February 23, 2013

In 1961 I was an entering freshman at the University of Tennessee.   One of the lucky ones, I knew exactly the course of study I wished to pursue—mechanical engineering.   It’s interesting how a kid matures relative to personal and long-held interest.   Early in life, I started by working on my Western Flyer wagon, then my bike, then my dad’s lawnmower, then cars.  Sprinkle in several random assemblies of Heathkit crystal radios, “U”-control model airplanes and home entertainment centers and you have an adolescent involved with the process of discovery.  I actually enjoy knowing how things work and finding ways to make them better and more efficient, thereby hoping to extend their useful life.  NOW, with that said, I have made a considerable number of “rookie mistakes”.   Reading the instructions first has not always been my “strong suit” but then again, I have always thought these mistakes were learning experiences and not real failures.

OK, back to 1961.  I was absolutely intimidated my first few days with education on the university level.  If hyperventilation represented the lottery, I would be a winner many times over.  A product of the public school system in east Tennessee, I really felt unprepared for the four years that lay ahead.   Was I good enough for study as rigorous a discipline as engineering?  The dropout rate was considerably higher than non-technical liberal arts and the engineering professors made sure we knew that.  Oh by the way, during the very first days of class, I discovered the ME department required all graduating students to have a minor in mathematics.  Thirty-three hours of math, which greatly added to the already building pressures.

One of the first classes I attended was physics for non-physics majors.  This class was required for all engineers and students working towards B.S. degrees, regardless of discipline.  The day comes—third floor, room 308, Ferris Hall.  There were approximately fifteen students in the classroom.  The teacher came in, looked the class over without taking role, and then started his lecture.  There was no book, which I remember thinking was very odd, but that’s the way it was.  We were cautioned to listen intently, take good notes and definitely review those notes after every class session.   After about fifteen minutes, I was absolutely lost—absolutely!  My heart sank.  The question was answered–I was not ready for prime time. I struggled through the hour then approached the teacher.  I indicated I was totally lost, very confused and definitely surprised by the differences between high school physics and physics on the university level.

TEACHER:  “May I ask your name?

STUDENT:  “Robert Jackson”

TEACHER:  “I don’t have you as signing up for this class.  What course number do you think you are in?”

STUDENT:   “Physics 201”.

With this reply, he burst out laughing.

TEACHER:  “Mr. Jackson this is a graduate level physics class dealing with particle behavior on the sub-atomic level, not physics 201.”

I was greatly relieved, very embarrassed, but managed to laugh as loudly as he did.  I had the right floor; even the correct room number but regrettably wrong building.   The point being, in life we all make rookie mistakes—at any age.  How we react to those mistakes says a great deal about us.   You can laugh it off, slink home in disgust without telling a soul or learn from the experience.  I would suggest the more adult reaction would be learning from the experience.    This event occurred over fifty years ago and I can still see the professor’s expression when I told him the course number.  That gentleman became as close a friend as a student could have and on several occasions our study team would meet with him to discuss fascinating engineers and scientist he had met during his student and teaching years.     Each time we met in the halls of that university we both had cause to smile and remember.  Let’s hear it for rookie mistakes.


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