BY RANDY MCINTOSH
On Saturday morning, I started reading through my calculus textbook while sipping coffee. The first few chapters looked pretty basic, which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me. I flipped back to the table of contents: “Introduction to Calculus; Derivatives & Applications; Integrals; Exponentials and Logarithms; Techniques and Applications of the Integral.” I stopped and went to the section on ‘Applications of the Integral’ to see if I recognized anything. To my surprise, I didn’t. It was like I had never seen of any of it.
“You looked worried,” my wife walked into the breakfast room with the morning newspaper and a coffee.
“I think it’s going to be a busy weekend. I don’t remember any of this stuff!” I resisted looking up to see her reaction.
“Well, you learn fast so I’m sure you’ll get it back in no time. I have a bunch of errands to do so I’ll be out of the house most of the day so you can study.”
I didn’t think I would hear the word study again, but these were different times.
“Okay. I think I’ll go down to my office and get started on this. So much for seeing the new Avenger’s movie this weekend.”
Monday came far too soon. I woke up at four-thirty AM, unlike my high-school self when it would have been about fifteen minutes before class started. I went to my office and grabbed the notes I made from the textbook, reading them over as I made coffee. I felt pretty confident that I at least got the gist of most of the material in the book, but it was definitely going to take some time before I would be ready for the final exam. I read the email suggesting I should be at the school by eight o’clock to meet with the Vice Principal and the course instructor. I felt a small twinge of dread when I realized the Vice Principal used to be my advisor, Misses Walker.
My wife walked into the kitchen around seven o’clock acknowledging my presence nonverbally. It was an unwritten rule that there was to be no conversation before coffee on weekdays. I am certain this is partly responsible for our successful marriage over the years.
I passed her a fresh coffee cup, “I’m gonna leave in about a half an hour. I’ll take transit as I hear the traffic around the school is bad and parking is a nightmare.”
“Uh, huh,” she muttered walking over to the coffee decanter.
Our news video-stream was covering an update on the new government education policy.
“The government has had the new Imposters policy in place for six months now, and I have the Minister of Qualifications in the studio now to update us on the policy’s roll out,” the announcer began, “Welcome, Minister Bloodstone.”
“Thank you, good morning,” the Minister sounded bored.
“Minister, let’s start with a recap. This policy was put in place to ensure that professionals in the public sector had the appropriate qualifications. What motivated this?”
“Well, as you know our party members spoke with a lot of their constituents during the election campaign, and one message we heard clearly is that they felt there were a lot of people in the public sector who were not competent at their jobs. The kids in schools were performing badly, so it’s clear that some teachers were probably not qualified to teach. The students in university were complaining that there were no jobs, so obviously the professors were not trained well enough to prepare students for the real world. We even had examples of people in the health care sector who were obviously not well-trained, especially when you see the waitlists. We considered this a crisis, so decided to set up my Ministry to fix this problem.”
“Thanks for the background,” the announcer shuffled some papers, “in the six months of the program have you found any persons that seem unqualified?”
“Yes, we have found two of the so-called Imposters, as you media types like to call them. I consider that a pretty good start.”
“Correct me if I am wrong, Minister, but of the two, one was an economic advisor in your own portfolio and the other we have not heard about yet. That’s two out of about ten thousand public sector employees. That seems hardly like a crisis. Isn’t this just political grandstanding?”
The Minister paused, “Look, that means we’ve identified two percent of the employees so far. Two percent! That’s not an insignificant number.”
“Yeah, well, you may want check your calculations, Minister.”
My wife laughed out loud, “I still can’t believe these people got elected.”
I stepped out of the subway and walked past a group of students who were sharing stories about their winter break. I heard one mention that they spent the one-month break studying the new calculus textbook so that they would be prepared. Another one laughed, “Ah, you worry too much. I spent the month on the beach. This calculus is going to be a breeze. Most of it’s online, so we don’t have to worry about the garbage in that textbook, I mean who cares about all the examples of integrals?”
I swallowed and put my head down, walking past them into the front door of the school.
The smell was familiar. It’d been thirty years since I last entered this building, and yet that smell of old wood and wet dog still permeated the air.
The place looked smaller than I remembered. I saw that there had been some additions on the south wing that looked like new rooms. The north wing looked almost the same as I remember, except they painted the lockers a horrendous shade of orange. This made the hallway look even smaller. Although maybe the perspective doesn’t come from physical size, but rather of age. When we come into these places as kids we see where we’re going. Coming back as an adult, we see where we’ve been.
I spied the “ADMINISTRATION” sign ahead of me and, noting that my watch read seven fifty-five, I walked ahead to the reception desk trying to look like I belonged there.
“Hello, my name is Terry Chattan. I’m here to see the Vice-Principal,” Wow, that phrase brought back a wave of memories, not all good.
The person at the reception desk didn’t look up, “Yes, Mister Chattan. Please have a seat. Vice Principal Walker will see you in a moment.”
I sat glancing down at the small table that held a tablet computer streaming a school video of sports highlights, and a stack of leaflets on the new education policies of the government: The Right Training for the Right Job. It sounded innocent enough.
“Good Morning, Mister Chattan,” Vice Principal Walker walked from behind the reception counter extending her hand.
“Good morning,” I shook her hand. Aside from seeming a bit shorter, she hadn’t changed at all. It’s like time stands still inside a school.
“I wished we could have met under better circumstances. I see you have done well in your academic career, but as usual there is that little bit missing because you took the easy road,” she was able to say that without seeming condescending or punitive.
I sighed, “Well, I wouldn’t call it an easy road, but I get your meaning. How do we proceed here?” I wanted to get out of the office.
Vice Principal Walker turned, “I want to introduce you to your course instructor Mister Crandell.”
A tall thin man with enormous hair stepped out from behind the counter. He kept his hands behind his back and smiled thinly.
“Mister Chattan, I am pleased to meet you and also very pleased that you will be joining my calculus class. I think you will find it a valuable experience that will more than compensate for your deficiency,” there was no expression on his face.
“Uh, thanks,” I tried to match his expression or lack thereof, “I think I am please too.”
“Excellent, let me show you where your locker is,” Mister Crandell walked past me, expecting I would follow.
“I wish you well, Terry. I hope you do not squander this opportunity,” Vice Principal Walker’s final words fell like ice down my back.
Mister Crandell walked at a very fast pace down the corridor and then to the north hallway lined with orange lockers, “The colour schemes help with finding your way around.”
He gestured to one locker, “This one is yours. You should have the locker app on your cellphone that you can use to scan the QR code on the door here,” he pointed to the locker door latch.
“Well, this certainly solves the problem of forgetting your combination lock,” I tried to interject a bit of humour, which failed.
“Do you have the app on your phone?”
“Uh, no, but I can download it now.”
Mister Crandell raised his eyes, “Very well. Your authentication code should be in the email you received the other day confirming your appointment, which you would have known if you had read the entire email.”
“Sorry, this is all new to me, so I am a bit nervous,” I tried again to diffuse the situation.
“I see,” Mister Crandell looked up at the wall clock, “I need to go to my office to get a few things before class. Once you have finished here, I would suggest you make your way to classroom twelve. It is in the east hallway where the lockers are green.”
The locker app downloaded very quickly and I was able to authenticate without much trouble. My locker seemed tiny inside and very banged up. The new paint on the outside hid the many years of battering. I took off my winter jacket, hat, and scarf, deciding to keep my satchel with my notes and textbook just in case. I closed the locker door and the subtle ‘click’, which alerted me that I had put my cellphone back in my jacket pocket, which was now imprisoned in my locker.
“Damn it!” I said aloud pulling on the locker door.
I continued to rattle it, hoping the door would magically open, when I heard someone behind me.
“Did you leave your phone in the locker?” A large boy stood behind me.
“Yeah, I am not used to this.”
“Hey, no worries man,” the boy held his phone to my locker’s QR code. The door ‘clicked’ and opened.
“How did you know my access code?”
“They’re all the same,” the boy whispered putting his finger to his lips, “we’re not supposed to know that.” He winked and walked away.
I grabbed my phone, locked the door again, and hurried down the hall to find green lockers and classroom twelve.
I honestly expected the classroom to be tiny, with desks that I could barely sit in, and a ceiling that my head scrapped. What I saw instead was a large bright room with a series of tables and chairs with laptops and tablets scattered about. The students were all crowded around a table at the front of the room.
I gathered myself and walked up to the group, “Hi there, so what’s up here?” I instantly regretted what I said.
“Oh, are you the new teacher?” a teenage girl with her hair tucked beneath a hat walked up next to me.
“Uh, no, no,” I hadn’t considered how to answer the inevitable question, “I’m actually takin’ this course to sort of brush up, you know?”
There were muffled laughs in the group.
“How many times have you taken this class?” a boy looked up from the table.
“Probably about a hundred,” another one called out followed by collective laughter.
I swallowed and gathered my thoughts, “Actually this is the first time. Well, at least officially. Seems that I missed this class when I first came through, so I need to finish it now or I won’t be qualified for my job.
“But I get a chance to prove myself,” I looked down at the table to see a collection of three-ringed binders of various colours.
The group was silent for several moments. I took the opportunity to look more closely at the binders, seeing that they contained names and class records of students.
The girl continued, “So, I guess you’re the mature student we heard about,” she held out her hand, “My name is Jenny. This probably seems pretty overwhelming to you. These binders tell us what working group each of us is in. I took a look already and you’re with us at the table over there.” She pointed to the table at the far end of the room.
“Take one of these and follow me,” she handed me a tablet computer that was the same colour as our binder and table.
“Thanks, Jenny,” I shook her hand and suppressed the impulse to introduce myself as a professor, “my name is Terry.”
“Yes, I know,” Jenny turned to the rest of the group, “Hey everyone, this is Terry!” .
“Hi Terry!” came the slightly out-of-sync response from the group.
“You’re gonna hate this class,” one student whispered as they walked past me.
I noted a few more people following us as we walked to our table. The rest of the students made their way to their tables, busy talking and showing each other pictures from their social media feeds.
I placed my satchel on the table and glanced back to see who else had followed us.
“Hi Jenny,” a thin boy with an oversized sweater hanging off of him walked up, “is this the new guy?”
“Yeah, this is Terry,” she pointed to me, “Terry, this is Thomas. He’s planning on going to university in the fall.” I nodded and smiled.
“Wow, you’re old,” a young girl walked up next. She was at least five years younger than Jenny.
Jenny laughed, “That’s Heather. She’s a wiz, but she’s still a kid so doesn’t filter herself very well. Heather, this is Terry.”
“Hi Terry. I’m pretty good at calculus, so if you need help, you can count on me,” I appreciated Heather’s confidence, which also made me a bit worried.
“Thanks, Heather. And maybe you’ll find my wisdom of years helpful,” I sat.
Heather gave me a puzzled look.
A large boy was the last to come up. He was the one who helped me earlier with my locker.
He was heads above everyone else in the room and definitely a few years older. He had a lumbering gait that matched his huge frame. He dropped his bag on the table loudly and shuffled to the last chair, “Sorry I’m late,” he fell heavily in his seat.
“You’re not late, Leonard, for once,” Jenny had adjusted her chair to accommodate his girth, “by the way this is Terry. He’s the mature student we heard about and I figured he’d be a good addition to our work group.”
Leonard’s demeanour changed immediately, “Ah, hey Terry. Great to meet ya again! I guess I’m not the old guy anymore,” he gave me a huge smile.
I forced a laugh.
Leonard continued, “This will be my fourth time in this class, so if you need any pointers, I’m happy to give ‘em,” he gave me a thumbs up.
“You mean pointers on what not to do, right Len?” Heather interjected.
Leonard frowned a bit, “Hey, advice is advice.”
Mister Crandell walked in the door, “Good morning class and welcome back from your winter break,” he made a beeline to the front of the room without looking around. When he got to the front table, he closed the binders and looked up.
“Okay, hopefully you have all had a chance to review the team assignments and are at the correct tables. I want to make sure you still remember the material from the last section of the course, so we will start with a short quiz to get your calculus skills warmed up.”
Oh no! I immediately felt a cold sweat forming. I didn’t review the previous course material so had no idea what to expect. What a disaster this was going to be!
My anxiety quickly dissipated when it became clear that the quiz meant we would be given problems that we all solved in our group.
“This’s cool,” I said as I watched as our received the feed for the first problem on my tablet, “we used to do these quizzes by ourselves.”
Thomas glanced over at me, “That must have been weird.”
Heather was the first to move and started entering in a set of formulas in the workspace.
“You need to let us do some of the work, Heather,” Jenny chuckled.
I sat back and watched for a moment as my group started talking through the problem. Heather would explain her interpretation of the problem and then Jenny or Thomas would suggest some solutions.
“We can use vector maths for this one,” I interjected.
Heather turned to me, “We haven’t learned that yet. We need to solve the problem using what we learned from the last class.”
I’d forgotten the incremental part of education. You start with a foundation that serves you well for a little while and then are given problems that are just at the edge of your knowledge. This is supposed to motivate you to seek a better solution.
The next few hours flew by much faster than I could have imagined. I hadn’t seen calculus taught this interactively, and found myself distracted by this learning method, sometimes missing a point.
A signal flashed on our tablets that the class was ending.
“Okay, I have to run to swim practice,” Jenny put her hat on and dashed off.
My other team-mates took bit longer to pack up. I was reviewing the day’s lesson to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
“Hey, Terry, do you want to grab lunch with us?” Leonard stood lifting his huge book bag over his shoulder.
“Thanks, but no. I think I am going to go to the study room and review the lesson. I want to make sure I didn’t miss anything,” I tried to sound cheerful and not dismissive.
I arrived at the study room, which was placed the west hall amongst a battery of yellow lockers. The room was long, narrow, spotless, and empty.
I took my textbook and notes from my satchel and spent the next several hours comparing them with the material from the day’s class. Things had definitely changed, it was almost like calculus was reinvented. I nibbled on a cereal bar, mindful of the “NO FOOD OR DRINK ALLOWED” sign in the spotless room.
I continued to study my notes on the ride home, and didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I stumbled off the streetcar and began walking down my street . The sun had just gone down and streetlights shimmered their light off the remnants of the last snow. I squinted into the distance seeing an eerie glow further down the street close to my house.
“Movie shoot?” I thought.
I slowed my pace when I saw the lights were from news crews that were parked in front of our house.
“I said he is not home now! Why don’t you go away and I can have him call you when he gets here?” I could hear the anger in my wife’s voice. One of the crew’s vans was blocking our driveway, so she could not park her car.
“You’re blocking our driveway. Please move your van or I will have it towed,” I hoped to distract the attention from my wife, “what the hell are you doing here?”
“Ah, Professor Chattan you’re finally home from school. Or I guess we can’t call you Professor anymore!” the unmistakably annoying voice of the reporter Issac rose above the din.
“How can I help you, Issac?” I tried to remain calm, but felt the nervous jitter growing in my chest.
“Well, Mister Chattan, I just wanted you to tell our viewers how it feels to be outed as an imposter?” Issac was not known for tact.
“Professor Chattan, how does it feel knowing that you’ve been deceiving all your colleagues and students?” another somewhat more tactful reporter called out.
“I honestly was not aware that my qualifications were lacking,” was the first thing out of my mouth.
Issac pounced, “Spoken like a true imposter! Deny, deny, deny. Do you expect us to believe that you’re so innocent?”
My wife stepped in front of me, “Issac, I am disappointed in you. The boy I trained in undergrad had much more intelligence and independence of thought than to be sucked into the party line by that rag news agency you work for. Now, I suggest you get your crew out of my driveway so I can park my car right this minute, or I will tell your audience what a fantastic student you really were.”
She stared with a slightly frightening grin.
Issac frowned and waved to his crew to leave.
I felt the need to say something, “Look, I’m sure you can all appreciate what an awkward situation this is for my family and friends. Whether I am an imposter is one matter, but whether I can prove that I am not is quite another. I am in the midst of doing just that. If I fail, then we can have another discussion. In the meantime, please let my wife park her car, so we can have dinner.”
I was surprised that the other press members seemed okay with that response.
I helped my wife unload the groceries from the car, “I didn’t know you taught Issac.”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. The uncertainty was just enough to throw him off, though. Pretty effective, eh?
At that point I was both a bit frightened and glad she was on my side, “Let me cook tonight, okay?”