This is the second part of a series. Click here to see the first part.
“What is the source of our first suffering? It is in the fact that we hesitated to speak — It was born in the moments we accumulated silent things within us.” —Gaston Bachelard
In 1966 I went away to college in Atlanta, Georgia to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology when I was 17 years old. At the time I thought that Georgia Tech had everything that I was looking for: an excellent School of Architecture, located in a big city, 750 miles from home.
I had the wanderlust that is common in young people in their late teens. Not-yet-an-adult and definitely-not-a-child was where I felt that I was living. I finished high school in the top 10% of my graduating class of 666 students (yes, it should have been a clue— for all of us). My academic life had been supplemented with sports and service clubs over the years. I was not a big-time athlete, but I had fun and was well into the middle of the pack when it came to ability and desire.
The one stand-out spot for me was participating on the Track team. Starting in 8th grade I became a pole-vaulter, mostly because I was not that good at running races, throwing the discus or shot-put, hurdling, or broad jumping. The high jump was fun, but it was easier to go higher with the aid of a pole and only two other guys were even remotely interested in it.
Our Track coach had no idea how to help us learn to vault, not many coaches did. They were more in tune to help the distance runners, relay teams and the sprinters. Even the field coaches were stymied when it came to pole-vaulting; their best advice was, “Don’t miss the landing pit on the way down.”
The point I am trying to make here is that I learned to coach myself and be in charge of my own life on the Track team. ABC’s Wide World of Sports provided coverage of Track & Field events all over the world and those of us who vaulted would watch the show to get a glimpse of how to do it. What I would have given to have a VCR back then to speed up the learning process.
Unofficially I cleared 12 feet 6 inches by the end of school. That was not too shabby, but some guys at other schools were clearing 16 feet. My biggest gift from pole-vaulting for 5 years was the strong upper body that I developed. My grip-strength and forearms were quite strong from holding my weight when I left the ground and rocked back to shoot my feet and legs up over my head. My shoulders and back were quite strong from pulling my weight up, turning my body in mid-air and pushing off the end of the pole upside down as I cleared the bar. These physical attributes would prove helpful when I entered the construction workforce down the line.
I also learned to tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand. Spectators were constantly walking across the runway as I ran pole-in-hands toward the bar. It was a matter of learning to ignore them and have faith that they would be out-of-the-way by the time I reached the pit and planted my pole to begin the vault.
All of these gifts came in handy to me when, in 1968, I was asked not to return to Ga. Tech for the Spring Quarter. Let’s be honest here: I flunked out of college. It was a shock, a BIG SHOCK! The school suggested that I try going to a Junior College and raise my grade-point average so that I could re-apply for admission 2 years down the road.
That was not an acceptable solution to me, I had big plans – I was going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright. The truth of the matter was that I was closer to becoming the next Frank Lloyd Wrong.
My biggest problem in college was math. Math! I was a Geometry Ace; I could prove theorems and come up with practical applications of the concepts I was taught with ease. The T-square and Triangle were my Rosetta Stones on a drawing board. Add to them my set of Compasses & Dividers and you are talking to the one kid who had an understanding of geometric relationships.
In Atlanta I was introduced to the concept of Calculus and that was the beginning of the end for me. The downhill slide started 5 minutes into my first class when the Teaching Assistant covered every bit of math that I had been taught up to that moment. From there on out he was speaking a foreign tongue, one that I could not understand no matter how hard I tried.
Any shred of confidence I might have had from my high school math classes was gone by the middle of that first class. The TA was much too busy to answer any questions and so he told everyone to just help each other. There were some smart guys in that class, I could tell by their questions and comments with the instructor, and so I asked one of them for clarification on a homework problem.
My fellow student proceeded to give me a brilliant step-by-step answer, complete with legible equations, orderly transcribed on a clean sheet of paper. He could not have been more helpful and I could not have been more uncomprehending of what he just said to me. I filed the paper away and went back to my 4-man dormitory room; surely one of my roommates could explain this stuff.
My room was on the 4th floor of the dormitory on the corner of North Avenue and I-75. Grant Stadium was a block West on North Avenue and to the East, across the freeway, was the famous Varsity Drive-in, known by one-and-all as The V. The dorm lacked an elevator, so the walk up 4 flights of stairs helped to relieve a bit of the pent-up stress from class.
Two of my roomies were back from classes and hard at work on their homework assignments. I asked if someone could help me with my Calculus assignment when they had a chance and both guys nodded/grunted in the affirmative.
I went to work on my first drawing lab assignment, which was to make a scale drawing, in ink, of the stairwell in the entrance to the Architecture Department. We had spent 2 hours of a 3-hour class measuring and sketching the stairwell and we had 3 days to complete the drawing and turn it in for our first grade.
I tuned out everyone and everything around me. Gone was the noise of the cars on the freeway, horns blaring and brakes squealing. The radio in the next room was a distant murmur, albeit a welcome sound as it carried the Motown, Rhythm & Blues and Folk songs popular at that time.
My roommates summoned me to dinner at Brittain Dining Hall, a.k.a. Ptomaine Hall. After sharing a meal and getting to know each other on a more personal level the three of us went back to our room and there Rick and Orrin did their best to walk me through our first Calculus homework. It was of no use, even though I was willing and they were patient. Calculus was not getting through to me. It would have been easier to shoot me at that point than to endure the agony involved with explaining higher math to me. I retreated into my shell and hammered along alone with my dilemma, accumulating silent things within.
In the years since this episode I have realized that I was pursuing the wrong career from the very start. Becoming an Architect was not my destiny, even though I possess some of the skills that an Architect needs to have. The knowledge and use of Calculus is necessary for anyone who designs structures for other people.
At the least, an Architect needs to have enough knowledge of higher math to know if his design is possible and practical. He also needs to know when-he-does-not-know, the point where he needs the assistance of a Professional Engineer. There are plenty of Architects who can cipher their way through the complex calculations required to design unique buildings. The trick is to have a man in charge that knows enough to know that he needs the services of an expert to do the “heavy lifting” and to check and verify that the design will work as expected.