Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | March 21, 2010

A mathematical mind block

VICKERS/A mathematical mind block.
The Neshoba Democrat, 3/17/2010.
[with thanks to Dan MacKinnon]

Did I have a problem in school? Yes, I did. Numbers have always been my downfall. I think it all began when my first grade teacher showed me a picture of four apple pies. She then took away one of the pies and asked me how many were left. I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the numbers because all I could think of was how good a slice of one of the pies would taste. We always had arithmetic just before lunch.

In the third grade Miss Mozelle Daniels attempted to teach me the multiplication tables. We wrote the tables on the blackboard and then we were drilled with the hope that we would memorize the tables. Miss Daniels had a window shade attached to the top of the blackboard. Each day after we had repeated the tables several times, she would pull down the shade and cover the blackboard.

As long as the shade was up, I got along fine, but when the shade was lowered, I could not tell you that 2 times 2 equals 4. My dread of the impending lowering of the shade caused me to become paranoid about the multiplication tables.

My next traumatic experience with numbers came about when I was in the seventh grade. I vividly remember some of the problems concerned a train and its departure and arrival times. The difficulty was that the trains were not traveling at the same speed, and we were supposed to determine at what point along the hundred mile track they would meet.

I am sure the trains in my problem met, not at a side track where they were supposed to meet, but somewhere along the line. The wreck that happened was something akin to the disaster which occurred when the legendary Casey Jones ran into another train at Vaughn’s Station.

I never did learn how to figure board feet, or to compound interest, and all that other math a seventh grader is supposed to master. Now that it has been more than half a century since I was in the seventh grade, I am sure that my difficulty with math was aggravated by the fact that I was deathly afraid of Lena Pentecost, my seventh grade teacher.

She was a large woman whose thighs literally spilled over the sides of her desk chair. She wore no makeup, and her hair was plaited and then wound around her head like a crown. She wore half glasses low on her nose and peered over them to survey the class while we sat and did “seat work.”

My next brush with math occurred in high school. In the tenth grade we took first year algebra. Mr. McDonald was the teacher, and I never knew a kinder man. He was patience personified and made a valiant effort to teach me how to balance an equation.

Periodically, Mr. McDonald sent us to the blackboard and gave us a problem to solve. I made a great effort to solve the problem and made my numbers overly large so that the class would think I knew what I was doing.

When Mr. McDonald checked our work, he always stopped at my position at the board with an eraser in his hand, for he knew my calculations were all wrong. To this day, I remember standing at the board wanting to be anywhere in the world except there.

When the school year ended, I had an “A” in all my classes except algebra. Mr. McDonald sat down with me and said, “I notice that you have all A’s except in algebra. I’ll tell you what I am going to do. I am going to give you a D because your must be an intelligent young man who has managed to get this far in school without any foundation in mathematics whatsoever.” God bless Mr. McDonald.

It was a requirement that a student must have two years of high school mathematics in order to graduate. My next effort was devoted to geometry. I just knew I could fathom all those lines and planes.

Well, I could memorize the theorems, but I never knew how to apply them. My lines never converged. My planes were never flat. When I came to the theorem which says, “The square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the edge,”

I envisioned a hippopotamus rather than a hypotenuse. My salvation was that Mr. McDonald also taught geometry. Thank God again for Mr. McDonald.

Because I understood how to diagram a compound complex sentence, could identify a gerund phrase, and enjoyed reading Shakespeare I majored in English when I went away to college.

The ironic thing is that all of my children were good at mathematics. Therefore, I am convinced that a talent for numbers is not in the genes and is not passed from one generation to the next. Oh, and I did eventually master the multiplication tables.

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