emergency weblog; or: epersonae; or: elaine nelson

in which I write about stuff

The math part of my brain

My life with math and what (I think) it means now.

Categories: General, Professional

I read Ben Henick’s most recent post, and got to the paragraph below and was stopped dead in my tracks by this sentence:

“The numbers and symbols are just an orthography; the language, meanwhile, is not one of science, but of solving problems, of learning how to break progress toward an objective into steps, of learning how to document your work without resenting the tedium, of learning how to recognize patterns and in so doing save time.”

Initially I tried to formulate my response to it as a tweet. Uh, no. Instead, 1000+ words rambling through my life with math….

I was good with math as a kid, if sometimes a little wonky with arithmetic. Hilariously, I once got a 17% on a quiz in 7th grade pre-algebra…as the teacher noted, I did all the formulas right, but all the arithmetic wrong.

In 9th grade, I tested (?) into a special 2-year math program that was held at a local private school with students from all over town. A couple of times a week I went there after school for a tiny math class: only six students. (Two were friends from my regular high school; another was a boy I’d had a crush on in junior high.) It was a difficult class, but fascinating and creative, with a teacher who pushed us to think better, to find patterns, all that stuff in Ben’s quote.

That was the second time I used computers in school, by the way, the first being a half-semester programing TRS-80s. We moved from our regular classroom to the private school’s computer lab for an exercise involving graphing shapes based on equations. I remember yelling at the computer a lot; I was a … high-spirited 14-year-old. But getting it to work: that was f’ing amazing.

Much the same way that getting my name to scroll diagonally on the TRS-80 had been amazing, come to think of it. There’s a little corner of my brain that jumps for joy when I do something to a computer and it works the way I wanted it to.

There weren’t enough students for the second year; at least one of the students had moved, for one thing. I think all of my other classmates went back to their school math programs, but I made up my mind to skip a year so I could come back.

I skipped math for a year in part to avoid what I’d been told were some pretty bad math teachers. In junior high I had one math teacher I loved (she of the 17%) and one that I hated. And instinctively, I think, I knew that whether I was going to persevere in math was going to depend a great deal on the quality of teaching.

In English (and to a lesser degree subjects like history), it didn’t matter so much, curiously enough. Not that I would have said so at the time, but that’s what it looks like in retrospect. After all, I already loved reading and writing, felt like I was good at them, and most of the time was reading above grade level. (That probably gave me a bit of a chip on my shoulder when I didn’t like the teacher, but usually I was capable of doing the assignments regardless, it was just a matter of whether I was going to make the effort.)

In math, on the other hand, you were always moving into something (almost) entirely new. A bad teacher could put a serious dent into being able to really understand and thrill in those new concepts, being able to connect them to previous learning, and so on.

In any case, I went back for year two, which was more of the same but with a larger class,* then came back to my own high school senior year for AP calculus.

I had a good teacher for that one, too. (He was also the basketball coach, and could generally be described as the “whitest guy in Compton” — which is where he commuted from. He was originally from someplace in the upper midwest. I remember when we went back to school after the ’92 riots, he said that his mom had called in a panic, him being the whitest guy in Compton and all.) All that aside, he was a great teacher, if with an entirely different style from the private school math teacher.

But I think I had in my head that trope of math and English being like oil and water, because I was quick to give up math once I hit college. I did well enough on the AP test that I could skip to calc 2, but that was the only math I took the whole four years, and I only took it because I had to take some math class. Now I wish I’d taken statistics.**

That was that for a long time. At some point I stopped thinking of myself as a “math person” because I was a “writing person.” Then I got into this crazy web thing. Whenever I’ve mentioned that my work included some programming, the listener would often say, “Oh, you must be good at math.” (Same as every relative on hearing that I was an English major: “Are you going to be a teacher?” ARGH.) My response has been to shrug: I don’t use that much math on a day to day basis. (although I should track that over a week sometime.)

But I suppose the habits of math stuck with me all along. Break every problem down into the smallest possible chunk to identify what went wrong. And wow: recognizing patterns to save time…I think even when I was an admin assistant that was something that I just naturally fell into.

A few weeks ago I was at the coffee shop and ended up in a weird long conversation with an elderly retired math teacher. He talked about math as seeing patterns, too. One thing I said was that I can’t help seeing typos. Can’t not edit, is how I’ve described it previously. He connected it to that math pattern-finding thing, but I guess I kinda brushed it off, because the connection didn’t hit me until JUST NOW. Now my brain is buzzing, feeling like something about the trajectory of my life makes sense for once, or like I’ve finally stitched together pieces of myself that didn’t seem attached to one another.

—–

* Weird fact: math class was the same time as our church’s confirmation class. Direct quote from mom: “You can only take this class now. You can get confirmed later.” Or not.

** I looked over C’s shoulder for a good chunk of the stats class he took at UWT. Fascinating stuff. I came away with the conviction that everyone should take statistics, if only to be better at understanding the news.

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