A Bad Day for a Colleague of Mine

by Mu Zhu

Yesterday was a bad day for a colleague of mine.

He teaches an advanced version of “Calculus II”, which requires students to have done exceptionally well in “Calculus I”, on top of having very high GPAs overall.

Yesterday, a student from the Faculty of Engineering came up to him before he started to lecture, and asked for his permission to enroll in his class.

“I will need to see your transcript and the syllabus of any calculus course you took in the Faculty of Engineering,” he said to the student.

“Oh yes, I do have my transcript here, because I know I need a certain GPA to take your class, but nobody told me anything about the syllabus,” the student said.

“Oh, that’s because we usually find there is a substantial difference between a calculus course offered by an engineering department and one offered by a math department, and the syllabus will allow me to better assess whether you will have the adequate background to take my course,” my colleague said.

Having overheard this conversation, half of the class started to protest, much to the astonishment of my apparently very uninformed colleague. They criticized him for not being inclusive enough, and for discriminating against engineering students.

“Engineering students and math students are all students. They pay the same amount of tuition, and they shouldn’t be required to face any more scrutiny than we do,” some of those students yelled angrily. They demanded that he give his permission right way, and that he apologize for his bias and prejudice. “You are a professor. Professors are supposed to be open minded and welcoming. Professors shouldn’t say ‘no’ to anyone who wants to learn. Shame on you!”

Needless to say, the lecture didn’t go well for him. He told me he had to spend considerable time to calm those students down, and couldn’t finish half of the materials he had originally prepared.

“Half of the materials?!” I shouted out in surprise. “With that kind of protest going on, I’m surprised you were even able to start teaching at all!”

“Oh, that’s what I thought initially as well — until another student stood up and stopped them, you see.”

“You are kidding!! A student actually came to your rescue?”

“Oh yes. A quiet student sitting in the back finally had enough of it, and came up to the protesters and said, ‘we paid our tuition, too; we actually came here to learn, and you guys are wasting our time.’ And that’s when those guys were finally willing to let me off.”

Just as if this incident alone didn’t shock him enough, something else happened when he got back home from work.

Shortly after he finished dinner with his wife and two teenage daughters, a stranger knocked on their door.

“I am cold and hungry. Please let me stay in your house tonight and give me something to eat,” the stranger said.

And my colleague said, “I can give you something to eat, here, and some money, but I can’t let you stay with us because I don’t know who you are.” So he gave the stranger twenty dollars and two pieces of pizza, and sent him away.

When he closed the door, his two teenage daughters became rather upset.

“How can you be so cruel, dad?”

“Exactly, dad. That man is homeless and wants a place to sleep. How can you turn him away like that?”

A bit dumbfounded, my colleague said to his daughters, “but this is partly because I also have a duty to protect you! Obviously I can’t just let a stranger into the house like that? We don’t know anything about him.”

“Oh, my god, dad! You think all homeless people are rapists and criminals, don’t you?”

“And you are a math professor. You should know the probability that any random homeless guy is also a rapist is smaller than the probability of you getting hit by a car. You really should be ashamed of yourself. I feel sorry for you, dad.”

My poor colleague wasn’t too eloquent, and he didn’t know what to say as his two daughters went upstairs into their own bedrooms and slammed the doors behind them.

As he told me about his bad day while we had coffee, he kept on asking me, “Did I do something wrong? Should I have let that guy sleep in my house? Should I have just allowed that engineering student to take my class without checking his background?”

I didn’t answer him. I did have an answer, or so I thought, but I saw someone at a table nearby watching CNN on her computer and instinctively felt that I might just be putting myself into a lot of trouble if someone should overhear my answer. As I looked into his eager eyes, all I could say was, “sorry, I don’t know, man; I don’t know.” And right there, I could see the eagerness in his eyes turn into disappointment. He sighed, stood up, and walked away.

(first written January 30, 2017; revised February 9, 2017)