Cold Hard Logic
Professor Otte had left me a message asking me to meet him at his office. As the Professor was teaching my Advanced Symbolic Logic class, I spent a lot of time in his office trying desperately to understand the class I was taking. It was a small class–there were seven of us, and I was the only undergraduate. The others were mathematics and linguistics graduate students. I had always been good at logic–I scored in the upper 5% on the logic section on the GRE–but I desperately wished the class had come with subtitles. I was sure Professor Otte wanted to discuss some assignment I had botched up, but that wasn’t why he called me (there is a another great story from this class, but I will share it next time).
The reason was a tutoring job. There was a student athlete over the hill at San Jose state who was taking a logic class, and needed tutoring from an expert. As there was no philosophy program at SJSU they gazed southward down route 17, across the Santa Cruz Mountains, and settled on Professor Otte for a recommendation. He selected me–the student struggling the most in his logic class. When I asked why not any of the grad students who clearly had access to the logic Rosetta Stone that I did not, the Professor told me that he thought I had the best social and communication skills in the class, and would therefore be a better teacher. Given the social awkwardness that hung over the class like smog in the San Fernando Valley, his compliment struck me as equivalent to being called the thinnest kid at fat camp. Or the finest ballerina in Galveston. But I could use the extra money, and I was curious to see how well I could communicate logic to someone who actually knew less than I did. So I accepted the job. (Of course, now I teach philosophy and logic to high school students, so guess what, Professor? Your instincts were good.)
So I climbed on to my 250cc Honda Helix motorcycle (shoving by long-haired, scraggly bearded self under a helmet and climbing on the Helix to teach logic was about as badass as I ever got) and headed over the mountains to San Jose. I was greeted at the door by a middle-aged and very kind Japanese couple, who expressed warm gratitude that I had traveled to help their daughter succeed in the logic class. I was ushered into the living room, fussed over, brought green tea and bean cakes, and treated like a long-lost nephew. Finally, my student arrived, and I felt my heart skip a beat when I saw her. She was beautiful, and had probably the kindest and most welcoming smile of any woman I had ever seen. Unlike other instances when I have been surprised by a beautiful woman, I kept my cool.
The parents bid a hasty retreat, and left us alone to do our work (but not so alone that the parents weren’t within ear shot in the room adjacent). I quickly saw that she was taking a Formal Logic class, and that while she understood it, her athletic schedule was causing her to miss significant class time. I noticed her text was Patrick Hurley’s “Introduction to Logic”–a book I knew well from two logic classes I had aced. I thus felt supremely confident that I could be a very effective logic coach.
And she was an excellent student. She immediately picked up the difference between Modus Tollens and Modus Ponens, could design Hypothetical and Disjunctive Syllogisms at the drop of the hat, and even mastered the Reductio Ad Absurdum. She could easily identify the difference between deductive and inductive logic, grasped the nuances of necessary and sufficient condition, and wrote truth tables with such skill it would have even made Wittgenstein proud (once he was done lambasting us for studying philosophy after him). She was a natural, and really seemed to enjoy mastering the material. We had a great time–it was one of the first moments in my life when I really felt the joy of teaching.
On one of my last visits to the house, I passed by her trophy case–it was packed with awards from her career as an ice skater. I paused to admire her accolades, and then turned to her and said something really insightful, along the lines of ‘Wow. You’re really good!” to which she humbly replied. “I do all right.” We made some more small talk, and then I headed home.
After my very last visit, when I felt confident my protégé would nail her final exam, the whole family came out to say goodbye. Dad handed me an envelope which I would discover contained a bonus for all my efforts, and as I pulled away I glanced back at the house to see them waving to me from the front stoop. I remember wondering if I would ever see them again.
I did–but it wasn’t until the following January when I happened to be watching the Winter Olympics and realized that my student was a star athlete by the name of Kristi Yamaguchi. I watched her win the gold medal that year, adding a powerful exclamation mark to a career that has also included thirteen world and national championships.
Oh, and one “A” in Formal Logic.