My small high school didn’t offer a calculus course when I was a senior—I took a class called Advanced Math instead. Among other things, we learned trigonometry (a good thing) and how to interpolate values of logarithms from a table (not remotely useful now—ah, those pre-calculator days). Still, I wasn’t hesitant about signing up for first-semester calculus as I began my trek at Transy; math had long been my thing, and was one of my intended majors, besides.
There were two sections of Calculus I on offer for Fall Term 1982, taught by different professors. Over the summer I wrote a letter to Susan, my soon-to-be Student Orientation Leader, seeking advice on which one to take. “I had Dr. Shannon for calculus and recommend him. He challenged me.” (I’m paraphrasing, since—shocker, I know—I don’t appear to have that letter anymore.) That was all I needed to hear: David Shannon, at 1:30 MWF, immediately prior to my chemistry class, it would be.
Classes began the Wednesday after Labor Day. I had Thursdays completely free of classes or labs that fall, and I remember spending hours in my room that first Thursday, thinking about polynomial inequalities, including some involving absolute value. It was my first inkling that there was much more going on in math—and this was “only” pre-calculus material—than I’d previously considered. We quickly moved on to limits and an introduction to the derivative of a function, along with some of its interpretations.
According to the calendar I kept that fall, the first test was on the last Wednesday of September, just three weeks after we’d started. I felt good about much of the exam but found myself stumped on two questions, the second of which has stayed with me throughout the years.
Looking at that test forty years later, I see it’s plenty lengthy for a fifty-minute period. My suspicion now is that I took too long with the first problem that gave me fits to spend much time at all on this one. The scribbling you see came after the exam had been returned to me with “0/5” written halfway down the page—it’s much fainter, more informal, than everything else I’d supplied in real time. But you can see to the right of Dr. Shannon’s sketch the essential part of the question’s solution: you set the slope of the line joining (4,8) to an arbitrary point on the curve equal to the slope of the tangent line at that arbitrary point as given by the derivative. It becomes a second-degree equation that you must solve via the quadratic formula.
Over the next week or so, Dr. Shannon reinforced the notion that the value of the derivative at a point measures the slope of the tangent line; it dawned on me that he had been prodding us, trying to make us think a little about how the ideas we’d been discussing could lead us to new places. I wasn’t unhappy about the missed points—I was fascinated (after all, he’d written, “very good paper!” at the top of the test next to my score).
This wasn’t the moment that I decided to throw my lot in with mathematics instead of computer science. But it almost certainly was a factor in David Shannon becoming a role model and trusted mentor, in taking as many classes from him as possible. We remain in touch to this day, meeting for lunch once this past summer.
One of my favorite things about that exam question is that “she” appears four times in it; I am confident I noticed it during those final minutes before I submitted the paper. I know now that Dr. Shannon is a voracious reader and keeps well informed of world events, so I believe it likely there was literally a cosmic rationale for that choice. The conceit probably arose from one (or both) of two things: the turn Svetlana Savitskaya had taken aboard the Soviet space station Salyut 7 just one month earlier, or the announcement from the previous spring that Sally Ride would be the first U.S. woman to go into space, aboard Challenger the following year.
(No, I don’t have “We Didn’t Start the Fire” going through my head right now—why do you ask?)
Speaking of Billy Joel, The Nylon Curtain is one of the albums I most closely associate with that first fall of college, having been released toward the end of September. I didn’t purchase it, but I’m thinking my then-roommate did and played (at least) the first side some when I was around—it feels like I’ve known “Laura” and “Goodnight Saigon” forever. “Scandinavian Skies” received play on the local AOR station. Lunch conversations often featured semi-passionate discussions about new music, and first single “Pressure” (at its peak of #20) wasn’t a complete hit with my crowd, maybe because it seemed such a departure from the pop bliss of Glass Houses? I probably dig it myself more today than I did at the time.
While I don’t recall feeling any particular pressure getting ready for those calculus exams, I did quickly realize the need to be prepared for hard and interesting questions from Dr. Shannon. I finally nailed one three semesters later, in differential equations.
One last note: the Challenger disaster occurred in January of my senior year at Transy. Outside of the horror of watching the replay of the explosion, my primary memory of the day is sitting in Dr. Shannon’s office that afternoon, numbly talking with him about it. Two women astronauts, Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, had been aboard.