We sat there. Frozen. Bug-eyed. From the faint odor that began to fill the room, you could tell that someone had soiled themselves from fright (which had him a leg-up on the rest of us who wanted to be astronauts).
Our trigonometry teacher actually had the nerve to “be real” with us. How dare she. How dare she not tell us how gifted we were. I didn’t learn a stitch of trigonometry that whole year in a lame attempt at a silent protest. Ugghhh, what a horror that teacher was…with more chins than common sense and a druthers for accusing me of cheating. I wouldn’t put it past her to rip up Helen Keller’s exam if her super-sleuth mentality detected Helen’s wandering eye.
She made me hate math.
But hey…it wasn’t always that way.
I maintain that I had the absolute best junior high math teacher ever. He was a short, slight man with tinted glasses and a receding hairline. Of course, he was bit of a nerd who always entered the room with a big smile and a nasal, “Hey Gang!” We were one of the top math teams in the state, and back then, math was part repetition, part teamwork, and part magic.
“Take a pencil from the jar, but be careful with your choice. These are magic pencils. They’ve been used by decades of junior high math teams before you. The short ones have been around for a while, so they know all the answers. They’re just waiting for your guidance to let all that knowledge out.”
Of course it was corny. It was corny in the same way that he made us check our “biorhythms” before competitions (a computer program that told us where our physical, emotional, and intellectual peaks would be given a particular date). But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best time.
I would complete 18 years of schooling before I recognized a sad fact: Teachers rarely inspire like he did. Like the time when he stopped the lecture…reached for his wallet and counted out $200.
“I want to have a school-wide hot dog day. Make all the arrangements of where, when, and how…and if you succeed…we’ll use the profits to buy pizza. I’m not going to help.”
But then…somewhere along the line…I started to hate math.
And let me tell you something… For someone who loves economics and wanted to make a life out of it…math is a terrible thing to hate. Robert H. Frank describes the insane level of mathematical formalization in economics as “too high for the same reason that people tend to raise their voices at cocktail parties.” It’s true. It’s an arms race. My inability to step-up my level of abstract mathematical thinking just about weeded me right out the graduate school door. I was a base 8 girl living in a base 10 world.
Which brings us to the present-day…
A woman I know is taking a pre-calculus class. Word got around to her that Kerry “knows math.” After talking to her, I know that she has all of that same math anxiety and hatred that I’ve seen in myself so many times. Ever wonder why math is always a requirement and rarely an elective?
Ice skating is an elective.
Differential Equations? Not so much.
“Kerry, I’m having trouble with this problem.”
“Hmmmm, let’s see. A decaying exponential function!? What fun! Let me grab my magic pencil and we’ll be on our way.”
After helping her work through the problem set (which was quite a bit of fun, I must admit)…I thought of my relationship with math. And you know what? I’ve made my peace with math. We’ve had a long history, and despite my hatred of it…I’m pretty decent at it. For me, math is like an old boyfriend who you see out every now and again…and who you’re perfectly cordial to, but shudder at the thought of ever deeply committing to again.
And we’re cool like that.
I’m sorry, but I’ve fallen in love with another. His name is Seth. It’s not me…it’s definitely you. I hope we can still be friends even though I’m not an astronaut.
Love and Lemmas,