The Loophole

Math 221 was part of core curriculum, a pillar class that every freshman in the Design department must fulfill. Only offered during spring term, it was considered to be a joke.

 Attendance was taken three times throughout the course, it’s randomness a half-hearted attempt to keep us on our toes.  Beyond this requirement to show up physically, the class was pitched as a (mandatory) breeze.

 There isn’t a subject I hate more than math, in it’s myriad shapes and forms. Excel spreadsheets make me queasy, my eyes cross painfully at the sight of a formula, and I can’t be trusted to correctly count cash. My history with the subject imbued me with a veteran’s sense of respect. I’d lost every battle waged with mathematics, and I hadn’t the bravado to face it again.

 Unfortunately, my chosen college said otherwise. A well-rounded Bachelor’s degree necessitated I come to grips with One Final Math Class.

I slouched down in my wooden seat, resentful. I chatted with a neighboring classmate unambiguously about the low quality of weed on campus.

 Moments later, the pebbled glass door squeaked open..

 The Professor bright white sneakers. Tan, ribbed socks came up to the mid-shin. Between the top of the socks and the hem of his cargo shorts stretched about nine inches of white thigh.

 He also wore a T-shirt depicting an interpretation of a wolf, perched on a mountaintop and howling into a moon-filled sky. This did not appear to be chosen ironically. He possessed a thick neck, and a lazy eye that never seemed to focus. His hair came out in a triangle shape, the two corners reaching an equal length above his sloping shoulders.

There was a collective buzzing among the student body as syllabi were passed from the end of the aisles. Some of the more brazen pupils turned to each other with incredulous faces. A corner of my mouth lifted involuntarily, some inner part of me alerting me of angst to come. I crossed and uncrossed my legs.

"Hello," the Professor said. His voice belied an adolescence spent in basements, parked in front of a glowing screen. We rolled with it, as a class.

Peering down at the cover page of the syllabus, I skimmed over his contact information. His education email address was recorded as: avampirefor[email protected].

I showed up half the time. I’d brilliantly earned a B on the mid-term, mostly because the review packet the Professor provided us with contained the actual mid-term questions. I’d been tipped off to this and memorized the answers carefully, flashcard style, without any understanding whatsoever of the subject matter.

Things got complicated quickly. By the time we’d started the preparation for finals, I was mostly in the dark. We were entering heavy personal finance territory, and I wasn’t clear on the formulas for depreciation.

I expressed my concern to my friend Vinny, as we emptied a Dutch master into an Ikea waste basket in the corner of the common room.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Everybody passes that class.” Vinny would later drop out due to a reversed body clock. By the end of my sophomore year, he was living nocturnally. I shrugged, trusting him.

I completed the final exam knowing I’d done poorly, but sure that I was in good enough standing otherwise. I’ve never been an overachiever.

A week later, I found out I’d bombed it. In what I interpreted as a damning twist of fate, it turned out that this low grade would cost me the entire class. The final exam counted for more than half of the total grade for the class. It wouldn’t be possible to complete the class without passing the final.

Everyone else appeared to have passed with no real issue. A group of girls threw their binders dramatically skyward, the sheafs of paper falling slowly, side to side, like a hula dancer’s hips through tropical night air.

I let myself forget about the humiliation of failing for a couple of days. I self-medicated with sour patch kids and draft beer. Mostly, I rationalized my choices.

One failed class wasn’t a deal breaker. Compared to most of my clouded peers, I was practically valedictorian. I wiped the slate clean and half-heartedly resigned myself to re-enroll in the spring of sophomore year.

I met with my academic advisor to discuss my options. To my chagrin, I discovered my university would not reverse my grade point average. Even if I passed with flying colors on the second go around, my score would be permanently besmirched with failure. I didn’t like that this detail bothered me.

This time, I made sure I had perfect attendance. I turned in the easy projects early. I shyly confessed to a freshman that I had failed the course once before, warning her not to underestimate the difficulty of the final. She looked at me like I had mad cow disease.

In late April, I discovered I’d been given no points toward my grade for a major project assigned early on. Sweating with fury, I composed an email to the professor that explained he must have made a mistake, I’d submitted the series of Excel spreadsheets for my imaginary business a full week before the deadline, in the format requested. Without proof-reading the email for tone, I sent it off at 1:30 am, seething.

Moments later, my computer pinged with a reply.

Of course he was awake and at the computer. I imagined the texture of powdered cheese stuck to his fingertips, imagined him withdrawing his hand from a crinkly bag to type my epitaph:

“Susannah -

Your submission came through incomplete. I did not receive your last two budgeting sheets, crucial to the credit of the assignment. Unfortunately, I do not accept late submissions.”

I reread this email five times, typing several wildly inappropriate responses before deleting them. I growled, yelping and pacing in my small sleeping quarters. I wildly imagined going to his house, some suburban split-level on a corner outside of the city. I thought about torching it. He looked up from his screen, eyes bloodshot. He took off his headphones with attached mic to discover his home in flames. I beat my fists into my dormitory pillow.

I barely earned a D on the final exam, despite my best efforts. Between that and project I’d received zero points for, it became clear that I’d failed again.

When I tried to explain to my advisor what had happened, she pointed out to me that it wasn’t the Professor’s responsibility to let me know my files hadn’t completely transferred. I sat across from her, shamed. I wondered what she’d think of me if she knew I had day dreamed about burning his house down.

I did not re-enroll for Math 221 again until the final semester of University. The spring before my June graduation. The pressure had never been more on.

Sometimes I woke in a cold sweat, imagining I was sitting in the testing room, the final on the desk in front of me. I shot awake like I’d been burned by a spray of hot oil.

Math 221, Round 3. Just the walk to the classroom filled me with a special kind of anxiety now, usually reserved for the dentist or gynecologist’s office. I did everything on auto-pilot this time.

Only at night, faced with end-of-college insomnia, did the fear take me. These mental sinkholes were toxic to my well-being. I tore myself down, visibly, only to recover in the morning and carry on.

During the 2nd week, the Professor made his obligatory speech about the class structure. This time, I noticed something extra, a detail I’d not been given as a freshman or a sophomore.

“There are several seniors in this class this time. Seniors: provided that you have a C or higher at the time of the final exam, you may be excused from it. Meaning, your final grade can be compiled excluding any score for the final.”

I shrieked in the back row. Several people turned around to see what had happened, but I put my head between my knees and started performing yogic breath of fire.

Once class had ended, I rose quickly and pushed my hair in front of my eyes, hoping to partially obscure my identity from the Professor. Once in front of him, I had to choose which eye to address my question to. I picked the lazy one, thinking a bolder choice and might earn me some respect.

“Just to be clear,” I asked, “I’m graduating in June. So as long as I have a C or higher in mid-May, I don’t need to take the final?” My heart quaked.

I beamed up at him. At that moment, all was forgiven. I mentally unspooled a fire hose, hoisting it upon my shoulder with brute strength, and bathed the flames enveloping his imaginary house with water.


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