Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Math

The first time I heard Queen's classic, "Bohemian Rhapsody," I felt like I had found a kindred spirit - mostly because I misheard the one of the lyrics.  Where Queen sings, "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me," I was thrilled when I thought they were belting out, "Algebra is a devil put aside for me."


Math is nowhere to be found in my myriad of talents.  I can play musical instruments and sing.  I can draw better than many art students and have had my photographs hung in exhibits.  In school I'd try out for a sport that I'd never played before and star in it. The list goes on and on.  But mathematics?  To me, math is like a virulent alien virus that I fight off every time it tries to invade my brain.

In my world, quantum theory literally make perfect sense but numbers are a complete mystery to me.

It starts with basic addition.  Let's take 9 + 6.  I know that it's 15 simply because I've memorized it in much the same way someone might memorize the rhyme, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailor's take warning," as a way of predicting the coming weather.  Beyond that, even 9 + 6 fails to make any sense.  Nine what plus six what?  If you put six gazelles in a pen with nine lions, you will not end up with fifteen animals no matter what the math says.  Nine cookies plus six more cookies?  That's a lot of cookies and someone should eat them before they go stale.

I've heard all of the arguments.  "Jeffrey, you need math.  What if you're building a fence?  How will you know how much wood you need for the project?"  My response is always the same: when, in the entire history of home improvement projects, have you ever used exactly the amount of materials you decided you'd need?  NEVER!  There's always a trip back to the store or you have stuff left over.  Besides, your yard isn't flat and you're going to have to skooch things a bit to get around that tree.

Up until fourth grade I had received A's in every subject.  Our teacher, a wonderful saint of a man named Mr. Scott, would call us up to the front of the classroom in turn to point out our grades in his book.  There, staring up at me from his grade book, was my first B.  Math.  I started crying, so visibly shaken that he took me out into the hallway and asked me if my parents beat me when I didn't bring home straight A's.  I didn't know how to explain it to him, but there, written with a vertical line and two connecting curves, was proof that there was a world beyond our own filled with creatures that shouldn't walk in the light of day.  The number one makes sense to me.  So do two and three.  Beyond that is a few.  Then several. Then a lot.  Then more than you really need to worry about.  When someone can look at a herd of buffalo, scribble on a piece of paper, and tell me that there are approximately 317 animals in the herd, my first instinct is to douse them in holy water.  It's simply not natural!

My high school algebra teacher actually gave up on me.  I'd meet with him every day after school until he finally refused to tutor me anymore.  We'd work equation after equation and he'd guide my work, watching in dismay as the train was consistently derailed on track after track.  "I don't know why you're not getting this - and I have no idea what you're doing here," he told me as he looked at my work.  We were simplifying equations.  "You actually have the answer here," he would say as he gestured to the mid-point of my work, "and then you kept going.  I don't know how or why."  I remember him looking at me with dismay, a hint of anger behind his eyes as he encountered something in his own classroom that he didn't understand.  "Seriously," he told me in complete honesty. "I have no idea how you got this answer.  What are you trying to do."

I'd look back at him, equally frustrated, and reply, "I'm making it more simple than the answer you think is right."

Upon graduation, I joined the United States Army and absolutely aced my entrance exams, finishing in the top 4% of the country.  What was truly frightening is that I received the maximum score possible on the mathematics portion of the exam.  After adjusting my answers in ways I don't understand (it's math after all), I scored 110% of the possible total.  (See?  How do you get more than the maximum possible score?)  My ideal job, as determined by the Federal Government of the United States of America, was to calculate artillery trajectories on the fly so we could launch high explosive shells the size of Volkswagens where my math told them we should aim.

I wisely decided to be an Airborne Ranger and jump out of planes instead.


  1. Einstein flunked math. He was too advanced for what the class was learning and his teacher didn't recognize it. I bet you got a kick out of Jurassic Park and the assurances that the dinosaurs couldn't reproduce.
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

  2. Basic math was a blast for me, but when they began tossing in letters, shapes, equations, theories, and graphs, it got to be too much.

    Glad to see I'm not the only Jeffrey with an aversion to mathematics!

  3. I, too, have an aversion to algebra. I did will in my math classes until algebra came up. I can add, subtract, divide, and multiply very well (at times quicker in my head than with a calculator), but give me equations with numbers and letters and I am totally lost. I just don't get algebra. The worst part, I have two algebra classes coming up in my next two terms and can see my GPA dropping!! ARRGGGHHHH!!!! It's nice to find kindred spirits where algebra is concerned.

  4. Jeffrey: Super cool names... similar approaches to math... I've found a Blog Brother! :)

    Raven: I feel your pain. I'll see what I can do about sending some holy water your way...

    Nancy: Albert Einstein and I share a birthday, so I'm going to totally go with your answer! LOL I enjoyed Jurassic Park (mostly for the special effects) but, like most movies, I read the book first so I knew what was going to happen.

  5. I love math but I tend to make huge leaps of logic (or un-logic) to come up with the answer. I always had to struggle to get a good grade. I think that is why I love quantum theory as well, it makes sense to me.

  6. I giggled - a lot - at this - so lovely to read a really humorous post about a subject that literally gave me nightmares for all of my school days. I remember being asked to calculate the average of my 2 maths paper scores (17% in each) and assuring the teacher that it was 36, or possibly 52 ...)
    You've helped me mock my demons :-)
    Thanks for great entertainment!
    All best

  7. HA! Sounds like a wise decision not to rely on your math skills to calculate the trajectory of those missiles. One of my sons was also special forces, and he loved jumping out of perfectly good airplanes and helicopters. Go figure. he sure didn't get that from either of his parents!

  8. I had a math tutor in school that was constantly amazed that I ever got an answer right. I did things in such a backwards way that he never knew how I got from point a to point b, but I did (sometimes). lol

  9. It almost seems like you have an innate understanding of math, but can't figure it the way they expect you to. Math completely eluded me in high school, yet when I went to college I aced it. I have no idea what clicked where, but something happened. I failed my only test in pre-calculus in high school. My senior year. Ouch.

    Good luck with the rest of the A to Z Challenge!

  10. I, too, have an aversion to algebra. I loved geometry, and cruised through it with no problem or challenge at all (and nearly caused my teacher to have a stroke when we briefly thought I'd figured out how to trisect an angle...), but algebra, and it's bully big brother, trigonometry, didn't make a lot of sense to me. I have no problems at all with arithmetic, even complex arithmetic, but algebra, trig, precalculus... I often found myself wondering, "Why am I doing this? When will I ever use this crap?"

    I felt the same way about physics, but that's a different rant.

  11. Thanks, everyone! I am way behind at the moment (Saturday's are monstrously busy in my world). Replies to comments on Saturdays (yes, I realize this was a Friday post) are going to be very hit and miss as I'm getting my next novel ready to publish on May 13th. Many apologies and much love to you all! Mondays aren't nearly so crazy on this end of the modem! :)