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The Great Calculus Exam Throw-down

crc handbookTo a bunch of high school students railing against the system in the 70’s, Jimmy Reeves was “The Guy”. You know the type, long wavy brown hair, a trimmed but significant beard, often clothed in jeans and sandals with a wonderfully impish smile. A common enough description of someone traversing the 70’s, except for the fact that Reeves, what we all called him, was our Calculus II instructor at Bentley High School and a bit of a pied piper to our small band of revolutionary wannabes.

It all started when we were required to purchase a CRC Handbook of Mathematics. This was a time before calculators and if you needed to calculate a root or a trig function, the easiest method was to look it up in a large book of tables. Boring stuff for most, but I became fascinated by the tens of pages that listed what I believed to be all of the possible integrals known to man. Interestingly, my fascination coincided with the introduction of integration in our Calculus II course and in a pre-Google era, I began to wonder why in the world they were asking us to learn and memorize this raft of equations when someone had so kindly organized them into a handy little blue book.

Endless hours of Calculus class droning over one integral after the other refocused my mind back on that CRC Handbook that contained these formulas in spades. Never afraid to justify my academic laziness, I challenged Reeves on this senseless memorization. As a good mentor, he pushed back hard on my arguments, respecting my thoughts, and knowing that this process of learning integration went well beyond just choosing the correct equation. In the end, our impasse resulted in a challenge issued by Reeves and accepted by me; for the next exam I would use the CRC Handbook with the catch being that I would only be awarded a perfect score or a zero. It was an all or nothing trap he had laid, and the hubris of adolescence ushered me right in the door.

On the day of the exam, Reeves escorted me to the teachers’ office, a large glassed room sitting between the two Calculus classrooms where I could be observed during the exam. The deal I had cut was common knowledge and a few of the students in the class viewed me as a folk hero, a bit of a David against the institutional Goliath, but to most, I was just that stupid kid who never learned to keep his mouth shut. Reeves sat me down after a brief sweep of his desk and provided a pencil, the exam, and his copy of the CRC Handbook. The rules of the game were clear, I could use the handbook as a reference and anything less than a perfect score would be recorded as a zero. As the door shut and I looked down at the test, I remember questioning my chosen tack on this argument with Reeves.

The exam was like most of Reeve’s exams, but I found looking up the formulas more time consuming than I had anticipated, pushing me to use the entire hour to complete it. I felt confident that I had found and applied all the right formulas, and accepted Reeve’s offer to grade my exam right after class. Standing next to him as he ran through the exam, I was much less confident. The final score was a 97%. I had made a small computational error in one of the problems. Reeves looked up with a smile and said that I had done better than he thought, but reminded me of our agreement and scored the exam a 0%. He brandished a knowing smile as I responded with a curt “cool, catch you later,” and headed out the door.

Leaving the office felt more like a walk of shame as I was confronted with my cohorts who clamored to find out the final score, hoping that I had “stuck it to the man.” Breaking the news, they were as disheartened as I was, given that some had pinned the hope of not ever having to memorize formulas again in Calculus on the outcome.

The zero on that test was a significant weight on my grade the rest of the semester and I could only bring it up to an A- by the end. I was never an all-A guy, but having my grade pulled down by this mid-semester bet I placed and lost toyed with me. I reflected about how it had all gone down. Starting with me initiating the whole episode by challenging Reeves for not letting us use a resource on our exam. Reeves then, wanting to make a point and knowing that it took more than just finding the right equation to use, set it up so that I would learn that lesson the hard way.  In the end, he did give me an A in the course, justifying it with how well I did on the final exam. As I continued my academics, I did begin to see it his way.

It was many years later, as a K12 teacher, a second lesson emerged out of the great Calculus throw-down with Mr. Reeves. His choice to listen to me, hear and appreciate what I was really saying, and to not dismiss it, but rather refocus it into a different learning experience made a huge impression on me as a young teacher. Still today, I use that experience to remind me that my first job as a teacher is just to listen to my students.

2 Responses to The Great Calculus Exam Throw-down

  1. Brian November 8, 2018 at 6:11 PM #

    I still have and love my CRC, and yes, it is the 26th edition.

    • John Velis November 9, 2018 at 7:27 PM #

      Yep, all the really cool kid have one. 😉

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