CJ Kaplan helps his daughter study for her 10th grade Physics final and rediscovers why he became an English major.
There’s a soul-crushing passage from George Orwell’s 1984 that captures the utter hopelessness in which its characters exist. As Winston struggles futilely to hold onto his vision of a better future, O’Brien dismantles that illusion with the withering dismissal, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
As it happens, this line also accurately describes how I felt when my daughter, Samantha, asked me to help her prepare for her Physics final exam.
Allow me to give you a better understanding of my dismay. For generations, the Kaplan family has excelled in the Humanities and Social Sciences. We have filled our college transcripts with high marks in English Literature, History, Arts, Languages, Political Science, Business and Philosophy.
Oh, we friggin’ kill it, my friends.
We’ve got writers, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs and bullshit artists up and down my family tree.
But, here’s the problem. We ain’t got no scientists.
I don’t know if it’s a genetic thing or a familial unwillingness to learn. But, for whatever reason, the very mention of formulas, chemical equations and trains leaving Chicago at 40mph make us curl up in a ball underneath our folio editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Finals Week started off auspiciously enough. On Sunday night, we studied for English. We discussed dystopian societies, the differences between Romantic heroes and anti-heroes as well as the subtle nuances separating satire and irony. We congratulated each other on our thorough understanding of the texts and our recognition of the underlying message in each one. If the temperature hadn’t been in the 80s that night, we both would have been wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches and smoking meerschaum pipes. It was truly obnoxious and I loved every minute of it.
Monday night brought American History, Samantha’s favorite subject. I toggled up and down the study guide while she held forth on World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, Viet Nam and the Cold War. She educated me on the connections between key events, political figures and changes in foreign regimes. At one point, my 9-year-old (the Geography buff) dropped by to identify Macedonia and Montenegro on an unmarked map of the Balkans. Because that’s how we get crazy in my house, yo! History, you can party with us anytime.
Then came Tuesday.
My wife and I were just finishing a relaxing dinner when Samantha staggered into the kitchen.
“Dad,” she sighed tiredly, “will you help me study for Physics?”
“Who is this ‘Dad’ you speak of?” I replied.
“Okay, Goose. But, you know, I never took Physics.”
(Side note: This is 100% true. I only took three years of high school science. Physics would have been the fourth. To be even more candid, my third year of science barely even qualified. I took the lowest level of Chemistry possible. Most of my classmates were actively stealing glass pipettes to make bongs. Hilariously, I ended up getting an A in the class and winning the Gold Test Tube Award. Not because I was a great chemistry student, but because I was one of the few people not to start a fire in the lab that year. At least, not deliberately. By the way, I gave my Gold Test Tube to one of my buddies in the class. Somewhere out there is a really regal-looking bong.)
“Whatever,” she said, holding out a study guide that contained seventy multiple-choice questions.
Dubiously, I took the packet and flipped through its contents. Exponents, variables and Greek letters stared menacingly back at me. Four columns of formulas (Formulae? Formulux? Formulacrum?) dominated the entire back page.
“What’s the difference between small v and capital V?’ I asked.
“Small v is velocity. Capital V is voltage.”
Taking a collective deep breath, we waded in. The first five questions were relatively easy math problems disguised as complicated physics equations. Then came Questions 6 and 7. Question 6 asked us to find the potential energy of a 300kg rock at the top of a 10m slope. (Really? You’re gonna go metric on me on top of everything else? Fuck you, physics.) Using a formula that caused a blood vessel in my left eye to burst, we came up with the correct answer. However, our moment of triumph was short-lived.
Question 7 asked us to find the kinetic energy of that same rock at the bottom of that same slope. Only it didn’t give us any more information and we couldn’t find a formula that would help us solve the problem. For ten minutes, we alternated between staring blankly at the page and at each other. (Stop laughing, nerds. I know you already figured it out.)
“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed as a cartoon light bulb went on over my head. “If the potential energy at the top of the slope is x, then the kinetic energy at the bottom of the slope would also be x because the bottom is where the rock will have achieved 100% of its potential energy!”
Her eyes widened. “I think you’re right,” she said incredulously. (When your teenage daughter tells you she thinks you’re right about anything, even physics, you take that moment to the grave.)
We looked at the answer key and, sure enough, my answer was correct.
“You know how I got that answer?” I asked, stalking back and forth across the kitchen. “I used logic, which I learned in Philosophy class, which is one of the Humanities. Uh! How do you like me now, physics?!?”
Then, I spiked the study guide, Gronk-style, for emphasis.
“That’s great, Dad,” said Samantha, picking up the packet and thrusting it back into my hands. “We’ve got 63 more questions to go.”
There’s a physics equation that would calculate how fast my balloon deflated, but I’ll be damned if I know it.
I wish I could tell you that the rest of the study session went smoothly and that we used a combination of actual physics and logic to ferret out the answers. But, that would be untrue. There were more unwieldy questions about energy, force, resistance, ohms and something called Newtons (which I think is really just a practical joke played by physicists on unsuspecting English majors). There was screaming (mostly by her), crying (mostly by me) and a general feeling of despair that predominated the evening. Just after the clock struck 12am, we called it a night.
Yesterday afternoon, she burst into the kitchen full of an emotion I did not recognize…joy.
“I got a B on my Physics final!!!” she exulted.
“That’s amazing!” my wife and I yelled, leaping from our seats and dancing in celebration with her.
A B in Physics. That’s a legit grade in a (more than) legit science class. Maybe there’s hope for the Kaplan family yet.
So, now we’re onto 11th grade and Chemistry.
Wait a minute. What’s that I see in the distance coming at my face?
Oh, yeah. It’s the boot.
Photo: hashir / flickr