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The calculus of Christmas spirit

It was the fall of 1980. I was a conservative kid from New Orleans majoring in meteorology. She was a free-spirited graduate of UC-Berkeley, prone to wearing mini-skirts and sandals to class. She really stood out at Texas A&M, a very conservative university with a strong military tradition.

The makings of an odd couple love affair? Hardly. She was my math professor.

Worse yet, she was trying to teach me vector calculus. That course constituted the third of five semesters of calculus required to get my degree, and it was proving to be the most difficult class I had ever taken.

We didn’t get along very well, which was partially due to the poor relationship that I had with math in general. There were other factors though. I didn’t like the way she antagonized students, and she didn’t like my smart-aleck tendencies. We locked horns several times over the course of the semester.

I studied like a demon for that course, as I knew it would require a herculean effort just to pass it. This effort was complicated by the other courses I was taking that semester, including a physics course covering electricity and magnetism and my first two meteorology courses, which consisted of more physics. At times I felt like I was drowning in a sea of unseen forces that conspired to drain my time and energy.

The end of the semester was nigh, and both finals and Christmas were approaching. I went into the final exam knowing I was on the cusp of failure and had to turn in a good grade to pass the course. I came out with the sinking feeling that I had not sufficiently risen to the occasion. But it was going to be close.

Professor Swanson said the grading would be completed a few days after the exam. I spent those days in a state of anxiety over the unknown. Would I pass?

On the fated day, I went to her office. My stomach was tied in knots. By that time, I had convinced myself that I was doomed. Heck, even if it was close, she didn’t like me, so I wouldn’t get the benefit of horseshoes and hand grenades.

When I entered the outer office, she came out of her inner office. She knew why I was there. She said “you passed.” I was startled, and all I could say was “I passed?!” She then smiled slightly and said, “Merry Christmas.”

The reality of the situation, mutually understood, was left unsaid. It was close, but I didn’t pass. Professor Swanson, recognizing how hard I had been working, passed me anyway. Somehow the Christmas spirit had invaded a place I thought impervious — this UC-Berkeley graduate with hippie tendencies.

Forty years later, as I think back to those times, I don’t dwell on the conflicts we had. Rather, I think about her simple act of mercy in the Christmas spirit. And I smile. Slightly.

Jay Stockton lives in Central Point.

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