I heard that They say math is the language of nature and the way in which we explain everything, which is a pretty cool thing to think about. Math is probably the language of God despite the church’s old fondness for Latin. That’s part of why I like math, but it wasn’t always so. Math and I have not always been friends.
Math turned against me in second grade, which I otherwise loved. I think it was the regular timed tests. I could never get past subtraction even when the rest of the class had moved through multiplication and on to joyless division. It’s probably where my hatred of school began too. Eventually, I began to get things under control, but then those fiends threw letters into the mix so now I had to deal not just with numbers but sometimes x and even his diabolical buddy y. I always liked reading and writing, but now it seemed the whole treasonous alphabet was turning against me.
Sometimes I understood it, but it wasn’t until later that I took satisfaction in solving a problem or working a proof the way I did writing a good story. So there were ups and downs along the bumpy road to graduation: Algebra was a down, Geometry was an up—the first one in math since first grade, Algebra II was down, Trig was a giant up. This is where I started to actually enjoy it. I thought I was home free, but then came Calculus and… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t need it to graduate. In college, I only needed to pass basic algebra, which I did, and then no more math forever, I thought. I celebrated by treating myself to a cheeseburger.
Flash forward twenty-some years, and my current teaching assignment involves helping students earn their GEDs. I had to relearn (learn, really, but the re- in front makes it sound better) all the algebra I swore I’d never need to know and that I’d never use in the “real world.” A funny thing happened, though, when I started FOIL-ing and throwing around slope-intercept and quadratic formulas. I liked it. I liked learning about it and getting a bit of a deeper glimpse at how the universe works.
To my surprise, I also found I like teaching a little math. We English teachers live in a world of ambiguity, debatable short answers and essay questions, endless discussion, and gray areas. (Or is it ‘grey’ and did I really need that comma before the ‘and’?) Part of the fun is helping students fumble their way to coherent arguments in support of their ideas and positions. But sometimes it’s nice to break up the day by teaching some math.
The road to the solution for any given problem is a journey and for those of us who find the greatest meaning in the journey (and, let’s be honest here, aren’t being graded on the problem), it can be an interesting journey to take. But I admit, a couple of times a day, it’s nice to be able to point to a number and say that this is the correct answer and there is no other choice. No debate. No argument. The answer is 42. Why? Because math said so, that’s why.