08 January 2007

Go figure

For those of you who read the last post and winced in real pain at my appalling mathematical skills – I said a quarter of 300,000,000 was 250,000, not the correct and much more impressive number of 25 million – I must apologize and admit a real handicap.

First, though, let me say I was humbly delighted when Patrick at Blowing Shit Up With Gas kindly pointed out my boo-boo in the comments. My handy talent for instantly visualizing concepts went into near-overload as I imagined 25 million (!) Christers rising suddenly to heaven buck-naked.

I was grinning like a fool, imagining a sky full of shrieking, mortified Jesus freaks. Thanks, Patrick.

Now, back to that handicap. I am, and always have been, a total loss when it comes to the murky smoke-and-mirrors of numbers. The section of my brain that’s supposed to cogitate algorithms with alacrity is smooth as a baby’s bottom, I’m sure of it. The above flub is a perfect example – and knowing I have this, ah, issue, I used my laptop’s handy-dandy calculator to arrive at the number and still got it wrong.

My Dad was a very successful CPA. He could add and subtract, multiply and divide long lists of numbers in his head and get it right every time. His mastery of algebraic whatever-they-ares was incredible. His disappointment when he realized that his first-born child was completely deficient in this area must have been huge.

I know mine was.

It was in fourth grade that the problem really presented. I lost my way in the math portion of the class very early in the school year, and because I was a shy kid and embarrassed that I couldn’t understand the lessons, I stopped doing the homework. Or rather, I did do some of it, since my poor Dad asked most evenings what kind of homework I had and whether I’d done it. I was, with a few exceptions, an honest child. But rather than turn those papers in and have them come back all covered with humiliating red check marks, indicating that I’d gotten most of the problems wrong (inexplicably, to me), I sat on them. Literally.

Our little desks in the classroom had cubbies under the seats, and that’s where all those laboriously penciled math papers ended up.

This worked amazingly well. My teacher, Mr. M, who was really handsome and so nice and funny, was the first teacher I ever had a crush on. To my relief, he never inquired about all that missing math homework. And while I’m sure I was failing tests all over the place, the results never reached my parents, who thought I was doing famously in school that year.

They were probably relieved, too, since it was my second stab at fourth grade. But that’s another story.

I was doing very well in most other aspects of the fourth-grade curriculum, you see. English and spelling were a breeze – ask me to deconstruct a sentence or write a story and I did it with joy and without any problem at all. Mr. M praised my stories, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Even then, my imagination was bigger than I was.

I was a great reader, too. My comprehension skills were good and I was always checking out books at the library that were far above my grade level. I loved science – photosynthesis in plants and the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies completely intrigued me. History bored me, but I did well, usually acing tests. And, since I could draw almost anything from the moment I was old enough to hold a crayon, I was the best artist in my class.

I doodled all over my math papers. Then I sat on them.

My memory is a little vague about it, but I think it all came to a head at the end of the third quarter, when Mr. M finally noticed I hadn’t turned in most of my math homework – for months! – and my test scores were abysmal. I came home one sunny Friday afternoon to find my Dad home from work early. I was delighted – it was always fun when Dad was home. He was such a great guy. But that day, I wasn’t greeted with smiles and laughter and hugs. It was one serious Daddy sitting at the kitchen table with his Tarryton and coffee cup.

It turned out that Mr. M had called my Mom to tell her there was a little problem. Her daughter hadn’t turned in most of her math homework for the school year to date, her math skills were almost non-existent and if something didn’t happen to fix it, and fast, I’d fail fourth grade. Again. She’d called Dad in a panic and he left the office early. When he got home, she went over to the school to talk with Mr. M and the principal. When she came home, it was with a huge armload of papers. My math papers, which had been smooshed into that cubby under my seat for months. They’d discovered my stash.

I was busted.

Dad, bless his heart, didn’t yell at me. Instead, he asked why I’d done my homework but not turned it in? Why had only done some of it, but not all of it? Why hadn’t I shown him my red-ink-covered tests? He’d have been happy to help me with my math homework, if only he’d known I was having such trouble with it.

I’m afraid my answer was typical of a kid. “I don’t know,” I said, but I meant it. I really didn’t know, then, why I couldn’t own up to the problem. I do now, many, many years later and after much thought about it. I couldn’t articulate my humiliation at not being able to do something that everyone else in my class could do. I didn’t want to disappoint Dad or endure Mom’s cutting criticism, and I wanted Mr. M to like me. I knew, even then, that my inability to comprehend mathematical equations was serious. I was flawed and I knew it.

Dad was one of the kindest and most patient fathers on the face of the Earth. After some discussion, during which he did most of the talking and I sat there, mortified, he told me we were going to spend the entire weekend re-doing the year’s homework. All of it. I was going to do the actual work myself, but he would sit right there at the table with me so he could help me whenever I ran into trouble. I could ask him to explain the problem and he’d explain it. Then he’d check every single paper. And on Monday, I’d turn them all in to Mr. M, who’d be expecting them.

I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, right then and there.

Dad dragged the old maple kitchen table, which had been in storage in the garage, into the living room so we could spread out with my math book and all those papers without messing up Mom’s kitchen and forcing her to serve meals elsewhere. Then we did exactly what Dad said – he and I spent the rest of that day, until fairly late into the evening, doing my math homework. The next day he woke me up early by tickling me, had a bowl of Wheaties with me, and we got back to it, again working past my bedtime. Ditto for Sunday. There was no TV – he even sacrificed his games, which he loved to watch all weekend – and we broke only for the bathroom and meals. A couple of times he let me go outside and run off a little energy, but those were recess-like breaks only. Fifteen minutes, and Dad would call me back inside and to that table.

Somehow, that sweet, patient man compressed three full quarters worth of fourth-grade math into my protesting brain. By Monday morning, I’d redone every single homework paper and he’d checked them all for accuracy – and explained the way to arrive at solutions to the problems again, if I got anything wrong. I turned those papers in to Mr. M, dying inside, and went on to turn in everything expected of me for the final quarter, but only because Dad asked me every night to show him all my homework. There were further instructional evenings. I got a C- in math – my test scores still sucked and I’m sure Mr. M was giving me a break – but I graduated fourth grade this go-round. Whew.

Math never got easier, though. The procedures for computing numbers on paper or in my head just slipped right off that smooth place in my brain, even after all of Dad’s hard work with me. Math continued to be my bugaboo in school. When I reached junior high, my math teacher tutored me after school to get me through his class with a barely passing grade. My freshman year in high school, I was already failing algebra by the end of the first quarter – how can you do algebra when you can’t comprehend decimals or fractions, and even multiplication and division remain mysteries? I was moved into a remedial math class. Managed a C in it and took algebra again as a sophomore. And again, I spent a great deal of time with the teacher after class and after school. The sweet woman passed me with a C+, and I know she was fudging it.

I did better in geometry as a junior. For some reason, I could comprehend math as shapes. Got a B in that class. But man, I had to work at it.

Any math higher than Geometry 1 was beyond me – we all knew it – so that year ended my official struggle with numbers. I’d completed the math requirements for graduation, and man, was I relieved.

I was an art student in junior college and put off taking any math classes until, at the end of the third semester of my second year, I dropped out to go to work. I was sick and tired of school and of being broke. And to be honest, I never went back because I knew, someday, they’d make me take another bonehead math class so I could take the required algebra class. I simply couldn’t face it.

To this day I have to count on my fingers if I have to do multiplication in my head past the 4-timeses. I can do simple division, up to three digits, but I have to work at it, and if it’s more than three digits, I break out the calculator. (The hand-held calculator was the greatest invention ever, bar none, as far as I’m concerned).

And yet I can still, even with a calculator, divide 3 million by 4 and come up with 750,000. I’ll admit the number seemed less, somehow, than it should have been, but I didn’t know why. When I start thinking about numbers, my brain simply goes slow and sluggish, like it’s hip-deep in thick, sticky mud.

Go figure.

The illustration is by Sam Dunlop, learnenglish.org

Update: I'm hopeless. Up there in the first graf, that's supposed to be 75 million, not 250,000 and 25 million. I can't believe I did that.

Well, yes I can.


Neddie said...

Hey< Wren! Could you drop me a line at neddiejingo at aol dot com? I'm trying to send you something, and I'm not sure I have the right email address for you...

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

My wife and daughter are the same way -- very non-mathematical. While I used to find it sort of frustrating (because I USE math so much in everyday life), I see now that my daughter's skills lie elsewhere (namely art), and those skills clearly surpass my own. I used to try to interest her in math, but the subject just doesn't do anything for her. Then, I had the realization that everything will work out much better if I simply encourage her in the things she does love (art, literature, etc.). So, I don't hound her about it.

On a more controversial note, I've long held that kids should be taught to use *calculators* instead of doing manual mathematics problems. However, it's a complex argument that I won't get into here -- maybe a blog post of my own one day.