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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Math Whiz

One of the biggest lies you are fed as a child is: “It may not be important now, but you’ll need math skills in order to get a job when you grow up.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, unless you’re applying for a job: a) at NASA; b) as a math teacher.

All you need to know about math is how to use a pocket calculator. And that doesn’t take years and years of study. It takes, if we’re talking about me, which we are, just nine months. Even then, to this day I don’t know how to use the Memory button. And 90% of the time, after I enter a column of numbers, I’ll press the Equal button, only to realize that I forgot to turn the machine on. It’s a good thing they’re all solar powered now. That whole battery thing perplexes me.

I never liked math and was never really good at it. Here’s a direct quote from my first grade report card: “I am pleased with Bill’s ability to work with numbers. He forms them correctly and he has a good understanding of their values to nine.” Yeah, but get me into those tough two-digit numbers, and I’m as lost as Pat Robertson in a gay bar.

Nevertheless, without any say-so from me, I got put on the math fast track beginning in eighth grade. They threw me in an Algebra I class, and I had a good teacher, Miss Eason. Everything went okay. I got it, for the most part. I could solve for X. I understood that if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

Then I got into Geometry. Plane Geometry. Back in those days there was no Peanut Geometry, as I assume there is today. No one ever told me how dangerous it was before I got in there. I received no warning of the migraines that deductive reasoning could trigger. I was never given safety training on the risk involved with cleaning your ears with the sharp end of a protractor. I just thought it was math with triangles. Furthermore, I was dismayed when I learned that Plane Geometry had nothing to do with propeller-driven flying machines.

It got complicated very quickly, and in no time I was lost when presented with something like this:

If M is the midpoint of AB, prove that AM = ½ AB, and MB = ½ AB.

Wiley’s Theorem of Geometry was: If a book tells you to prove it, that means it it’s provable, so why spend time bothering with it? The correct answer was always: just because. Wiley’s Sub-theorem of Geometry was: I wish someone would invent the Internet already, so I can order the teacher’s textbook with the answers in the back.

Our class was way overcrowded with a student-teacher ratio of about 60:1, whatever that means. All I knew was that in the first report period of Geometry, I was dangerously close to getting a Scholarship Warning. I don’t know if they still exist today, but back then, nothing labeled you as a loser more than going home with a Scholarship Warning. It was basically just a note sent home to your parents that said, “Your child is a loser.” They had to agree, sign it and send it back. Actually it just a form letter to notify the parents that you were getting close to flunking a class. I had a D average in Geometry, but I ended up getting a C for that report period. I think at the time the solution to overcrowding was, “give them a letter grade higher than they earn.” I don’t know what they did with people who earned an A. That was something I seldom had to worry about.

Once I realized that I could get a C with a D average, I relaxed and saw the class as my hour each day to join others in laughing at the thick southern drawl of our geometry teacher. “All rat,” she say, “cumda ohdah.” My friend Hank and I used to literally laugh at every sentence she spoke. Every time she spoke of the Hinge Theorem (which she called the “heeeenge throm”), our lunch milk from earlier in the day would shoot out of our noses.

Like many pubescents, I like to refer to the first year and a half of high school as my Dark Ages. Probably one of the scores of contributing factors was Algebra II. All I remember about it was that I passed. I was too busy during the day pining away for a straight boy and at night taking expensive, psychologically damaging courses in Transactional Analysis.

By the time I reached my junior year, my Algebra I class teacher from junior high had transferred to my high school and was now teaching Algebra III, which was a six-month class. I enrolled because all my friends did, too. And they enrolled mainly because Miss Eason had enormous breasts and wore tight, sleeveless shirts. In the middle of the semester, she sensed that something was wrong with me and phoned my mother to tell her that she thought I might be depressed. Although I appreciated her heightened awareness, what is more depressing than having your math teacher call your mother? Pondering that now, I guess it would be a worse scenario if your home economics teacher did the same thing. Bill is not weaving potholders with his usual enthusiasm.

I used that phone conversation to convince my mother to get me off the fast math track. Instead of telling her I had managed to convince myself I was the only homosexual on planet Earth and was doomed to the life of a Tennessee Williams character, I told her that math was killing me. All you needed to graduate was Algebra II, and that was already under my belt. I finished Algebra III but never took another math class. Most of my friends went on and took Trigonometry and Calculus and wore on their belts trig calculators that cost two hundred, 1974 dollars. I think that at the time they were called waist-side computers.

Math wasn’t completely unworthy of my time. I learned some valuable lessons that contributed significantly to my life, not necessarily in a good way:

  • Don’t waste your time signing up for anything that’s not mandatory; otherwise you’ll never make your dream of becoming a slacker come to fruition.
  • Realize that you’ll only use geometry if you want to be a handyman. Even then, you can bypass it altogether if you apprentice with someone who knows how to miter.
  • Trig and Calculus are necessary only if you want to wear taped up glasses and crash a billion dollar piece of equipment into the moon to see if ice comes out.
  • Obsessing over straight men can make your life much easier.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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