Mathochism: It begins

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in high school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

It was not a great beginning.

For one thing, traffic was snagged on the way to campus, so I couldn’t get into the left lane to turn into the parking garage. Once I finally disentangled myself, I only got a spot in the far garage, so I had less than five minutes to hoof it all the way across campus to class.

This was, by the way, with a sore hoof and about 30 pounds of books. And 15 pounds of the books, it turns out, I don’t even need and may not be able to return to the Shylockian campus bookstore!

But I digress. Once I got to my classroom (on time), it was a windowless rectangle with fluorescent lights. Anyone who knows me knows I have strong feelings about fluorescents (oppressive! eeeviiill! hag-inducing!). The room also smelled dank.

There were about 30 students, and I’m willing to bet I am the oldest apart from the professor. A lot are probably high school kids. One was macking on the young woman in front of me, but she wasn’t having none. Good for her for focusing on the learning.

The professor showed up soon after I did. He is a dapper African gent in possibly his early 50s. My love of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” has taught me something about African surnames, and I was pretty sure he was not from Botswana. Too few melodic syllables. A look later at his website confirms he is Nigerian.

Uh-oh. Mma Makutsi would not approve. But since Mma Ramotswe does not hold with prejudice, neither do I. Besides, it’s all good — at least he’s not Norwegian! (For more information about my apparent prejudices, please see the historic rivalry between Sweden and Norway. Have a look at the jokes, which are pretty much interchangeable. ‘Nuff said)

It soon became clear this guy knows his numbers, and even better, is very clear about explaining them. He explained whole numbers, placement values and standard notations. He explained the difference between round offs and estimates.

He explained what an exponent is. He asked me what minus 2 squared is. I said 4. I was wrong. I was not the only one, but I was wrong. He explained why I am wrong. I actually understood his explanation. Some small icy math-hating part of me started to thaw.

We moved on to the order of operations, and to “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” I don’t believe my eighth grade math teacher ever told me about Aunt Sally. The old dear would really have helped with the following mind-boggling equation:

{[(4*8+3)*5-162]*3+11}*3-14

I followed the rules to the letter, managed to come up with 136.

The professor asked me what I got. I told him.

“That is it!”

Another small part of me began to thaw.

By the time we got to prime numbers, I didn’t even mind that I thought 51 was prime. It isn’t, of course. It is divisible by 3, and I now know this because 5+1 is 6, and 6 is divisible by 3. I will likely be trying to figure out primes wherever I go from now on.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

2 comments

  • Wow! If you can figure out that equation after a 25-year math black hole, I’m impressed. I just might follow your example and aim to turn my 30-year musical malady into piano prowess.

  • Marlene, I double dog dare you! Do it!

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