Friday, December 01, 2006


I went to City College of San Francisco in my late 20s thinking to legitimize my position as a civil engineer. This was silly I see in retrospect. I already was an engineer by definition, meaning I had the title, the pay, and the duties. (That could only happen in America and only in certain professions.)

CCSF was a tough school. In my first semester there were only five straight A students who had a full credit load. (I was one.) They wouldn’t give me credit for any of my work related subjects, even surveying although I probably knew it far better than the instructor. They said I had to take a course in trigonometry.

Trig and I were fast friends. I loved trig. When I worked on the realignment of the railroad in Peru, I slept with trig. I worked out horizontal curves in my sleep. I swear that is true.

But they told me I had to take a class in trig if I wanted credit for it.

The class was jammed as was almost every class in that school. They had a couple of thousand students who did not qualify for a four year college.

The practical application of trig is pretty simple. It is all a matter of looking up tables and multiplying. If you use sine where you should have used cosine, it will be pretty obvious in the answer. The same is true of tangent and cotangent. It is all pretty simple.

But what the instructor was teaching was foreign to me. He was teaching the theory of trig. What the hell for, I wondered. It was mostly way over my head.

I had learned in high school (Balboa, San Francisco) not to question a teacher’s methods. In a math class, as a 15-year-old, I suddenly saw an easier way to explain what the teacher was talking about. I stayed after class and showed him my idea on the blackboard. He sent me to the principal’s office and ordered me never to return. (In his defense, I have never had people skills.)

But despite that experience, I stayed late one day and questioned the CCSF instructor discreetly and respectfully. He told me to be patient. The class was too large. As soon as there were enough dropouts, he would get into the real subject.

That weasel was deliberately making the course tough so students would drop out, probably never to try trigonometry again since it appeared to be so difficult. Why? He told me his work load was too heavy. He didn’t want to grade so many papers.

I was disgusted, not only with him but with the whole school system. I wonder how many lives that despicable man had changed for the worse by blocking access to easily available knowledge. I dropped that course although I was doing OK in it. I couldn’t hide my contempt for that man.

I gave up the idea of getting an engineering degree. I wasn’t going to put myself at the mercy of such loathsome creatures. I continued taking courses at colleges and universities but on my terms, not for grade or credit, but for an education. Most instructors hated that. They had no power over me. Tough.

Some instructors became my friend though. I even dated one. So they weren’t all bad.


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