked her to explain something again, Stephania exploded in frustration. (Imagine a heavy Polish accent) "What ees wrong weeth you? Thees ees so seemple!"

Yeah, she was tough. But she had another side. She had very liberal hours where she would meet students at the library and provide help either one-on-one or as a group depending on how many showed up. Due to her in-class demeanor, very few took her up on her offer. Well, I wanted a good grade and who doesn't need help with Calculus? At the library you'd swear you were with a different person. That Stephania had a heart of gold and the patience of Job. She'd go over a problem three times without a single complaint.

So what's the point of this? Well, it's not to bad mouth my Calculus teacher of 25 years ago. Back when Kathy became a nurse, she completed two years of college. It's been eating on her for a long time now so she's back in school to get a B.S.

Kathy doesn't get math very easily--funny though, ask her to compute the dosage for a person weighing X kilograms when the medication calls for Y mg/Kg and that's a breeze--whereas I grok most math concepts without much of a strain, Calculus being a notable exception.

Recently, I've been helping Kathy out with her math classes. At times I'm trying to explain something that seems intuitively obvious and she's just not getting it. I mean it's right there! And so when I'm feeling frustrated I remember what it was like for me when Stephania was frustrated and how much help I needed. And then I pause, take a breath and patiently go through the problem step by step. Some steps more than once.

Since taking the class, I haven't used Calculus but one time. I remember the teacher made a big deal of this when I took Operating Systems. "Hey, remember how you thought you'd never use Calculus?" It had to do with a queuing problem. But that, too, is lost in a haze. So while little or nothing of the subject matter stuck with me I think I came away from Stephania's class with something more valuable.

2 comments:

Spokane Al said...

I also remember those night and weekend classes and homework between TDYs and exercises. The quality of the instructors made the effort a bit more manageable.

I hope you see your barefeet at the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot at Manito Park.

Hank said...

I can't guarantee I'll be barefoot, but I'll be there.