My Sputnik Moment

A Sputnik moment is a point in time when people realize that they are threatened or challenged and have to redouble their efforts to catch up. I know this because I participated in the original Sputnik moment. I’m still not caught up.

What happened? Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to circle the earth, shot into orbit in October, 1957. Nikita Kruschev, the Russian premier, called up President Eisenhower and said, “My sputnik goes 18,000 mph. Is that faster or slower than American satellites?…Oh, I forgot. You don’t have one!”

President Eisenhower bluffed, “I just checked with my people in New Mexico, and guess what? We have a STEALTH satellite that goes 20,000 mph. Track it if you can!”       Actually, all we had was an Anxiety Level, and it shot sky high in Washington, D.C. as politicians tried to decide how the U.S. might catch up with the Soviets in the race for space.

Actually, President Eisenhower would really have been worried had he known that Kruschev was calling him on a shoe phone! Many historians remember that Kruschev banged his shoe on a table during a plenary meeting of the United nations General Assembly in New York City on Oct. 12, 1960.

But Keds historians, the sneaker division, soon discovered that Kruschev’s wife had called just before this incident wanting him to pick up some food on the way home. Anything would do. Russian grocery stores were totally out of anything to eat. Russia had Sputnik but no spuds. He took the call on his shoe at the meeting, but no sooner did he recognize her accent than the shoestring went dead. Like any guy, he thought he might fix it by banging it a few times on the table. And as historians know, America didn’t even have a shoe phone technology until Agent Maxwell Smart was issued the first one in 1965. Russia was way ahead.

But enough about Kruschev. In 1958, the year after the flight of Sputnik 1, Congress passed both the National Aeronautics & Space Act, which created NASA, and the National Defense Education Act, which drafted 8th graders like me to take Algebra 1 beginning in 1959. The race for space would be won by an increased number of teenagers solving for x, y, and z. Who would have thought it?

Apart from M.I.T. Preparatory School and the prestigious Slide Rule Academy, this was the first time 8th graders in America had taken algebra. Traditionally, Algebra 1 was a 9th grade course.  I took my Algebra 1 draft notice to the principal’s office and claimed the Selective Service System classification 4-F.

Four-f meant that pregnant teenagers, juvenile delinquents, and cafeteria workers with dirty hairnets could be drafted before me. I was not acceptable for service because I did not meet established criteria for mental health. Namely, I’d go bonkers if I had to take Algebra 1.

The principal paid me no attention, and sure enough, 1959 was the year I developed a severe case of math bonkers, of which there were three symptoms.

The first symptom of math bonkers was the feeling that I wasn’t cut out for higher math. All I had to do was look at several guys in my class, and I felt out of place.  They pulled up their pants around their chest, wearing both a belt and a pair of suspenders. They rode Mod-Peds and carried slide rules in two-piece pool cue cases.  I called them Snerds because they reminded me of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy, Mortimer Snerd. A few years later this would be abbreviated to “nerd”.

The second symptom of math bonkers was the feeling that I had been trapped in a communist conspiracy. My friends and I rebelled in class, “Algebrazation without representation!”  We tried to escape Algebra 1 and go back to 8th grade general math, but our teacher was as cagey as a K.G.B. agent. Our despair was so great that we sent each other notes saying, “2b or not 2b. That is the question.” Actually, 2b turned out to be the answer to problem number 27.

The third symptom of math bonkers was the feeling that algebra cannot be mastered by anyone who spends most of his free time reading Mad Magazine.

But all the problem solving did make me a bit more imaginative than I had been. Take, for ex., the binomial theorem. It supposedly yields the answer to an equation by plugging numerical coefficients into the relationship, “Minus b, plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4ac, all of this over 2a.” I suspected then and still do today that this is some kind of a decoder into which communist spies plug secret messages from Moscow. In go the numbers and out comes cryptic messages like, “What, me worry?”

But actually I did sorry. My classmates and I didn’t know what the Russians would do if they won the race for space. We envisioned them bonking us on the head with shotputs, cherry bombs, water balloons, and overdue library books thrown from the next generation of Sputniks. Or they could shoot at us with zip-guns. Our parents would get cricks in their necks from looking skyward in the hopes of avoiding disaster as they raced from the house to get in the car in the driveway to drive to work. The cricks would get so bad that they no longer could hold jobs, couldn’t feed and clothe us. The Russians were aiming at no less than an American economic downturn!

Nowadays, I have mixed emotions about my original Sputnik moment. On the one hand, solving math equations evidently saved the day, and I did my part.  America won the race for space in 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, his first words being, “Minus b, plus or minus the square root of…” He, of course, topped it off with something about a step and a leap for mankind.

On the other hand, I missed out on hours of  goof-off time. I could have texted, tweeted, or played video games had these devices been invented. For sure I could have read many more insightful articles from Mad Magazine and gone to more double-features and wasted more of my money at the Dairy Queen. I could have spent more time dragging Main Street.

Instead, what did I do in junior and senior high? Algebra 1 & 2, and then plane geometry, trig, solid geometry, and pre-calculus homework. All my math teachers admitted later that they responded to the Sputnik Moment by giving way more homework than they ever gave after the moment passed. Every school year I spent more time working math homework than I spent studying for all my other courses combined. My Sputnik moment turned into Sputnik hours and hours and hours. And as hard as I work, I still haven’t been able to catch up on all the goof-off time so essential to growing adolescents. It’s making me go bonkers.



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