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I, Community College Drop-out

Am I really the person you want removing your appendix?

I ask because I'm the same person that registered for the wrong physics class at Scottsdale Community College this semester, resulting in my transforming from an Artichoke into a Community College Drop-out in the span of about four days. Did I mention I graduated magma comes loudly my first time out of the chute in the academic rodeo?

Didn't think so - but it's still a good story.

So Scottsdale Community College has three levels of entry-level physics: Introduction to Physics is for people who enjoy physics but don't want the nasty math aftertaste; General Physics is for life science majors like me; and Physics for Engineers is for masochists like my Dad who made a 16 (of 100) on his first physics exam in college.

Introduction to Physics and General Physics are held on the same days at the same times in rooms right next door to each other. I found this out when the lecture started on the first day of school. I also found out that General Physics was full.

I contacted the instructor to beg for a coveted forced-entry into his class. Dr. General Physics expressed some concern about the level of math (calculus, trigonometry, discrete self-flagellation) required to master the coursework so I agreed to take a placement exam on Wednesday before class. Did I mention this was Tuesday? Did I mention I made a C in college Calculus 15 years ago? Did I mention that I wouldn't have had to have taken this test if I'd just registered for the correct class in the first place? Again, not the person you want diagnosing your diverticulitis.

Just so you know - there are 5,330,000 hits on Google for "help with Calculus" - none are designed to reboot your brain in less than 24 hours.

So, I got a good night's sleep, ate a well-balanced breakfast, went to work for 8 hours and took my No. 2 pencil and calculator to the testing center. I had 45 minutes to answer 25 questions. The first six were a piece of cake. The rest? Well, that's why God made multiple choice. If I reasoned my way to an answer that was in the ballpark of A, B, C or D, I'd go with that. If I had no clue, I chose C. I made a 77 - good enough for college trigonometry, one point shy of college calculus.

I took my answer page to Dr. General Physics' office to plead my case. He looked over the assessment, furrowed his brow and sighed. "How did you feel about this test? How comfortable were you with the math?"

"Honestly, it was the hardest test I've ever taken," I said, straightening up in my chair and putting on my best salesperson smile. "But I thought Chemistry 116 was hard too and I worked my ass off, went to class every day, got help when I had problems and ground my way to an A - and I'll do the same in your class. Actually I think I did pretty well considering I hadn't cracked open a Calculus book in 15 years."

"You haven't taken Calculus in 15 years?"

"No sir."

"Well, you're in. You can definitely do the math required. It's going to be hard for you, but I think you could pass. Let's go to the registrar's office."

He filled out the paperwork and left me in line. With six people in front of me and five minutes before the bell, I bailed and went to class, figuring I'd finish the force tomorrow. No need to miss anymore lecture time than I already had.

Which, as it turns out, was a good thing.

A momentary diversion: I've been told now by three college professors that they dread teaching pre-med students because these bright, young minds grind them incessantly for every half-point correction or extra-credit fluff in order to buff and polish their academic resumes. For physics, it's worse because these little darlings don't quite understand what the sweet science has to do with retinal detachment, ruptured cornual pregnancies and impacted bowels.

One such medical prodigy was arguing his case before a preeminent physicist, when the instructor finally decided he'd had enough.

"Clearly, young man, you don't know who you're talking to," the physicist said. "You obviously don't know how many lives I've saved through my work."

"How many lives you've saved? You teach physics!"

"You're right, and it's my job to I keep people like you out of medical school."

After spending an 75 minutes in Dr. General Physics' class, I know exactly what he meant. Math is the language of physics. Want to find out how old the universe is? Do the math. Want to accelerate a particle and swallow up Geneva? Do the math. Want to experience gravity? Drop an apple on your head, but if want to understand why it happens? Do the math.

Dr. General Physics would ask a question and sketch out a problem on the board. My classmates would pound on their calculators like they were text-messaging their BFFs, OMG! I, meanwhile, could not figure out how to make my calculator do that. (LOL)

"You might want to make sure you're solving in vector rather than radian," he said. But of course! It's so obvious.

It was like visiting interior Mexico after having taken two years of high school Spanish. You're sitting outdoors in a bar, and you are thrilled because you hear words that you remember: Bathroom! Pencil! Necktie! But you have no idea how these words are being used. Benign? "I left my pencil in the bathroom. Damn, this necktie is tight!" Malign? "Let's take this pencil-neck to the bathroom, tie him up, steal his wallet and give him a swirlie."

Vector! Cosine! Tangent! I recognized the words: A vector is a disease carrier. Cosine is the act of assuming partial responsibility for a loan. Tangent is where I just went off. I figured out how Dr. General Physics solved the problem just about three minutes after he had solved it and moved on. My necktie now a noose, I swirled down into the toilet of dismay, my vector pointing straight to hell.

"Let's take a 10-minute break and then we'll come back and work some more problems in lab."

Lab was scheduled from 7:15 to 10 PM - or 2 hours, 45 minutes of misery. Not wanting to do to my classmates what Baby Mama Lab Partner had done to me, I shouldered my laptop bag, hung my head and headed for the door. I caught Dr. General Physics on the way out.

"I just want to thank you for your willingness to force me into this class - but you're right, I'm not ready for it. I will barely be able to keep my head above water, and I don't want to take up space if there's a smarter kid that needs this class. So I'll polish up on my math this semester and see you in January."

"Are you sure?" he said. "I hope I haven't frightened you away from physics... Your math scores do tell me you are capable of learning quickly, so I hope you will return after you feel more confident and have had some time to review."

As scores of future hernias heave a sigh of relief and the violins swell on Frankie Avalon's Beauty School Dropout, I take solace in the knowledge that I aspire to be neither a cosmetologist or a cosmologist. Physics will not be the death of my academic aspirations - nor was it the death of my Dad's: He went on to become a mechanical engineer. I just need to brush up on my math (which I'll start on this weekend at the Arizona Women's State Poker Championship). Either way, I now have a semester to go off on this mathematical tangent and get back on track for physics... and organic chemistry... and biology.

Know of any math whiz kids that might need some extra cash? Ability to work a scientific calculator is a plus.