Monday, July 09, 2007

Mathematics

January 1968
Little bitty town, South Texas

We had moved to a different town in the middle of the school year and it was the first day of class in my new school. A math test was in front of me and I didn't know any of the answers.
Nine times seven?
No fair!!!
I had only learned up to the "sixes" at my previous school. Why didn't the math test have any questions like six times four? Who could answer a thing like nine times seven for crying out loud?
All the kids around me were busily writing answers to these questions. They were factoring their little nine-year-old brains out.
I just sat there, feeling my face getting hot and my heart pounding. I think I peed in my pants a little.

I had been placed in the "advanced" class because:

1) I was white.

In 1968 in south Texas, the small-town schools were certainly integrated but only on the surface. Every grade in my home town had about 60 kids each so they supposedly placed the smart kids in one class and the not-so-smart kids in another. Therefore, each class was made up of
1) White kids
2) Latino and black kids.

It was their way of keeping segregation alive and well.

In a couple of days I was placed in the math class with the "not-so-smart" kids with Mrs. Pullin who was also my Sunday school teacher at the Baptist church. I knew there was a racial thing going on and it made me upset. The next year, I was up to speed with the math thing but the same segregation thing was going on.

Are you ready for this? I wrote a letter to the newly-elected President Nixon telling him that he should do something about racial inequality.
I also asked that he mention my name on TV.
He didn't do either, and look where that got him.

Anyway, that experience in third grade left its mark. I never did feel like I was worthy of being good at math.

Then came high school algebra and the dreaded train question:
"A train leaves a station at 1:00 pm traveling at 50 miles per hour. Another train leaves the same station at 1:30 traveling seventy miles per hour. How many miles away will the second train overtake the first?"

Good lord! I was just hoping they were on separate tracks. That's all I cared about. I liked trains but hated the train question.

The "nuts" question was the worst:
"Cashews cost $5.79 per pound. Walnuts cost $6.88 per pound. Pecans cost $7.98 per pound. How many pounds of each will it take to result in a mixture costing $6.75 per pound?"

I can't figure that out!!!

That's stupid. Just buy the nuts you want. And charge it on your Visa.

Then came quadratic equations. I kind of liked them because your answers made arcs that looked like hills on a roller coaster. That was kind of cool, but an awful lot of thinking was required that I wasn't very good at.

Many years later in graduate school, I studied philosophy and learned to appreciate mathematics. No matter what exists, mathematics will always exist and remain unchanged. Existentialism and phenomenology all combined in the fact that 9 x 7 = 63, whether any of us exist or not.

9 x 7 = 63, kiddo. Even if there is no god.
If only I had known that in January of 1968.
I could have blown Mrs. Pullin's mind away.


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4 Comments:

At 8:45 PM , Blogger gina said...

I love math, especially algebra, but I think buying the nuts you like and putting them on your VISA is the very best answer. Ever.

Great post, Jon. So well written. Lorraine is right. You are amazing. Why haven't I been reading this blog all along? What must have I been thinking?!?!?!

 
At 11:04 PM , Blogger Red7Eric said...

I was an "English kid" as opposed to a "Math kid." In English class, each question has hundreds of valid answers. In math, there was only one valid answer. It seemed horribly limited and lacking in imagination.

Now, I see the elegance and beauty of math ... but I still wouldn't want to take a test in it.

 
At 10:17 AM , Blogger Jon said...

Thanks gina! (head is swelling -- ow!)

Eric: "elegance and beauty of math" -- how true. What a great way to put it. I don't want to take a math test either though.

 
At 10:21 AM , Blogger gina said...

Jon, your head should be swelling! :) And Eric - I was/am both - a math AND English kid. Talk about confused. Maybe that's why I'm such a multi-tasker (note I did not say "good multi-tasker") - I was constantly switching between "one answer only" and "hundreds of valid answers" (except when it comes to spelling and grammar) throughout high school.

 

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