Thursday, October 25, 2007

Higher Concepts of Math and Me

“Why do I have to learn these things?”the familiar lament uttered by my daughter resonated with my own grade school experience.

“No one has ever asked me to recite the opening to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales either but I had to learn it."

My daughter gave me a look.

"Okay, I haven’t had to use the quadratic equation in my adult life…yet.” I admitted.

“Will I ever need this?”

“You never know, there might be some math mugger out there who will tell you give me all your money or explain the transitive property. If a=b and b=c then a=c.”


“Okay, let me think and try this again.”

Higher math skills have never been my strong suit. In college, I got through the required core calculus class on a good calculator, prayer and several all nighters of cramming formulas into my liberal arts based brain.

When my oldest first needed assistance in seventh grade, I cagily suggested he teach the material to me, as that would indicate how much of the stuff he really knew.

After considering the possibility for all of ten seconds, he went upstairs to his room to study.

Using a similar approach with subsequent children, I had managed to avoid solving for “X” since my own eleventh grade. It’s not that I was a poor student. I always did the homework; I never skipped class. I even liked my teacher. I always thought knew the stuff. Then the test would come, and somehow, all the theorems in my brain became more secret and less accessible than Coca-cola’s formula.

I think the whole problem with math for me started back in eighth grade with an unsolvable math problem.

“If a train travels east at sixty miles an hour…and a man travels west by foot at six miles an hour and they pass in six seconds, how long is the train?”

I got it wrong.

The teacher explained the formula and drew out the solution on the black board. I wrote it down. Then I tried doing the problem again.

I got it wrong.

I restudied the formula and tried a third time on a clean sheet of paper.


I brought it home to my mom and dad.


Thus far I had plugged in the facts over six times and arrived at six separate incorrect answers. Having the problem, the solution, the formula and still being unable to find the one correct answer from the endless infinity of wrong ones, I mollified my adolescent ego. It was justified if I wasn’t able to beat the odds.

Since then, I’ve studiously avoided higher math skills the way Willie Nelson avoids taxes. I have not missed them. They have not missed me. It has been a good arrangement. In college, I was thrilled when I could abandon math all together in favor of being an English Major. Oddly enough, the first eighteen lines of Chaucer's prologue still stick with me in ways math theorems never could.

Last week, I pulled my time tested stunt on my daughter when she asked for help in studying for a test. However, as my algebra teacher taught me, I shouldn’t compare apples to oranges. She took me up on my offer. They were studying formulas like distance equals rate times time.

“Now Mommy. If a train is traveling at sixty miles going East and a man is traveling…”

I’m still getting it wrong. I may have to go find the math mugger and demand, "Explain the theorem of d=rt so I can get it right or I'll make you recite Canterbury Tales in Middle English. "Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote..."


Unknown said...

I'm relearning Physics (x2) this year. Junior daughter is taking Calculus but just now getting to taking limits, Freshman son is just doing Algebra 2. "Let's see, I could solve this in 5 seconds with Laplace Transforms but what's the rigorous method?

Unknown said...

Well,you just need to start at the beginning of the Math Book. That way I can see what it is that you don't understand...and I will draw a big black curtain over the rest of the story.
This is hilarious! A Texas Fan.

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