Is it so terribly, terribly wrong that I am using my child as a kind of Blog Topic Magic Eight Ball? It worked once before – I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write about, I asked him as he left for the day, and he gave me an idea. I know that I can count on him to come up with something that is not depressing, that is absolutely not whatever I had already considered and rejected, and that is, in most cases, not the product of even the faintest husk of a thought. (We call that “whimsical”). Today, he said I should write about “math finals,” and so I will.
You will no doubt be shocked to learn that he has a math final today, or, more accurately, the second part of a two-part episode of a math final. (The exciting conclusion in which Rational Number breaks the bonds imposed by his evil opposite, Pi Face, and saves the fractious hostages). He has been “studying” after a fashion, a process that seems mainly to involve total avoidance until fifteen minutes before bedtime, followed by hysterical pleas for help from his father. No one in their right mind would ask me to help them study for a math final. I am, in that context, not only non-essential parental personnel, but a potentially damaging influence, quarantined in my office until someone needs to know what a “gerund” is. I did raise my stock the other night, when, hearing a discussion about expressing the fact that some-number-or-other in an equation might be more than zero, but was not, necessarily more than zero, I yelled from my office that they needed the “greater to or equal sign.”
They decided that I was right. Never mind that the only reason I remember the existence of the “greater than or equal to” sign is that when I first learned about it, it reminded me very much of the kind of eyes drawn on the figures adorning Egyptian tombs. I used to draw a little dot in the small, closed end (the apex?) of the wedge part of the sign to make them into eyes. Sometimes I got distracted and drew people on the edges of my worksheets, legs and feet impossibly separate and parallel, heads adorned with jeweled bands, eyes expressing the dark mysteries of the greater than or equal to sign.
Back to the math finals. I do not remember having final exams earlier than middle school, at which time they had some kind of hip, 70s name like “Unit Comprehension Review.” I rarely comprehended the unit. I got hopelessly lost some time around fourth grade; I think long division was the last thing I really understood. Well, that isn’t entirely true: I remember bits and pieces of things that I somehow managed to learn. I know my away around a fraction, and I can reduce, find least common denominators, add, subtract, multiply and divide them with great panache. I was actually a very good geometry student, and pretty good at the “story problems” that seemed to plague other people. Comforted, I think, by the inclusion of actual words in a problem, I could get from them the essence of what was called for, and turn it into numbers and signs. Sometimes, coming in from that kind of success, I could even solve it.
Aside from geometry, high school was a wasteland of non-feasance in my arithmetical, or more accurately, algebraic education. My freshman year, an “experimental math program” in Algebra I, a soft-covered, fake-looking textbook, a frustrated teacher, a curriculum so unfamiliar that my father couldn’t help me any more. “You are so smart,” the teacher said to me in the middle of the year, “I don’t understand why you don’t do better work.” My grades heading south for the winter, for the year, forever. The finals looked, like all other quizzes and homework: pages of numbers and symbols and a lot of “x” and “y” stuff. I had vague ideas about what I might do with them, and usually started out optimistic and willing to try (at least the first year) but began to hyperventilate and give up after three or four problems. I dissociated, I looked at the page and squinted until I saw patterns. I tried again, and it wasn’t any better. Eventually, I got to the “what are they going to do to me, anyway?” stage and sat, polite and giving all appearances of being focused, until I could turn the test in and forget about it until the sledgehammer moment when it was returned to me with some terrible grade and a scrawled indictment of my intellect in red marker.
It was no better in Algebra II. It was worse. Sines, cosines, curlicues that looked like fancy earrings, or a new kind of snack food. I was mostly interested in hearing stories from Janie Mancato, who had lost her virginity at lunch one day (at the home of her boyfriend, who lived right near the high school, and had a car) and returned to us most 4th hours thereafter, breathless and flushed with her new experiences. Even if I had been interested in algebra, it could not have competed with that kind of show.
A conversation with my Algebra II teacher:
Me: “Why does anybody need algebra? Do you use it in later life?”
Mr. D: “It is an important part of developing your ability to think logically. You won’t necessarily use algebra, per se, although some people will, but no matter what you do, it will be good for you to have the ability to solve problems in a logical way.”
The finals in that class were even worse. I had no idea what I was looking at, or what I was supposed to do. I am a good test-taker, and a fabulous bluffer, but there was no way to “game” an Algebra II test without so much as inhaling a faint whiff of trigonometry or the thing with the graphs and arrows. In addition to my impressive lack of comprehension, I felt guilty this time; I could not claim that this, like my failure in Algebra I was the fault of The Man who had forced me to fail despite my pathetic attempts to learn something. This was all my fault, my fault for not paying attention in class, my fault for failing to study or do my homework, my fault for failing to avail myself of the help offered from many sources. I failed. Lots. I got a “D,” the worst grade I ever got anywhere. It went on my permanent record. I became “a problem like Maria” (only less charming and unable to sing) for my guidance counselor, trying to reconcile my status as a National Merit semifinalist with That Grade. What college would admit me with that grade? How would it be explained?
He, and everyone else heaved a sigh of relief when I announced my plans to go into music, where no one cared about a “D” in Algebra II. There was never another math class; although it might have been amusing to see what I came up with in Calculus, no one suggested that I try it. There was no math at the Conservatory, and when, later, I transferred to a fine liberal arts school, my advisor gently advised me not to take any math classes, because “it didn’t seem to go too well for you in high school.”
Here’s the thing, though. If I had it to do over, I could do it, and do it well. I have a brain that seems to be evenly split between the logical part that makes sounds and persuasive legal arguments, and the creative part that wants to play with words, and colors, and take a nap, maybe, and see if my face changes if I stare at the mirror for a really long time. That logical part does not amuse me nearly as much as the other part, and if I had to have some kind of Sybilectomy I would definitely tell the neurosurgeon to cut all the strings that make the logical thing happen. For now, though, it is a part of me, and it works, and it didn’t die no matter how hard I tried to kill it in high school. I am not Jack Kerouac. I am a person who can figure out how many boxes of spaghetti we need for the spaghetti supper, subtract the number of parents who will blow of the request, and divide up their contribution evenly among the parents who will actually help.
I call that algebra.