Mathochism: Back in the ’80s

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

My best friend and I had just come out of Urban Outfitters Wednesday afternoon when it hit me.

I’m back in the 1980s.

Normally, a trip to the Land of the Overpriced Hipster just evokes a mild bemusement — why would anyone pay $96 for a ragged t-shirt with some cheesy possibly fake food logo on it? But on this particular visit, my friend and I were increasingly horrified as we walked past the merchandise.

There were stacks of acid-washed skinny jeans with zippers up the calves. Fluorescent t-shirts glowed on the hangers. Then, there was the plaid. Oh, the plaid.

“At least there aren’t any headbands,” my best friend said.
“Just wait,” I answered.

We decided to leave before the headbands suddenly made a sneak attack, and as we stood outside the store, it hit me. I clutched my best friend’s arm for strength.

“Oh god. I’m unemployed. I’m taking pre-algebra. They’re selling the clothes I wore when I was in middle school. I’m back in 1983!”

This feeling persisted into Thursday afternoon, as I was tackling my math homework. I was trying to wrap my mind around prime factorization and least common multiples and greatest common factors — and getting a pounding headache in the process — when my husband came into the living room.

“Michael Jackson is dead.”

Oh. My. God.

Talk about being stuck in the 1983. I well remember wearing my skinny jeans with zippers up the calves and fluorescent pink nail polish when I first heard “Thriller.” I may not remember ever learning prime factorization, but I remember choreographing elaborate and possibly awful dance routines to “Thriller” in secret in my pastel pink bedroom.

That same year when all my math started to go wrong, everything was going right for Michael Jackson.

I’m obviously not the only one who was shocked by his death. When I got to class Thursday evening, our dapper math professor looked drawn and tired.

“Today is a bad day,” he said. “Why don’t we just forget about this and all go home?”

My classmates and I exchanged glances. Was he serious?

All I was thinking was: “Oh no you don’t, buddy! You’re not going anywhere until we discuss prime factorization!”

This is clearly not the sort of thought I would have had back in 1983. Back then, I would have welcomed a respite. More time for bad imitations of “Thriller” choreography and dreaming about my middle school crush, who had a wisp of a mustache on his weak upper lip.

Fortunately, the professor decided to do his duty by us, and once again reinforced my suspicion that he is a good teacher. After just a few strokes of dry erase markers, prime factorization was a breeze.

He then showed us four methods for finding the LCM and GCF of any number. The fourth method he claims is his own secret method, not taught in books. I will respect his secret and not print it here, but was impressed by its simplicity and elegance.

In between clarifying things, he was philosophical.

“You have to live for today, because you never know when it will end suddenly,” he told us as we were trying to find the GCF for 4,400 and 5,500.

From reading the bio on his website the other day, I know he moved to United States sometime in the ’80s. While he is at least a decade older than I am, and in college at the time, Michael Jackson’s songs were no doubt all over the radio. What mathematical formulas was my professor mastering while listening to “Billie Jean”? How about “Beat It?”

Did my professor ever succumb to the fashion Jackson inspired? Was he wearing a single glove as he plotted graphs and estimated quotients?

Most of the other students in my class look to be in their late teens and early 20s. 1983 means nothing to them. But some of them are wearing the clothes. All of them know who Michael Jackson is, though they likely remember him more as the deeply bizarre creature he became.

I realize I am not really stuck in the ’80s. None of my jeans are from Guess?, and all have zipper-less calves. Most important, this time around, the math is starting to make sense.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do. I may or may not find my old cassette tape of “Thriller.” I may or may not play it as I practice prime factorization. Headband optional.

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

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