So, there I was, buried in a mountain of papers that should have been filed, feeling quite sorry for myself that pursuing an engineering degree after a decade out of math was proving to be so difficult.
During better days I had joked that despite having a fancy fine arts degree, I still chop onions like I failed preschool. Sometime between the consumption of my first and second juice box, whilst trying to constrain the wheels of a somewhat unruly Lego truck, I realized that engineering is a lot like a really, really difficult preschool. I thought, too, that if maybe I had paid better attention to how blocks looked and how balls rolled during those formative years, the mathematics and technical drawings would have been more intuitive than it currently was.
Mr. Omar likely would have rolled his eyes at this. I was too preoccupied with my woes to take much notice of him, though I’m fairly certain at least one of the juice box deliveries would have come with an expression that says, “Well, you’re not dying, so clearly it’s not that bad. I’m too old for your whining.”
Maybe he was right, though it was a pretty serious issue. I was an A student. I was not prepared to fail a class, and unlike the onion issue which was fixed by an impromptu purchase of a food processor, this had to be figured out by hand.
Bolstered by Mr. Omar’s example of bold questioning, coupled with memories of all the conversations I had wanted to have during previous years, at this point I was already interrogating pretty much anyone that would speak to me about the subjects. I was a purple-wearing freshman again on the hunt for acquisition records, and no one’s opinion of me, my gender or anything else was really going to stop me.
Slowly, things had started to piece together, but the biggest clincher was when a lecturer joked that you could replace variables with pictures and it would still mean the same thing. I’m pretty sure he meant to be condescending, but as an art person I took it seriously. Then, sometime during one of my despairing desires to return to the figures of naked marble men, it all came together. I remembered Barberini.
And that was exactly it: I remembered him. Nearly a decade after studying him, I knew he was Hellenistic, a faun and drunk. He had had no real bearing on my life since those years (Mr. Omar’s years as a training partner for a professional squash player meant I didn’t really need to look at the marble legs for long after I studied him), but I still remembered. And it wasn’t just him I remembered. I could recall the onyx chalice with the red and white swirls reminiscent of the crucifixion story of water and blood. I knew that somewhere in Chartes cathedral there is a window where Mark sits on the shoulders of David, because Mark is apocalyptic in tone (which is why we get things like cursed fig trees) and so is Daniel. For centuries, leaders had been using churches and the art they contained to teach illiterate people the stories and politics of their religion and social structures. For me, it was quite natural to recall these things, because of the images.
And that’s when I started doing what any good theologian would do in the case of illiteracy, I started raising churches. I literally drew mathematical equations and replaced concepts with colors. The math didn’t become easier, but it did become more intelligible. I could see more patterns and transformations, and the craftsmanship of certain equations…even, in a few cases, how and why some of them worked. It was amazing. It made for lots of crazy questions, but it also made things more interesting.
I’ve said before language and math don’t always meld well; I could see that especially with lecturers, where presentation didn’t always or even usually match the math. The best example I can think of is with one particular professor, whose lecturing I would most easily describe as a “mildly depressed, expanding factorial.” Watching him was kind of like watching a little rain cloud, but the math, the math was fantastic. Hoards of rainbows jumping off pages until in last ten seconds all the colors start knocking off like drum beats, so that by the last two seconds everything had turned one color and the answer was written on the board, like a thesis turned in a minute before it was due. Watching his math was one of the best memories of the semester.
Other boring lecturers, too, had really exciting or elegant ways with math, some so painstakingly organized my exam mark went up at least ten percent just by following the work. Other lecturers were better at speaking; in those cases I’d follow the explanations. The whole point really was that I had figured out a way to read the pasta on the wall in a way I could understand it, to listen to what was being said even without words, and to learn the language of the universe.
Perhaps I am just imagining, but I think the universe is a bit like Barberini. It likes to be looked at, and when it’s noticed and loved, it starts doing crazy things, like turning artists into engineers.
First Year Project: South African Water Taxi
It is a cliché to say so, but if you really want something you should probably go for it. You will pay for it, in dark days and bitten callouses, in old doubts and memories you’d maybe prefer to forget, but if you love it enough, I truly believe that somehow, in some way, it will come right.
Tara is looking forward to second year.