Some stories about math

This post originally appeared at Peachleaves.

I. I used to say that I was no good at math. I said this partly because sometimes  I made Bs in math classes as opposed to As in every other subject.  I also said it because it was easy to say. Everybody I knew (with one or two exceptions) felt terrible at math. Everyone disliked it.  No one at my school really valued being good at it.  One of my classmates, a friend through theater, made a low test score in our pre-calculus class and felt frustrated and sad about it. I passed her a note with a rather lengthy diatribe about “math people” versus “creative people:” she was of the latter tribe, I said; she was talented in expression and language, so she didn’t need to feel badly about math. I meant the note to be comforting. I did not mean for it to be picked up by our pre-cal teacher, but alas, I had written it on the back of an assignment to be turned in.  Our teacher that year was a kind, quiet man who played in a band, wrote funny word problems to engage us, and allowed us to paint his fingernails as long as we chose a very sheer color. When our graded assignments were returned to us, I saw that he had written a note underneath my anti-math rant, gently refuting my claim that math and creativity were exclusive abilities.  I felt appropriately abashed. I could see that he was right: he was both mathematically and creatively inclined, and truthfully I could be too. It was just easier to believe otherwise.

II. After I graduated college, I taught ACT prep in the evenings at the most expensive private school in New Orleans. Test prep–and arguably, standardized tests themselves–run on a different kind of math than the trigonometry and calculus supposedly evaluated by tricky questions. With a script in hand, test prep instructors taught students a practical math of probability, elimination, quick visual shorthand, and mneumonics. I loved it. I loved teaching it and practicing it: prepping my lessons the night before in my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, I felt the same kind of pleasant puzzle-solving stimulation that I get from working out logic problems. (I admit, I buy these colorful little books and do a few puzzles before bed on restless nights.)  We were encouraged by the test prep company to convince students that they were outmarting the test with our shortcuts and memory tricks.  I suppose that was easier for the kids to buy than the truth–in real life, most puzzles have more than one solution.  Or the other truth: that our grasping brains love to tinker and delight in puzzles, and so the fun of these classes wasn’t just the trickster’s pleasure of cheating.  When I took the GRE six months later, I scored the same on math as I did on verbal: very high.

III. Things I have used algebra and geometry for in my publishing job:

Selecting and arranging book exhibit decor sight unseen (i.e. by measurements and grids)
Designing print ads (placement is not determined merely by where it looks right!)
Budgeting. Everyone in my department must plan and manage her own budget. Just like real life!
Producing reports of our spending versus the benefits of the spending, sometimes even with speculation about different results from different kinds of spending. Why are we doing this ourselves? Tiny, understaffed nonprofit funded in part by trustees who want to know what we’re doing with their money, that’s why!
Excel, for everything. I could not function without Excel. Yes, Excel does your math for you–but you need to understand what you’re asking it to do first.

IV. When you read to the end of that NY Times article everyone was talking about today, the author is not calling for the end of all algebra classes–more for a fundamental change in educational objectives and teaching strategies for math, such as including more history and philosophy of math, or having more practical applications.  I can get behind that. But it’s misleading to put this entirely reasonable suggestion behind a lede implying that algebra itself is somehow the problem.  Really, that just plays into the same narratives that fed into my own poor math esteem: that math is not fun, that math is purely abstract and highly theoretical, that higher math is not used if you are not using higher math formulae with letters and mysterious symbols. Which is nonsense. Math refines logic. Math gets shit done. I wish I were better at it, in fact, so that my problem-solving and my budget-keeping were smarter and sharper. But then, if I hadn’t wasted so much time telling myself that I was terrible at it or that creative people had no use for it. . .