My high school years were not a time of mind expansion for me and a few of my friends. We were too involved with being "cool" in the late fifties and early sixties. An good Elvis haircut was more important than anything to us as was wearing the right jeans and loafers. English was something that I was not interested in and never excelled at. Neither was math so therefor I always took the easy way out and took general math. I didn't see the need for Algebra because I was going to be a business person and Algebra just wasn't practical to me. I took several business math courses. The Tifton High School requirements for graduation however, called for at least one course in Algebra so I took it my Senior year. It was horrid. It was a mess. It was a year of total frustration and failure. I always will believe that my Algebra teacher gave me a point so that I could graduate. She liked me and she has always been dear to my heart since I graduated in 1961. Her name was Mrs. Johnson. Bless her soul! Anyway, math just wasn't my thing. I later discovered that my problem was that I was trying to reason out Algebra instead of following the rules.
I didn't attend college until I was twenty-six. I had finally concluded that if I was ever going to have anything in this world, I would have to get a college degree. So, I enrolled in Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in the fall of 1968. My mind had had time to mature and I was clearly in touch with the need for a good education. It resulted in the fact that I did really well in college. In fact, I held a Regents Scholarship for four years and that required a 3.75 GPA or better.
It was a struggle to work my way through college. In fact, if God had not given me Carolyn Gibbs as my wife to help me, I am confident that I never would have made it. She supported me to the utmost. I graduated from ABAC with honors and then we bought a trailer (mobile home) and moved to Valdosta, GA where I entered Valdosta State College...(University now). During my time there I stuck with the general math kind of study which led me to take two different classes in statistics. They were very tough but I found statistics interesting so I did well in that course of study. After all we had endured getting to my senior year at VSC, I was informed by a counselor that I was going to have to take two required math courses to graduate. I said, "why in the world hasn't someone mentioned this earlier?" "I have had counselors each semester and no one has ever mentioned this." I was flabbergasted but when I asked the lady what the two courses were, I was even more flabbergasted. She, very calmly told me that the required courses were Differential Calculus and Matrix Theory Math and that they had to be taken in that order. I was stunned. I was a general math and statistics guy. I didn't even know what calculus involved much less matrix theory math. After struggling through nearly four years I learn that my graduation from college depended on what I did with these to unknown entities. But, I had no choice so I had to move ahead.
A few days later, I was sitting in the differential calculus course which had a new, young teacher who was really interested in teaching that stuff. He seemed nice and normal enough so I was encouraged. On the very first day he said: "O.K. folks, please write down on a piece of paper your particular math background." He wanted to see just what kind of work was cut out for him. I can tell you that it was a lot if I was going to pass. So, we all wrote down our prior math experience and turned it in the next day. The following day was a pleasant day until the end of the class and that new, bright teacher said: "After class I need to see Mr. Harrell and four others." Then he named the others. I thought, now what in the world have I done wrong that the teacher wants to see me. I soon found out. After class he gathered the five of us at the front of the room and said: "fellows, I don't really know how to tell you this but you just ain't gonna make it in this class." " We are going to start on page 180 of the textbook and a firm understanding of the first 179 pages is necessary to make it." He further informed us that for us to stay in the class would probably be a waste of our time and his as well. My feathers fell. I felt like I was going to faint. I told him that I had four hard years of my life invested in college and I had to make it. I had no choice. He just raised his eyebrows as if to say...."well, all right then, we'll see."
The five of us made a commitment to each other. None of us would fail. We were going to study really hard and help each other. We were going to make it through the "briar patch." Later that day we all bought two books. We purchased an algebra book and also our differential calculus text. We also reserved a room in the library for two evenings a week and on test week, we had the room three nights. What did we do? We taught ourselves algebra out of the text book. No teacher. Then we applied what we had learned to the differential calculus problems. We all made sure that we did one thing that is essential in those courses, especially the calculus course: we learned the rules. I found out that the reason I had such a tough time with algebra in high school was that I was trying to figure it out. Why did it work? How did it work? I didn't know the rules which would have solved the problem and I was not savvy enough to figure it out. But in college it was different. If one applies the rules then the functions will work out correctly. The only thing I understood about algebra when the five of us started studying was that you change the sign when you cross the equal marks. That was it. We studied night and day. I put in massive hours on those two subjects at the same time. I really don't know how I did it but in the end all five of us passed the differential calculus course and we also knew algebra. This proved something to me: there is no discipline invented by man that a person cannot master if they put enough time and study into it. It was invented by man and men can figure it out with enough dedication and work.
During all this time I was working forty hours a week in Luke's Clothing store. It was a high end men's store. The best one south of Atlanta in the state of Georiga. One day a man young man walked in the front door wearing an Air Force uniform. I noticed that he was a Colonel. Then I noticed that I knew him. He was one of the fellows in our group of five who had to have the two math courses. In fact, he and I were closer in friendship than we were with the others. We studied a lot together. I said: "Man, what are you wearing that uniform for?" He replied that he was a Colonel and that he was the flight line commander at Moody Air Force Base which is near Valdosta, GA. I was totally amazed. He said that he had wanted to let me know that information but that he was afraid it would negatively affect our relationship and the quality of the study we were doing. All that time we studied together and sometimes "cut the fool" I was totally unaware that I was doing so with a Colonel in the Air Force.
The next semester we all took the Matrix Theory Math which was very, very complicated. In fact, we had to have the calculus before we could understand it. It was an agonizing experience but we all passed that course as well. I was amazed that I made an 89 in both of the courses!! So, for anyone and everyone who is facing a challenge that you think is a mountain too high to climb, please understand that nothing is impossible for you if you will devote enough time and energy in the process of dealing with it. I found that I experienced a great reward as I dealt with and conquered Higher Math.
William F. Harrell