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Asymptote

Calculus I

Calculus I was taught by Minh Tran who would show up to class every Thursday evening in his usual uniform of a striped button down shirt with the faint scent of yellowing documents and nicotine and black pleated slacks that clung desperately to his lanky and slightly hunched frame with a plastic bag containing exactly two cans of taurine-fortified coffee product and a pack of menthols. It was rumored that Tran had once been well regarded in the field of topological analysis and his work was key to the resolution of a couple high-level mathematical problems but that age, time, and the slowing of his once prodigal mind had him teaching remedial calculus on Thursday evenings at the local community college to a bunch of mostly irreverent kids who saw math as a bureaucratic line item to check off towards their pursuit of real happiness and fulfillment as opposed to the aesthetically sublime activity Tran once held it to be, which is not to say that there wasn’t any dignity in such a vocation but it was abundantly clear to anyone who wasn’t falling asleep, day dreaming, or checking their messages, or actually sincerely trying to understand the loopy scribbles on the chalkboard, that Tran was an uncomfortable man who bore his own sense of disappointment on every stroke and exhalation. He must have once glimpsed at infinity, but with ever accelerating effort, he could only approach it asymptotically and could only observe as others took it to the finish and so now the only thing he seemed to get what could roughly be called pleasure out of was his administration of way-difficult exams filled with higher-level integrals and complex proofs which everyone would squirm in their seats from start to end only to find out weeks later that their failing test scores would get normalized up to a pass as the college administration repeatedly explained to him that it wasn’t feasible to fail an entire class—especially a class which was supposed to just get-it-over-with and that Calculus I, which wasn’t supposed to focus on anything beyond some limits, rudimentary differentials and first-level integrals, was really meant to be a token prerequisite for programs which students would never need to do anything beyond basic arithmetic, let alone algebra or calculus or to Tran’s great dismay, proofs. He had a habit, whenever a student, without prior knowledge that they would just get curved up anyway, pleaded with him to just issue them pass with promises they would never actually need math, of smirking while scratching with uncut fingernails his unshaven chin, the only place his facial hair seemed to find suitably fertile for growth, before launching into a long and well rehearsed apology for the study of mathematics and that he was a particularly ornery and difficult professor for both administration and students to deal with did not irk the dean of the college so much as long as he relented, and he always relented after giving another different but equally persuasive-to-himself spiel about integrity, to normalizing his grades. And the dean knew just how difficult it was to find someone willing to teach the same soul-crushing class semester after semester and actually stay year after year at the small and poorly funded community college.