Mr. Whitlock’s Physics Class
New Jersey. East Brunswick. High school physics class, with Mr. Whitlock. (Mr. Whitlock was the band teacher, not the physics teacher, but they were both 50ish and ancient and pudgy (like I am now), and they were both nice to me, and I can’t remember my physics teacher’s name, though I wish I could because he liked physics and he liked us. But I cannot recall his name, and his picture is not in my high school yearbooks: he must repeatedly have dodged faculty picture day. So I will just call him Mr. Whitlock for now.) I was a high school senior proudly registered for physics class. The olive chalk board was full of Mr. Whitlock’s arrows on arcs and sine-cosine frequencies and equations with X and Y and Z and other wondrous letters and symbols with hidden meanings. I was enthralled. While the class title was merely Physics, to me the exciting subtitle was Relativity, Cosmology, Forces, Theories of Everything, and other Cool Space Science Stuff. A willing sponge, I was eager to soak it all in. That same year Cosmos erupted into my existence, by Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and cosmologist with the deep nasal “billions and billions.” I believed everything he said because it was the science and the truth of the universe. That is what physics class was all about, right? But while I adored and worshiped the ideas, I choked on the math—why is it always the math?—and I tripped over the translations of the pretty arrow-arcs into unintelligible long lettered mathematical formulae. And I came quickly to understand that I did not understand and might never understand the mathematics of physics, despite the fact that I received an “A” in Trigonometry class the year before because I had memorized the equations and aced the tests and then forgot everything, the day after finals, because I had never understood the mystifying logical language of mathematics.
The inexorable dreadful day came when I carried home my report card, folded neatly in a 6×9 manila envelope, and we formed a line at the dinner table where Dad sat at the head before dinner, and we handed him our report cards, one at a time, me the oldest and me the last, and oh how slowly he opened the envelope and drew out my first-quarter report card and unfolded it and slowly and dreadfully scanned the straight As, with the C at the bottom, my first C in history, the C in physics, my favorite and impossible class, and he looked up and said simply, “Is this going to continue?” But as I stood sickened and sweating, my insecure scared self supplied this translation: This is the best you can do? I thought you were smarter than that. I expect more of you. A C, not being an A, might as well be an F. F-F-F. Failure. You had better do better, son. Dad meant none of that, of course, though he was and is the best smartest strongest man I knew and know, though his question simply revealed his own exhausted mind as lawyer clergyman handyman father-of-six, though my report card C was simply a small temporary bare blip of a fact, a diminutive letter written in a tiny box in a narrow column of my life, and meant nothing at all whatsoever about me and my value and worth and intelligence and my sense of wonder for the scientific world. Dad’s question was simply a worry for his son and a hope for his son and an offer to help his son if he could. I see that.
Please do not ask me why I majored in physics in college. Please don’t. Though if you do I will answer simply that I love cosmology and relativity and theories of everything and other cool sciencey spacey stuff. I just could not do the math.
(Painting “Galaxy” by Roger, though I’m hesitant to claim it.)
Roger Evans Baker is a municipal attorney, homebody poet and essayist, and amateur naturalist. Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.