Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Something Else Entirely

Subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else's
garden now.
-From the poem 'Numbers' by Mary Cornish

At eighteen, in my stressful and frayed final year of school I found Mathematics to be the class that most made me want to remain in bed in the mornings. In truth, I dreaded each meeting for they were certain to end in a further feeling of hopelessness. It was one of those classes, the horrific sort where I appeared to be the sole student who did not grasp the teacher's babbling. With each new section we passed on to, I would mentally put aside grievance for the lost information, sit up straighter and vow to understand this new topic with enthusiasm and patience. I promised myself to ask questions if I did not understand. The initial day or two of the fresh area in Mathematics was never easy but I had some inclination and hope, and by the third day I often felt as though I had transcended to a new level in intelligence and could join my fellow classmates in nodding agreeably at everything said.
And then it would spin out of control: I would enter the class on the fourth consecutive day and gasp in thunderstruck horror as the teacher supposedly continued where he left off. Always, always I got the distinct impression that either I had missed two months of class or that they had all held secret sessions without me. It happened without fail on the fourth day and after that I was floating on my own in a deep, dark ocean while my classmates had been lovingly supplied with motor boats. He may as well have been speaking a different language: when one gets the thought that they missed something important, it is virtually impossible to catch up, particularly when in this case the teacher rolled eyes hurriedly and impatiently when questions were asked timidly.
It was tear-inducing, and being the final year of school, not to be taken lightly. I tried hard on my own but I was drowning in a class of strong swimmers who never so much as glanced my way.
One bright afternoon we had a test in class. It was always tormentingly sunny in that room, with the light streaming in and quite likely touching upon everybody's books but my own. That is how it felt as I sat the test quietly and desperately. I had no idea what I was doing and my blood had run cold a long time ago.
The teacher corrected them midway through the class, for it was a short examination. At the end he prepared to deliver them back to our hands. He separated the class into groups based on the results of the test, and ordered everybody to come to the front of the room, all the while shaking his head. As he spoke to each group in order of rank, the teacher bade them to return to their seats and leave the lesser students standing.
There was the group who, as he personally declared, needed no help whatsoever.
They were brilliant, he coaxed, and would excel upon leaving school.
There was the group who had come along quite well and would do all right.
There was the group that needed to work harder and get a better grade.
Perhaps ten of us were remaining now. I simply wanted it all to be over.
Finally, there was the group that he did not know what to do with, and these he despaired at. They were lost to him forever. They never did homework, sometimes did not attend class, and this particular examination had proved their lack of worth.
I sighed. The teacher had said all this to me before. He refused to actually do anything about what he was saying, such as helping as a teacher might and as only a teacher could, and I was weary of his discarding us.
Us? I was arrogant to include myself in that group. He sent the rest to their seats but indicated that I must stay a moment. I could not imagine what the matter might be.
It turned out that there was another category and that I was the leader and sole member.
"You," he said.
I waited. He was smirking. "You are a different kettle of fish altogether. I don't know. Go on, sit down." He gave me my paper without looking at me, which I promptly balled up and I blindly returned to my seat.
It has stayed with me for the better part of eight years now, his refusal to include me with the worst of all his students.
I thought that he was all-powerful and knew something about me that I did not. I was wrong.

Years passed. I attended college for one semester in Texas and was forced by bureaucracy to take a basic Mathematics class. I had avoided it for the duration of my college days in California, despite needing it for my degree. Of course I was terrified but I had no option. I would not give up the degree so I had to try and get through.
I had a very sweet instructor; her name was Betty and she reminded me of a kindly mother hen who cared deeply about her chicks. If a student, such as myself, had a question it was answered with gentleness and respect or else she requested that the person see her after class to get a detailed answer. She assured us every single day of the semester that we were all excellent and could get a good final grade without trouble. She was clearly not familiar with either my dismissive teacher or this different kettle of fish.
One day in class we had a test which consisted of about one hundred questions on the cumulative work we had done. It involved fractions, quadratic equations, algebra, decimals, graphs and everything one could think of related to Mathematics on a fundamental level.
Before the instructor passed back the sheaf of graded papers, she clutched them to her chest and beamed brightly.
"Now, everybody, there was only one person in the whole class who got 100 percent," she said.
She looked right at me and said my name to the class. I am not sure there exists a word to describe my thoughts just then, or my suspicion that if I floated any higher I would touch the ceiling.
In between being cruelly called a Different Kettle of Fish and coming to understand that it might, actually, be a very fine thing to be, I met my Spouse, who is a walking calculator and relishes the mystery of numbers. That sort of enthusiasm tends to rub off on another person, and soon I was reading whatever I could find on the enchantment of Mathematics. I read, to name a few:
-A book about the astonishing Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos, 'The Man Who Loved Only Numbers,' by Paul Hoffman
-'Mr. God, This is Anna,' by Fynn, about a tiny child who never ceases to question the magic of numbers and physics
-The works of Richard Feynman
-Certain writings of Douglas Hofstadter related to accessible number theory

There is magic in everything, magic in numbers. If that is not understood, it is impossible to teach anything to another human being. I am thankful for people who answer questions with patience and for people who open doors to great worlds; those who close them are in short supply and I am left with no available category to place them into.

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