Excerpt from Wheat Fields
by Bill Sampson
Twin, four-columned, buff-brick scholarship halls sit on the east side of the sidewalk between Danforth Chapel and the Chancellor’s residence. The white-painted hilltop home of KU’s CEO at the southeast corner of the campus commands the approach to Lawrence from the Wakarusa River to the south. Miller, the twin closer to the Chancellor, has steps down from the sidewalk to its front door. Healthy evergreens that need a haircut in every season flank the staircase and block the view of the first floor from the street. But the Ionic capitals are visible atop their columns, just beneath a strict pediment.
Miller holds down 2:00 o’clock on the traffic circle that gives access to the four buildings at the end of Lilac Lane: Miller, the Chancellor’s residence (at 5:00 o’clock), Blake Hall (political science, at 6:00 o’clock), and Twente Hall (formerly the university hospital and now the home of KU’s school of social welfare, at 8:00 o’clock).
On the sun side of the stained-glass window at Danforth Chapel and just across Lilac Lane on the north side of “new” Fraser are the four sycamore trees that shaded Farieh during the early weeks of her freshman year as she turned from Jayhawk Boulevard toward her new home at Miller Hall. They gave her more than a break from the high heat of August, for they reminded her of the sycamores recently planted on Vali Asr Avenue in Tehran, along whose ample sidewalks she and her sisters had all learned to ride bicycles. A central part of that memory was her father, running alongside her yelling “Farieh, you can do this!” Memories like this were small pieces of home for a young woman so far from hers; but the sycamores were there every day, and they helped.
As her educational goal required a graduate degree and as she intended to achieve that elsewhere—either Oxford, where the older of her two older sisters was already in graduate school, or The London School of Economics—Farieh looked to the United States for college. Kansas did not have the nation’s best school for the study of petroleum engineering, although its faculty was excellent. Most of the Top 10 were in Texas. But for Farieh, The Longhorn State was as long on oil-and-gas education as it was short on diversity. Louisiana and Oklahoma, whose schools boasted their own highly-rated oil-and-gas departments, were attitudinally similar. Kansas, which was well regarded academically and more moderate politically, and which had a former colleague of her father on its Business School faculty, was the winner.
She had “tested out” of her liberal arts math requirement easily enough—KU had a standardized test for that and she took it her first week on campus. Testing out of her math degree was more of a challenge. She had done all the work before leaving Iran, and then some. Unlike their social peers in Tehran whose new homes boasted flat-screen TVs, Farieh’s parents had a chalk board in their library. The same library featured theater seating for their daughters, but not for movies. Only mildly comfortable—to encourage the girls’ attention — the seats came equipped with retractable lapboards, not cup holders. Farieh had grown up with mathematics. She and her sisters had each mastered “the easy stuff”—algebra and geometry—by the time they were ten. They had all breezed through trigonometry and had been introduced to calculus before they were teenagers. By the time they had matriculated from what would be high school in the States they had worked their way through additional years of calculus, linear algebra, and statistics, and their tutor had provided them a hard look at computer science. They got all of it. What the three sisters did not get were the advanced placement certificates provided by American high schools. If she wanted to complete her entire math major early to make way for the cornucopia of other classes she had found on her arrival at KU—which she did—she would have to find a way to make it happen.
After stewing over it for most of September, she came up with a plan. She declared mathematics as a major, far earlier than she needed to. When the Department of Mathematics assigned Professor Don Rooney to be her advisor, almost her first question during their first meeting was whether he would give her the final he gave to his seniors in linear algebra. She said she would take it in writing or, if he wished, she would take it face-to-face as an oral exam using a chalkboard instead of a blue book. As naïve as she was enthusiastic, Farieh assumed Professor Rooney would approve her idea and then, after she had passed his test, persuade his colleagues in the math department to let her take their finals. Upon passing all of them, she would have satisfied her major requirements!
Rooney was so taken aback at the question from the fired-up young woman in the head scarf that he just stared at her. While he sensed Farieh was better grounded in math than most of his first-year mentees, he did not like her idea or bravado . . . or her head scarf. He told Farieh he would think about it and let her know.
Rooney wanted to check in with his colleagues—for two reasons. He had never done anything like this before and that made him uncomfortable. Don Rooney did not like feeling uncomfortable. And he didn’t like the demeanor of the young woman in the head scarf; she was far too aggressive. He wanted to tell her “No,” and he wanted backup. So, he texted the two colleagues who had the most influence over the department—Ann Garvin, the department chair, who taught differential equations, and Alan Kai, who taught the senior seminar in advanced calculus. He said he had something important and asked them to meet with him, and they met the next day.
There has been a Snow Hall at KU for over one hundred years. The original—the Snow Hall of Natural History—was named for Francis Snow, one of KU’s original three professors, and housed KU’s vast collection of plants, animals, and insects. Snow’s assistant, Lewis Lindsay Dyche, who became a world-famous taxidermist, would later rate his own building.
KU students played basketball in the basement of the original Snow Hall. Mathematics is located in the current version, whose six stories top out on the battlements above the prominent stair tower and give it a military countenance more fitting to The Citadel than to Kansas. Snow’s stone walls guard the west approach to the university’s Administration Building. Chancellor Frank Strong had commissioned Snow’s neighbor to be “one of the largest and most beautiful [buildings] in the state” and “the center of the University’s architecture.” After a shaky financial start and the scrapping of the much grander original design and long delays occasioned by quarrels over construction costs and World War I, the building finally accomplished what the Chancellor had hoped for. In l938, four years after his death, the Administration Building was renamed Strong Hall in his honor. The stone of Strong Hall is as warm as Snow’s is cold; and even attired in its final, cheaper design, Strong is as balanced and as beautiful as Snow is not.
Snow offers few modern spaces and almost no large ones. They chose Anne’s office because it had a window, and a couch.
“So that’s the proposal,” Rooney had said when he had finished outlining what Farieh had said to him.
“What do you think about it, Don?” asked Anne. She had moved away from her desk when the two men came into the office and was sitting with Alan Kai on the couch. Rooney sat in Anne’s favorite upholstered chair, which she had brought from home and had wedged between her desk and the wall.
“I don’t know,” said Rooney. “The student tested out of math with a perfect score. But no one in the department has ever had her in class, and her entire math education to this point has taken place in Iran.”
Impressed by the audacity of Farieh’s proposal, Anne was disappointed by Rooney’s tepid reaction. Something else disappointed her far more. Rooney, now nearly sixty, was one of the department’s good-ol’-boys. At this stage of his career he was far more likely to be at Johnny’s West on a weekday evening than attending a seminar, to say nothing of presenting his own paper. His comment about Iran unveiled a prejudice she had sensed in him for some time but had not actually witnessed.
“What did her studying in Iran have to do with her freshman placement exam, Don? Those are graded anonymously, are they not? You said she made a perfect score. Who cares whether she took her classes in Tehran or in Topeka?”
Anne turned her head to Professor Kai, who was right next to her. “Alan, what about you?”
Alan Kai was thirty. He grew up in Singapore and had moved to the United States when he was a high school senior. After doing his undergraduate degree at Pitt, he took both graduate degrees at Chicago. He and his partner, a ceramics engineer, had interviewed at Kansas at the same time, both were offered jobs in Lawrence, and they had arrived two years ago. Alan was a star, and Anne really liked him.
“I think it’s brilliant,” said Alan. “If she passes, good for her! If she doesn’t, Don and our department get major credit for their flexibility, which means everything to young people—especially the young people we are trying to attract to KU mathematics.” He turned to Don.
“Don, did your student tell you why she wanted to test out of your senior-level course?”
Still smarting from his boss’ upbraiding, Rooney made a reply that registered on the terse side of neutral. “Yes, she did. She wants to test out of her entire undergraduate degree in mathematics; she sees me as her first step.”
“Even bolder,” interjected Anne. “To Alan’s point, what if we let her do that? What if all three of us gave her a problem to solve—problems demanding a solid grounding in advanced calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations? We could give them to her at the same time, with each of us present, and see how she does. There is little likelihood she will pass all three—fatigue alone almost guarantees that. But if she does pass, we will truly have something to brag about. The College marketing department will be all over it!”
Siding enthusiastically with Anne, Alan weighed in strongly for an oral exam with the proofs of her answers written on a chalk board. Professor Rooney merely said, “OK,” hoping what Anne said about the fatigue of the student’s contending with three problems at the same time would prove accurate. They chose Classroom 203, an average-sized space with a huge chalk board. And they decided to ask Farieh to consent to the attendance of a photographer from Marketing. If she passed, the photographs would be golden.
Professor Rooney texted Farieh and they scheduled the examination for next week Friday afternoon. Alan could not wait to alert Marketing and get the College on board; Anne said she would get the room.
As only Professor Rooney had actually met Farieh, her arrival at the back of 203 a week later was dramatic. Any head scarf would have been attention-getting, but the one she was wearing was bright yellow. Yellow was Farieh’s favorite color, and she had many scarves in that color. She was also far taller than anyone had expected. Farieh had dressed up for the occasion; with her Manolo Blahnik heels she was the tallest person in the room at nearly six feet. Once her eyes had adjusted to the sunlight that challenged Snow’s air handlers in the summer and fall, she walked steadily from behind the desks at the back of the classroom to the front. Four persons waited for her—Anne Garvin, Alan Kai, Don Rooney, and Louise, the photographer. Even Rooney could not take his eyes off her; no one said a word.
“I'm Farieh,” she said, breaking the brief but awkward silence. “Hello, Professor Rooney. Thank you very much for making this afternoon possible.”
As Rooney was not interested in saying much of anything and was incapable of reciprocating her courtesy, Anne Garvin cut in. “You are welcome. It's 'Farieh,' is that correct?”
“Yes,” replied the student.
“Well, your imaginative proposal has created quite the stir here in Snow Hall. We are all delighted to meet you, and we are excited to get started.”
“You may leave your jacket in the front row if you’d like.” Professor Garvin gestured to one of the desks and Farieh began moving toward it. “When you tell us you're ready, we'll begin.”
Responding with the same easy warmth she had felt from Professor Garvin . . . but so rapidly she seemed to be completing Professor Garvin's sentence, not beginning her own, Farieh answered: “I am ready now.”
Each of the math professors produced a single page of paper. Rooney's was entirely filled with text; Garvin and Kai had needed perhaps half the page. Garvin collected them and held them face down. “These are questions from actual examinations, Farieh. We did not try to write the hardest problem any of us had ever seen. But I suspect each of these is the hardest problem from its respective examination. When I hand them to you, Professor Kai will note the time. You will have ninety minutes to solve the problems and to write your proofs on the chalkboard. You may use as much or as little of the chalkboard as you wish.”
“We will provide the same warnings our students get in an actual examination—at ten minutes, at five, and at one. When Professor Kai says, 'Time,' you will have to put the chalk in the tray and stand back from the board.”
“Do you have any questions?”
“Yes,” said Farieh. “I did not bring any water. Is there any? May I have some?”
“Of course,” said Professor Garvin. “I have a bottle of water in my backpack. Give me just a moment.” She reached for the backpack, which was sitting on the desk next to her, pulled out the unopened bottle, and handed it to Farieh. “Here you go,” she said. Farieh, who had appreciated Professor Garvin from the beginning, now liked her very much. “Thank you,” she said. She drew a deep breath—the only tell of nervousness any of them would see that afternoon. “I'm ready for the problems.”
Farieh took the pages from the department head and stepped forward to the desk. She scanned the three problems, then placed two of them on the desktop next to Professor Garvin’s backpack. She walked to the board, picked up a new piece of chalk and stood still before the slate as she read the third problem slowly. Then she began to write.
Her height let her use the very top of the chalk board, and she began in the corner farthest to the left. In ten minutes, she had filled nearly two panels with the proofs of her answer to Professor Rooney’s problem in linear algebra. She paused, put the chalk in the tray, took several steps back, and again stared at the page presenting the problem. She looked up and moved back to the board, picking up the eraser and removing an “equal” sign. Her chalk having filled the open space with the symbol for “equal/more than,” she again stood back and read through the entire proof. Then she returned the chalk to its tray and walked back to the desk and the water.
The examinations actually used by the professors had suggested thirty minutes for each of the problems. Farieh had taken just fifteen for the first one. A person looking at Don Rooney would not know whether Farieh had solved his problem or not; he did nothing, said nothing, and sat expressionless. But Anne Garvin and Alan Kai knew. Farieh had killed it.
Farieh took a long sip from the water bottle before picking up the remaining two problems. Her head scarf did not permit a look at her entire face, but Professor Rooney noticed a slight frown that had settled just above her eyes. Are they green?! he thought to himself. Why had I not noticed that before?! But the frown delighted him.
The second problem, in advanced calculus, was Professor Kai's. Alan Kai would occasionally nod as Farieh worked her way through the proofs. When she had finished and had walked back to the desk, Alan exhaled a quiet “Bravo!”
Anne Garvin was less demonstrative than Professor Kai and soon realized she was watching Farieh almost as stonily as Professor Rooney had watched her. When she asked herself “Why?,” and after she had demanded an answer, she realized she was anxious! She wanted this compelling young woman to win this bet she had made with the three of them, and she was on pins and needles as she watched Farieh move across the front of the chalk board.
Having taken twenty-five minutes to solve Alan Kai's problem, which she had done with hardly a wasted symbol, Farieh had forty-five minutes left for differential equations, Anne’s problem. She was repeating the performance she had delivered for Professor Rooney's problem, her fingers flying across the chalk board, when she suddenly stopped. Professor Garvin sensed this was no planned break during which Farieh might calmly check her work; there must be something wrong.
Farieh stepped farther back, then looked down at the problem she was holding in her left hand. She looked up at the board; she looked down at the problem. As Farieh once again walked back to the desk, Anne knew she had not yet finished; the calm that had accompanied the student’s earlier breaks was absent this time. Farieh seemed to stand at the desk a long time before she surrendered to an unspoken recognition and returned to the board. This time she picked up the eraser. Looking hard at the middle panel of the three she had filled, Farieh removed its entire bottom half! Anne's uneasiness had been building since Farieh first stopped her work. Now, as Farieh deleted first one line of the proof and then the next, Anne almost gasped. There was nothing wrong with the equations that were now disappearing; Farieh’s proof would fail if she did not do something to reverse this. Beyond that, Farieh's time was expiring. Alan had just given the ten-minute warning, and it would take Farieh several more minutes even to replace what she had just removed.
In an interesting role reversal for her parents, it was her mother who had taught Farieh the power of mathematics. Her father introduced her to the art—how making the proofs elegant made them more accessible, and more persuasive. The equations on the central panel, like wayward paragraphs in the draft of a novel, had been in the wrong place. Farieh copied the upper portion of the panel into the space she had just created at the bottom. Then she erased the top, making space for the proofs she had erased to begin with. Anne noticed Farieh was revising them slightly as she drew them onto the clear space at the top of the middle panel. Done!
As Alan Kai sounded the five-minute warning, Farieh stepped back, cocked her head to the side, and looked severely at the board. Satisfied, she relaxed her expression, returned her head to upright, nodded her approval, and placed the chalk in its tray. Lifting the water bottle from the desk as she walked by, she continued to the front row and sat down.
Watching all of this like she had once watched her daughter’s first audition for The Nutcracker, Anne had not immediately understood what Farieh was doing, and she was frightened for her. But as the young woman with the yellow headscarf fit her elegant proofs into just the right places, it was clear Farieh had not merely solved the problem. Her proofs were clean; her organization was flawless; her solution was . . . beautiful. Unbidden, Anne’s hands came up from her lap and applauded.
The envelope found the mailbox at Miller Hall three days later. Signed by Regents Professor Anne W. Garvin, Chair, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, the letter inside informed Farieh she had completed the requirements for a major in mathematics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The short second paragraph continued: “When you have completed the other requirements for an undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas, you will receive a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics.” The third paragraph was still shorter:
“Your degree will be awarded with highest departmental honors—congratulations!”