20: Rolling Uphill

20: Rolling Uphill

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Rolling Uphill

Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.

~Henry Ford

“I can tell you right now, you’re not going to pass this class.” My physics instructor paused, rubbed wearily at his pale, cold eyes, and elaborated. “First, you’re a woman. Second, you’re too old to be a student.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. As he droned on, offering special help if I wasn’t willing to play it smart and drop the course, my heart sank and my mind raced. It was 1985. Hadn’t Geraldine Ferraro run for the vice presidency? Helen Reddy had been singing “I am woman, hear me roar” for nearly fifteen years. I couldn’t believe this Neanderthal. Could I really be too old? I was twenty-six. As a young divorced mom, I faced struggles in college, but I hadn’t considered my age to be a barrier. Tucking my notebook into my green backpack, I rose, thanked the professor for his time and dragged myself from his office, my shoulders sagging in dismay.

I’d walked about ten feet when indignation straightened my posture and lightened my step. I was a straight A student. I was determined. I had a big sister with a master’s degree in engineering. Physics — or rather, this antique of a physics professor — would not defeat me. If he thought I’d withdraw from his class, he was mistaken. He’d waved a red cape before me, and I would charge.

Charge I did. I ran headlong into a big, tall, wide brick wall. My dad the engineer tried to help me over the phone. My sister the engineer gave me her Schaum’s Outline of College Physics. My brother the whiz kid tried to tutor me. My daughter Elaine encouraged me with hugs. She also invited me to take frequent breaks from my studies to read stories or play blocks with her.

Without her interruptions my brain would have exploded. The first week’s homework assignment took me ten hours to complete. It was a set of ten problems. At one problem per hour, it would be a long semester.

One day the professor lectured on friction. He drew a simple diagram of a car parked on a hill on the chalkboard. Then he began spouting gobbledygook about mass and gravity and friction and scrawling on the board, spittle flying as he warmed to his topic. Finally he turned to the class and asked, triumphantly, “What happens when the friction is adequate?”

Involuntarily, I made an upward motion with my hand, at an angle.

He snickered. “When the friction is adequate,” he intoned, “the brakes work. Cars seldom roll uphill,” he added, sneering.

I wanted to hide.

This misogynistic, supercilious physics teacher was likely to kill me, I thought. I had a full-time job, a full load at school, and a young daughter. I hadn’t budgeted ten hours a week for physics homework. I also had an acceptance letter to the University of California, San Diego, my dream school. My admission was contingent upon satisfactory completion of this physics course.

One evening I poured out my heart, and my frustration, to my mom. “It makes me crazy, Mom! I know I’m not too old to learn this. And I know I’m smart enough. But my brain just isn’t wired that way. It takes me an hour to do a single homework problem.”

“How are your grades?”

“Funny you should ask that. I’m getting As on all the tests. He lets us use a single page of formulas and notes. And the problems are very similar to our homework problems, so I study my homework and memorize everything. I can work the problems, but I don’t understand why the right answers are right.”

“Well,” my wise mother said, “if you’re making the grade you need, just keep at it.”

“But I want to understand!”

“Of course you do,” she soothed over the phone. “And maybe by semester’s end it will make sense. But don’t you need this course to transfer? You can’t quit. You’re so close to your goal. And nobody’s brilliant in everything. I know it’s hard, honey, but just hang in there.”

She was right. This course was the toughest one I’d faced, and it was crucial to my educational goal. No rheumy-eyed, obnoxious professor would stand between me and my dreams.

Nobody’s brilliant in everything. My mom offered me a tremendous gift with those words. She gave me permission to be mediocre, to do my very best and yet receive just-okay results. In this case, just-okay would advance my education. Failure, or quitting, would not.

I quit grumbling. Physics might become clearer, as Mom had suggested, or it might not: my task was to pass the class. I resolved to ignore the instructor’s arrogance and focus on cranking out that homework and memorizing the problems so I could pass this miserable course and move on with my life.

I pictured myself as that improbable car I’d suggested during the friction lecture, rolling uphill. The image made me laugh. It felt good to laugh about physics. I hadn’t tried that before.

The weeks wore on. I still spent ten hours a week on my physics homework. I continued to memorize problems in order to pass the exams. But now I laughed as I studied. I just needed to roll uphill and get through the course. Then it was on to university, where no further study in physics would threaten my future.

In November, twelve weeks into the sixteen-week course, I pulled my notebook from my green backpack and settled into my seat. The instructor arrived, took out his notes, wiped his pasty forehead and commenced a lecture on fluid dynamics.

I sat and listened, trying to identify the strange sensation floating about in my head. Suddenly I recognized the feeling. I understood! I wondered if a giant light bulb blazed over my head. I could hardly contain my excitement, squirming in my seat like a second grader before recess.

When class ended I raced to a pay phone. “Mom! I get it!” I shrieked into the phone.

“What did you get? Are you all right? Is Elaine okay?”

I calmed myself with a deep breath. “In physics class today, Mom — it all made sense! Not just the stuff he taught us today, but all of it! Just like you said it would!”

“I said it might,” she reminded me gently. “I’m glad. I’m so proud of your hard work.”

“Mom, I don’t think I would have made it if you hadn’t encouraged me the way you did. You offered me a different perspective. You gave me room to be average at something. You reminded me what I had to gain.”

“Well, I’m your mom. That’s my job.” I could hear her smile right through the telephone line.

At semester’s end I stood outside the instructor’s office, examining the list of final grades. His door flew open. “Miss Seiler?”

“Yes?”

“You passed this class with the highest point total ever. Congratulations.”

He extended his hand. I hesitated for an instant, and then I shook it.

“Please excuse me,” I said, withdrawing my hand from his clammy paw. “I have to go pack. I’m moving to the university this weekend.”

~Sheila Seiler Lagrand

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