boatman view

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a thundering herd of algebra

 

Budgets, and the tingly world of finance we keep learning about, are daily news issues.  All the smart guys and gals talk about 50 billion dollars here and a trillion dollars over there as if they actually understand the numbers.  They should not fool you.  Only those fortunate enough to have had their mathematics education delivered with the swat of a ruler at a parochial grade school can best appreciate the numeric beauty all around us. 

 

Sister Glorianna had begun with teaching us to add numbers years ago.  Adding was fun.  Two plus two equals four.  That was it every time.  It was not going to change.  Add one to four and you got five.  Done deal.  You could add whatever number you wanted to add to another number and get the answer.  It all added up and made sense.

 

We learned subtraction.  If you had five apples and gave two of them to your little brother, which was very unlikely to happen, you would subtract the number two from the number five to conclude you still had three apples.  And as early as the morning pledge of allegiance, you plan to trade at least one of those apples for a candy bar at recess.  Knowing about adding and subtracting had a purpose.

 

When you got into higher math problems beyond ten is where multiplication came in handy.  Whoever thought it up must have figured it was more practical to say six multiplied by two equals twelve, rather than getting to twelve by two plus two plus two plus two plus two plus two.  To a boy of twelve or so that made sense. 

 

My brain was still developing and squirming for more.  I had learned addition and subtraction and I had been honing my skills.  I added dollars to my pocket when I mowed a lawn, raked someone’s leaves, or shoveled the snow off their porch and sidewalk so they could get to the mailbox.  I subtracted with each chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and Supremes record purchased.  I did not like this part of the equation, subtracting money from me, but that is the way it is.  I understood the math.  Money in the bank, and I can add more.

 

The addition and subtraction were utilitarian, certainly useful, and even the multiplication, to this point were just doodling, mere sketches on the math canvas.  They were cute warm up exercises, preparing us for the main event, the serious art of the masters, long division.

 

Division, flowing with reverent beauty and discipline, was to me the grand portrait painting of math.  You began the cerebral journey at the top of a blank sheet.   With each brush stroke of numbers, you carried and caressed your vision, floating downward through space.  The answer was approaching from the vast wonder, floating in truth and eternity.  Peacefully sharpening your number two pencils, you are there.  I held the knowledge of the ages in my soul.  Not knowing, that with division and decimal points, I had peaked.           

 

Summer always ends too soon.  Of the four, this summer season is the winner.  The pace slurs as the leaves fall and we drift into winter, which cannot end soon enough.  As much as we like the spring of the year, it is only an announcement of the coming attraction; summer, the season.  It is here, a beautiful bright now, warm and soft blending of days, and then gone with the breeze.

 

School starts and it is going to be different.  I can wear any color or pattern of shirt I like.  My choice and nobody can stop me.  I am not a kid anymore; and I thought that was good.  The bell rings, 9th grade begins, in public school, the real world.

 

We walked through a hallway maze furnished with lockers and trophy cases to arrive at this room for English, then three miles down the hall to this room for History, and then turn left into a different time zone, into this room for Biology; unlike the prior eight years of education that took place in one room with one teacher.  I liked the new world.  For me, it was an amusement park of interest, a change of scenery and purpose every hour with a ring of the bell. 

 

I already knew everything anyways and certainly knew no fear.  An earlier president had addressed that and calmed his fellow Americans by saying: The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.  You wonder how he could not have known about Algebra. 

 

Algebra is crazy.  This teacher must be from Ohio.  Y equals something, so she says.  A square root means something to some people.  It meant zero to me.  It did not make any sense to me.     Thinking about it hurt.  It hurt my head.  Not the way eating ice cream too fast would hurt your head.  With ice cream, you decide if the flavor and sensation of gorging on ice cream is worth the hurt.  It is, of course. 

 

Algebra is confusing.  I could not figure out what was going on.  Each word she spoke in teaching us Algebra just stampeded through my head in dusty and noisy trampling chaos.  It got louder and louder the more she spoke, an angry herd of X and Y mustangs out of control.  It bothered me that I did not understand, and it did not make sense to hurt my head for no reason, no ice cream.

 

Math had been fun up to now.  Counting flows nicely.  Ask a horse to count and he is glad to do it.   A slight lift of the hoof, and almost absent-mindedly bring it back down into the dust.  Clump clump clump.  How high do you want to go, buddy.  Give the horse an apple.  He earned it.  Ask your horse the square root of three hundred seventeen.  You can almost hear his bones breaking as he falls.  You will probably have to shoot him and it is all because of algebra.

 

Escaping from algebra to wood shop the next semester was a good move.  I was happily counting things again, cutting things, sawing and hammering and gluing. 

 

Some of the advanced wood shop scholars were slipping out the side door for a few puffs off their Camels and Pall Malls while our wood shop guru was focused on the band saw.   The scent of sawdust mixed in with the hammering of wood was intoxicating, enough thrill for me at the moment.  I had not yet seen a gateway from glue to smoke.  Slow bloomer.  It was only my first year of wood shop.  I read in my history book that Rome was not built in a day.  

 

Think about watching a double header at the ballpark.  The best use of any summer afternoon is enjoying a ballet of mathematics and athletics, without any help from Algebra.

 

In the business section of the paper, a couple stories on the budget and an out of control deficit, with no mention of Algebra.  The most recent impeccably  dressed guy to steal millions of dollars on Wall Street did not use Algebra in any way.  In the local section were stories about yard sales, new menu items, some burglaries, a great picture of a dog shaking the water off, a slight rebound in the housing market, thanks to wood shop leaders, but not one word about Algebra.  A person might wonder how it all adds up.