Mathochism: Setting limits

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Things got uncomfortable in class this week, and it had nothing to do with polynomials.

As I’ve mentioned before, my college has been coping with the fiscal crisis in California by cutting back sections, making it not uncommon for more than 40 students to try and join an already full 45-member class. The Youthful Professor dealt with the 37 aspirants to this section, known more colorfully as “class crashers” by making a random short list, then telling those on it to come to class for the first two weeks. At that point, the deadline for dropping or adding would be over, and he would hopefully be able to accommodate a fraction of the short list.

After the dust settled, he was able to add about seven students. Now, I have complained written about one aspirant, who I nicknamed The Loudmouth. This fellow annoyed me immeasurably by constantly barking out answers, or asking questions meant to show off his superior knowledge. He usually sat next to me. I knew he was a class crasher, and when the Youthful Professor handed out the few spots he had last week (with the understanding that a few more might open this week), my heart sank when I thought Loudmouth had gotten in.

But I guess he didn’t. When I got to the first class this week, the Youthful Professor announced that, regrettably, no one had dropped over the weekend, so the remaining aspirants (and there were about four, including Loudmouth) had to leave. Since he had taken my usual spot, and Assertive Woman had lost hers to his fellow aspirant, she and I were both thrilled when they left, and reseated ourselves in their spots.

The Youthful Professor launched into his lecture on functions, and the atmosphere felt so much lighter without Loudmouth’s interjections. The Russian Loudmouth, curbed by various classmates during previous sessions, was perfectly pleasant. Things went on in this vein for about 10 minutes.

Then, the Loudmouth came back.

That’s right, he came back into class, and took the seat at the edge in my row, a seat that is not a standard desk, but a table with an office chair. To say I was dismayed would be an understatement. I was also indignant, particularly when he started participating again. The Youthful Professor showed no signs of dismay, or even surprise. Nor did he ask him to leave. Oh no. Did this mean Loudmouth had just left for a moment to go to the bathroom? Why take his stuff, if so?

All was revealed during break, when Loudmouth went up to Youthful Professor. First, he started wheedling: Surely a spot might open up tomorrow? Couldn’t he just stay until then? YP said no, this was the college’s deadline. Besides, even if there had been only one spot, Loudmouth wouldn’t have gotten it. His fellow aspirant would have. But she left! Yes, she left because there are no spots available!

But the Loudmouth has a friend named Lisa. Lisa was added to the class, but said she’d dropped. Couldn’t he have her spot? Pleeease? Youthful Professor said he was not aware of Lisa dropping the class, and that besides, the college frowned on professors using the same add code on two students. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair, because Loudmouth wasn’t next on the list, his fellow aspirant was. But she left! Yes, because there are no spots available!

Then, the guilt began. Youthful Professor clearly didn’t like him! No, said YP, this was nothing personal (though I wouldn’t blame him if, at this point, it was).

But… Youthful Professor had PROMISED him a spot! No, YP insisted, he had very clearly made NO PROMISES. But … he had dropped another class just for this one! The Youthful Professor said this was unfortunate, but that he had told Loudmouth the week before that that was not a good idea.

But… unless he got this class, he could lose his student visa! The Youthful Professor was very sorry, but other aspirants had voiced such concerns, and he had told them to talk to their advisors. If it was a question of having a full schedule, another course in a different department might qualify.

Undeterred, the Loudmouth went through his entire argument again. And again. And again. Finally, YP told him he had to get back to teaching. And those of us who had witnessed this drama (a quiet drama, thank goodness — otherwise security would have gotten involved) sighed in relief. I actually got up and went out during the second go-round, in spite of the fact that I badly wanted to ask a question about the material.

Class started again, but the Loudmouth didn’t leave. He didn’t participate, just sat there in the front row and glowered. The tension was palpable.

After I got home from class, I worried. I worried that this guy would somehow bully his way into class, or that he would hurt the Youthful Professor in some way in retaliation. This may sound like I am being silly, but people who refuse to take no for an answer frighten me.

The older I get, the more I fear such people. Once I identify them, I brace myself, then, at first opportunity, I flee. If an acquaintance behaves that way, I keep them at great distance and never promote them to friends. If someone can’t respect a firm “no” I want no part of them.

It’s about setting limits. If someone doesn’t respect my limits, I don’t trust them, end of story. As for people like the Loudmouth, if he is this pushy with a teacher, who is in authority over him, can you imagine what he is like with someone who is not?

Can you imagine what it must be like to fend him off at a bar, or on a date?

My worries followed me to class two days later. Would he be there?

Fortunately, he wasn’t. We had a nice harmonious class, and went over limits, except these were the kind that apply to Calculus. A test is looming, and I really need to study. But I know I will be looking over my shoulder for the Loudmouth for a while. These guys never give up. They linger, like a bad smell. Oh well. Nothing like some drama for a good Mathochism entry!

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • How frustrating! The inability to take “no” for an answer is a trait that I find majorly irritating at best – and threatening at worst. I’m glad your prof stood firm, and I hope he continues to do so. I get so tired of pushy bullies getting rewarded for their tactics, and ending up with better opportunities than people who behave like civil members of society.

  • I am learning not to take no for an answer in *certain* situations. Like when talking with businesses and I think I should get a refund. It can be a useful skill.