Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Confessions of a Math Illiterate

This morning I was volunteering in my daughter’s gifted class. The students were given a handout with ten or so tricky math problems on it. Some dealt with deciphering the pattern in an unusual sequence of numbers, letters, or shapes and predicting the next entry. A few involved area estimations for odd shapes. My job was to help the kids out without giving away any answers.

For the most part it went fine, although I have to admit I was thoroughly flummoxed by one of the sequences, which ended up being almost painfully simple: the capital letters written using only straight lines went on top of the line, while those with curves went below. That’s one of those questions that seems like cheating to me, because it’s handwriting, not math! Or more accurately, it’s typography, because you will hard-pressed to find a single capital letter in my handwriting made up of only straight lines.

(Untold episodes of the television show Numb3rs have as yet failed to convince me that everything in the world is simply pretty pictures overlaid upon a skeletal framework of mathematics. Because if that were true, I would be guessing my way through life without showing any of my work. Read on.)

However, one very talented young girl who was all the way to the end of the sheet asked me a question that I could not answer for an equally simple reason: I had no idea what the math-specific terms being used in the question meant. We’re not talking sum and product here, but something edging closer to binomials or some such. I can’t be more specific because the word in question was literally a foreign language to me.

Under the impression that I am more or less competent (a hard-won impression among this group of children), this girl assumed I was just refusing to help her by feigning ignorance. Which left me in that dreaded no-man’s land of an argument with a precocious child: I could pretend to be deliberately unhelpful or admit to being ignorant. I went for honesty. “I don’t know what that means,” I said earnestly.

Her reaction was one of shock. “You’re a grownup. Don’t you need to know this?” The unspoken questions being, “Didn’t you go to college? Don’t you have a job?”

Having taken the first step on the slippery slope and feeling my footing giving way, I went for broke. “Truthfully? I haven’t used any of this stuff in years. Not even in graduate school.”

Her eyes were narrowing. I saw wheels turning behind them and began to hear the angry ringing of parental phone calls in my future. “Now, if you are an engineer, or a scientist, or a computer programmer, or maybe even a doctor . . .” I qualified hastily.

“My daddy is an engineer,” she nodded. The relief I felt washed away the details of her mother’s career. Based on this girl’s mind, mommy is probably a nuclear physicist.

“Well then, if you want to do something like that, then this is very important.” She didn’t seem fully convinced. Still sliding down that slope, I went for the most shameless ploy available in a grade school setting.

“Plus, all your test scores will be part of your permanent record. Where did you say you wanted to go to college?” There are some children under the age of ten who have actually considered where they might want to go college. At that age I wanted to be an officer on the Enterprise or a Rebel X-wing pilot.

“Harvard, maybe. Or Stanford.”

Of course. “Well, those are very selective institutions. Your knowledge of this kind of math lay an important foundation for excelling at the kinds of tests that will get you where you want to go.” She sighed. I saw the folly of my honesty in her eyes, resigned to the necessity of years of boring tests and jargon. “Or you could always skip this problem and work on one that seems more interesting,” I offered.

“Okay.” Her face brightened. “Neat, a graphing problem!” I retreated to the safety of a child using a calculator.

Those of us who aren’t comfortable with math like to make up and then perpetuate all sorts of stereotypes about the people who enjoy equations. They can't or don't read anything complex. Human emotions confuse them. They're physically awkward. Over the years I’ve found that most of these aren’t true. The starting center on my junior high basketball team was math whiz and the only one on the team who could dunk.

Some stereotypes do ring true at the extremes. Those that are true are not exclusive, however. You are just as likely to find a socially dysfunctional fanatic/lover of literature, religion, music, guns, or art who speaks about daily life in a foreign language as you are a number-crunching nerd who does the same. They all just dress differently and register at different degrees of "cool" on the popular culture thermometer. At a certain level it’s all about the obsession with perceiving reality through a particular lens.

What does set the math folks apart is their insistence that their obsession describes the world in empirically concrete terms. (Well, some of the gun fanatics are pretty confident of this as well and more than happy to demonstrate.)

I’m willing to concede the "math explains reality" theory for pretty much anything involving electronics, mechanical parts, or laws of nature that I can actually feel. (Okay, and x-rays and hard radiation as well. I grew up on White Sands Missile Range and everything in the category of "invisible rays that pass right through you" still scares the crap out of me.) When you get to dark matter and alternate quantum universes, the process moves into the self-referential realm of math proving or disproving other math as far as I can tell.

I simply try to muddle through with my mathematical dyslexia, with the full knowledge that in a few years my daughter will be working on math problems I do not understand. This knowledge hangs over my head like a polygonal sword of Damocles. (Oh yes, I went mythological on you—that’s just one of my own conceits. We’ve each got our boulders to roll.)

Until then I enjoy my Sudoku and marvel daily that a calculating machine capable of thinking only in ones and zeros can be such a diabolical pain in my ass.

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