Thursday, May 21, 2009

Math, YUK!

Yesterday I had an email exchange with my sister Ruth about her daughter’s geometry final today, and then a conversation with a colleague this morning about algebra and trignometry. Both were a reminder of how helpless I am when it comes to these subjects.

I can still recall the total confusion I experienced as a freshman in high school algebra class. (Well, it’s not that difficult to recall because I’m just as confused today). Here I am in this class, having done okay with basic math, and all of a sudden the teacher is writing a bunch of letters on the board with plus signs and minus signs and multiplication signs and division signs in between. We’re adding letters! Well, at least my classmates are. I never actually did. It was the weirdest thing sitting there in class and, I swear, the teacher wrote a bunch of letters on the board and asked, “What’s the answer?” and someone called out a number, and guess what, THEY WERE RIGHT. How’d they get that?

It was the same thing the following year with the same teacher in geometry. The only thing that saved me in that class is that the teacher gave the test in 2 parts. One day we’d have to write out the theorems. I had a good memory so I would ace that part of the test. The next day we’d have the second part of the test, putting those theorems to work in equations. He’d ask us to “prove” a variety of shapes: triangles, rectangles, etc. And I’d be thinking, “What do you mean, prove? What is there to prove? SOMEBODY DREW THAT SHAPE ON THE PAPER, IT’S AS PLAIN AS DAY. WHY DO I NEED TO PROVE IT?

My teacher was one of those who was such a natural at math that he couldn’t explain it to kids like me who didn’t get it. He could never “get” why we didn’t “get it,” so the explanations he offered missed the point entirely. “I’m still back in last year’s Algebra trying to figure out how you added letters. I’m not ready for this geometry stuff.”

When I was in grad school I had to take the dreaded Statistics course, which I actually passed with an A, for no apparent reason. Once we were working on an equation in class and I was having trouble figuring it out. Daniel, who was the youngest in the class (I was one of the older ones in the class) said, “Chuck, it’s just your basic Algebra.” I did some quick math and replied, “Daniel, the last time I had Algebra was the year you were born, and I didn’t get it then, either.” Of course, I was also the kid who never understood what they were teaching in science about the atom until Venus Flytrap explained it on an episode of WKRP in Cinncinnati.

Who was it who said, “as long as there are math tests there will be prayer in public schools”? I am sure Kirsten was praying today, and I hope her geometry final gets a good grade.

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