frames of reference

From the base of the lecture hall looking up, you can see all the faces, whether they’re looking confused, tired, asleep, intrigued, upset, or simply concentrating on texting. It’s surprising what’s revealed from the sloped seating of an auditorium, and during the course of a semester.

During the quiz this morning I looked up to consider them all. One student, five rows up, six chairs in from the right, has been in and out of town to travel with the tennis team, most recently to a tournament in Las Vegas. On the opposite side of the room, another is trying to negotiate his lab schedule with his dental school interview schedule. In between is a student who just became a new father, dragging himself into class with chains of fatigue and parenthood slowing his pace as he comes through the door, late. (“Late” is pretty typical, it being most of the way through the semester for a 7AM class.)

Upper row and to my left, my favorite student in the class (I’ll admit I have favorites) is a teaching major who just dropped her kids off at daycare. She starts her day here and stays until the end of my class that finishes at 7:30 PM on Wednesdays, so I don’t complain about my own schedule since she has the same itinerary. She told me, confidentially, that she’s having a harder time lately because she doesn’t get much support at home from her spouse. She flushed a little as she told me this. She’s the teacher I want my own kids to have when they’re in 9th grade.

Middle row, towards the center, always early for class and aided by a large styrofoam cup of McDonald’s coffee is a woman in Air Force fatigues. The uniform looks too big for her in too many ways. She had a perfect score on the exam I handed back this week. In a sweet voice — like powdered sugar, not syrup — she calls me “sir,” which I think is funny. She was born probably about the same time I was graduating from college, so maybe it’s not so funny.

The whole group was hunched over quizzes today, solving for the amount of time a muon exists in its own frame of reference and how much longer the ground based observer measures its existence to be as the muon streaks out of the upper atmosphere and to the earth. It’s a pointless, irrelevant problem to almost everyone in the room, perhaps, except for me. It’s a ridiculous, uncommon, unnatural phenomenon. But then, there I was, looking up at the lecture hall from my own frame of reference, imagining so little time passing for an event that they all call their entire lifetime. From my reference frame, muons aren’t so strange after all.


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