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Why learn calculus?
Boris asked himself again as he walked to his class at the local
university where he was registered as a non-credit student. At forty
years of age, he was comfortably married with three nice dogs and a
home. His career as a bakery technician was well along, and his leisure
was filled with gardening, music and reading. Why can't I sit back and just enjoy the good life?
was a tall, thin fellow with a jerky, nervous stride. The sun,
filtering through the campus trees, splashed on his bald head while his
eyes remained fixed on the path as he reviewed in memory the
probability equations he had studied the evening before.
Boris had high ambitions. He wanted to understand the universe and decided that
needed to understand the invisible forces and energies controlling it.
He needed to understand quantum mechanics and quantum theory. Somehow,
he was sure, an understanding of the calculus would move him well along
the path to understanding the Theory of Everything some physicists talked about.
in his school days, Boris skipped over mathematics being occupied, as
many young men are, with women, motorcycles and the effects of chemical
recreation on the human body. Curiosity, however, is not confined to
the young and may rise reborn when the curse of youth is lifted.
Boris explained to his wife, Mary, the youthful part of the journey was
over, and it was time to take on bigger, broader problems. She was
happy to see Boris absorbed in his calculus problems in the evenings,
and even enrolled in an art class herself. Mary was a shy, lovely woman
with red hair who remained single until she and Boris married when they
were both in their mid-thirties. They decided against having children,
and enjoyed a peaceful, comfortable ten-year marriage.
When Boris grumbled about wanting to understand the universe, Mary always said, "Yes, dear. That's such a nice goal."
When Mary showed him a drawing, he always told her, "Yes, dear. That's a nice piece of work."
dogs stayed out of it by practicing unconditional love for their
masters and by remaining ever willing to eat more than was good for
way to his calculus class, Boris had to pass a large fountain
surrounded by a pool of greenish water. The bronze statue in the center
of the fountain portrayed Union Army soldiers locked in mortal combat
with their Confederate enemies, but few students ever took the time to
read the green-stained words on the plaque below the soldiers' feet.
Questions about that never appeared on history tests, and twenty
percent of the students didn't even know who fought in the War Between
the States. None of the current faculty knew why those particular words
had been selected years earlier.
in thought, Boris stepped around a large, shapeless figure standing by
the stone wall that held back the slime pool. Suddenly, the figure came
to life. A black Bible was shaking in Boris's face, and a voice boomed,
"Are you saved, brother? Jesus loves you. Are you saved?"
The voice was like a foghorn heard coming in the mist warning of an impending collision.
Startled, Boris mumbled, "What the hell?" and hurried away.
"Find Jesus and you will know love and peace," Foghorn echoed behind him.
"Shut the fuck up," Boris called back.
preacher's image lingered in Boris's mind, the image of a tall, rather
fat young man dressed in a black suit, a man with intense blue eyes.
was no avoiding the fountain on the way to class except by taking a
very long walk around the rear of the classroom building from the
parking lot. Other students confirmed his worst suspicions. The
fountain was a favorite hangout for religious zealots who felt called
upon to save the souls of the materialistic, beer-swilling students. It
was an easy way to reach passersby because so many students had to pass
there going to classes. The gentle campus security police, unlike their
city colleagues, were used to raucous champions of extreme causes and
simply ignored them.
times each week Boris had to pass the fountain preacher. He learned
that during the regular school year fanatics from the local
was filled with rage every time he heard, "Repent, sinner, and Jesus
will bring you to the Lord," and "Forgive them for they know not what
they do." Boris was sure he knew what he was doing, and he certainly
didn't need a bright-faced young Bible-thumper telling him what to
the fuck up!" had no effect. Boris found himself distracted during his
calculus class as he considered alternative ways of dealing with the
problem. Clearly, hand grenades and shotguns would only lead to
unacceptable complications in his life
several days Boris arrived on campus early and stood there by the
fountain trying to shout a little logic into Foghorn's head. He cited
evidence for the evolution of species, pointed out that certain books
of the Bible had been tossed out because of inconsistencies, and
reviewed psychiatric opinions that excess religiosity was a symptom of
arguments were met with universal solutions such as, "Except ye be
converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter the
kingdom of heaven."
Boris had been hoping for universal solutions couched in pure mathematics, not in biblical clichés.
not acting like a little child," he yelled. "You're acting like a
grown-up damn fool trying to impose your ideas on others."
from the lectures he was trying to follow in calculus class, Boris
decided that he was taking the preacher entirely too seriously. He
would stop trying to be serious and to take him literally to see if
that might work.
goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Give what
you have to the poor that ye may live in the house of the Lord
forever," Foghorn shouted one day.
cried Boris, sitting on the fountain's stone rim and taking off his
shoes. "Take these shoes," he implored a passing student. "Put them in
the collection bin for the poor."
After several cold shoulders, a passing girl grinned at Boris and took the shoes.
off was his shirt, an expensive, hand-tailored garment that he
realized, too late, was the best he owned. An eager fellow who probably
wasn't thinking of giving the shirt to the poor snatched it from Boris'
By the time Boris started pulling off his shorts the campus police had arrived to take him into custody.
Foghorn, free to return to his post, assured the police that the Devil had taken Boris's mind.
Boris missed class that day, and Mary brought a bathrobe to the campus police office to claim her husband.
one of the therapy sessions Boris subsequently attended by order of the
Dean, the therapist said, "Street preachers try to impose their ideas
on others because of their own emotional problems. Theirs is not the
language of logic. Theirs is the language of emotion so, to communicate
with them, you would have to hit them in the emotional breadbasket with
feelings as strong as their own unconscious and deeply buried fears."
Hit them in the emotional breadbasket, eh? thought Boris.
late to class one day, and with no real hope of getting there, Boris
stopped to listen to Foghorn. The preacher recognized him with a broad
smile and held out a paw to be shaken.
"Behold, I stand at the door and I knock. Jesus saves," intoned the preacher.
"I think I see the light," said Boris. "May I borrow your copy of the Bible?"
If foghorns had tails, this fellow's would have been wagging at full speed. He held out his own black Bible to Boris.
"God has found His way into your heart! Hallelujah!" Foghorn shouted to the sky.
sat down on the low wall that surrounded the fountain, opened the Bible
and tore out a page. He crumpled the page in his fist, pulled out some
matches and set the wad of paper on fire. Quickly, one after the other,
he added more pages to the fire.
"What in the name of God are you doing?" screamed the preacher.
"Just returning one strong feeling for another," said Boris as he began ripping out handfuls of pages.
preacher rushed at Boris and tackled him, and they both went sprawling
into the green water of the fountain pool. Ashes and Bible parts
swirled around them as they wrestled, each trying to get a grip with
his hands on the other's throat.
Above the wrestlers in the pool, the struggling soldiers remained frozen in bronze.
students dragged Boris and Foghorn from the water and separated them.
The campus police took Boris away leaving the preacher shaken and cold
in his soggy black suit. For the first time, in a state of shock, the
preacher stared at the words on the plaque under the bronze soldiers.
"Justice is the only worship.
Love is the only priest.
Ignorance is the only slavery.
Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now,
The place to be happy is here,
The way to be happy is to make others so."
Robert Green Ingersoll, Colonel, 11th
tried to comprehend these words, written long ago by a famous American
atheist, while Boris shivered in a holding cell. The campus police did
not keep Boris in their office. They transferred him to the county
jail, where he was charged with vandalism, inciting to riot, aggravated
assault and disturbing the peace.
This time Mary did not come to get him. She had fallen in love with her art teacher.
was sentenced to six months in jail. Mary divorced him, taking the
house, dogs and savings account. Word arrived that he had been let go
at the bakery. He was bitter at first. Helpless to change anything
about his life, he gradually grew mellow and introspective.
He, Boris, began
to take educational courses by computer in the guard's office where he
slowly developed an interest in philosophy. By the time he was
released, Boris had completed all the correspondence courses he needed
for entrance into ministerial studies. He still wanted to know the Theory of Everything, and religion seemed a more immediate path to that than calculus and physics.
Foghorn, impressed by Ingersoll's words, entered the university and
began to take science classes. The baptismal cold shock he had received
in the emotional breadbasket made him long for greater
self-understanding. Science, he found to his surprise, offered
solutions to many of life's questions. His interest in things Biblical
faded with time as he pursued graduate studies. He eventually wrote an
important dissertation in quantum mechanics. Born again as a
theoretical physicist, he went on to make important contributions to
particle physics and the theory of everything.
Boris is teaching at a Bible college.