Math has problems


My earliest introduction to math was positive. I happily held up my fingers, repeating after the teacher, “One plus one equals two,” joyfully unaware of what was to come.

One day, however, after the class sang a particularly moving rendition of the Alphabet Song, the teacher asked us to raise our hands. At her bidding, I held up my short, stubby fingers expecting to do addition. Without warning she said, “Now we’re going to take away one of your fingers.” Imagine my terror. Which one? And how? By sharp knife or chewed off by wild animals? I was relieved that I didn’t have to give her the finger; she only wanted me to bend it, but the image has haunted me all of my life.

Not too much later, the teacher began vaporizing numbers before my eyes, wanton obliteration of numbers which she euphemistically called “reducing them to zero.” Thankfully this early and repeated exposure to the ideas of removing fingers and total annihilation, all taught coolly and calmly with no emotion, and by an elementary school teacher, did not blind me to the callousness of arithmetic. No wonder I cried at math time.

Eventually, I grew used to the carnage around me and learned to accept both subtraction and zero with only an occasional outburst of conscience. Others I knew were not so fortunate.They loved slicing up numbers like so much pizza, and this attitude carried over into other parts of their lives. Some went on to split infinitives and leave participles dangling precariously. Years later, some of my classmates having learned that acts of violence against numbers had no consequences, went to English classes, where they attempted to murder the English language.

I passed through this early period with little outward effect and viewed math as a necessary evil. But when I got to algebra, I grew hopeful. Immediately I was introduced to variables. Letters at last, I thought; words cannot be far behind. But no, the  teacher wanted me to find “x” first. I didn’t mind; I enjoy helping others. The following day, he asked me to find it again. I wanted to remind him that I had found it once already and had even heard that my sister had found it two years before that. When he asked me to find the hypotenuse of a triangle, I wanted to speak to him about his carelessness. Not being able to find an occasional “x” or “y” is understandable. We all misplace items. However, the teacher had elevated carelessness to an art, regularly losing all the variables from “a” to “z” along with hundreds of hypotenuses a day. Outwardly he expressed a love for mathematics, but his disregard for individual numbers and variables showed the true condition of his heart.

Euclid's students express surprise when he gives birth to Geometry (Thankfully, Wikipedia was there to get this picture.)

Quadrants were introduced along with the strange question, “Where’s the point?” It became clear to me that mathematicians had difficulty finding the point of it all because they spent too much time with negative numbers. All that negativity rubs off on a person after a while. Soon they feel depressed and start plotting things. Sadly, there is no turning back from that slippery slope.

During this traumatic time, I was most disappointed by the so-called “word problems.” Perhaps this was because I longed for words, for dialogue, and a clear resolution. But the difficulties I encountered in these problems were not due to words, so much as a lack of words. Invariably the narrative lacked creativity and the characters were shallow. The story would have Jack leaving Chicago at 8 a.m. driving 50 mph, and Linda leaving Milwaukee at the same time, but driving 30 mph. Suddenly the teacher would ask me what time Jack and Linda would meet. However, I could not get past the fact that Jack was leaving. I was intrigued. What happened to cause Jack to leave Chicago? Did he bother to pack or leave a note? At 8 a.m. how could he possibly leave Chicago at 50 mph? The few times I had been through Chicago with my parents, the fastest we could travel was about 30 mph, but in the congested areas it was more like 20 mph. So there must have been a mistake; it must have been in the middle of the night. But why the haste? Was he being chased? If so, by whom? If it was the Mafia, then there was little hope he would ever meet up with Linda. And I wondered about her. At only 30 mph, she seemed less eager to see Jack than he was to see her. Why the hesitation? I needed more information, and yet, none was forthcoming.

I believe that the root of the problem is in the numbers themselves. Spartan and stoical, numbers tend to stand alone, need little beyond themselves, and shun excess. The less said, the better. Words, on the other hand, are epicurean, appealing to our senses. They tend to be generous, lavish, sensuous, even excessive. The mathematician uses words like numbers, comes up with a story of 25 words or less, and then asks others to help with the plot line.

Then there is the issue of inequality. Math is un-American. Mathematicians teach that some numbers are greater than others and always will be. Have they never read the Constitution and what it says about equality? They show no care or sympathy for the weaker or lower numbers, compare them shamelessly to bigger numbers, and yet count on them to be there when they need them.

Another concern is number procreation, or as it is more commonly called, multiplication. Numbers mate indiscriminately and often, more often than many may imagine, divide again. What exactly is this teaching young, impressionable minds?  What is equally disturbing is the mating of the positive numbers with the negative numbers. This leads to more negative numbers, which as I mentioned leads to depression.  It’s true that something positive does come out of two negative numbers mating, however, astronomers, all stellar mathematicians, have created imaginary negative numbers whose offspring are also negative. I suspect this comes of so much time spent staring out into darkness. Perhaps a day job is recommended.

Mathematics breeds a sense of hopelessness. Like women’s work, there is no end to it; at the end of the day there is always at least one more number to count. Numbers go on and on forever; there is no stopping them. I empathize; I have relatives like that. And it is not just the numbers. Those confounded numbers lines also go on forever like Saturday at the grocery store.

Am I going to pretend I am blameless? No, friends, for I, too, have participated in the dark side of math. I could try to proclaim my innocence by saying, “Yes, I played around with equations when I was young, but I never solved any.” But I admit, I bowed to peer pressure and spent many late nights doing things to numbers that even my math teachers considered wrong.

Is math a problem? Actually, it is many problems. How do we solve these problems? I don’t know; that’s why I’m sharing my story with you. Perhaps you know of a solution.

66 thoughts on “Math has problems

  1. Very similar experience for me as well. Geometry in high school was a total mystery to me, and way too abstract. There are no good stories in triangles and angles. Algebra in college, once I got the hang of it and had a teacher who was also a southern Baptist minister who taught math like a fiery sermon, was fun and made more sense. Then I had to take a probability class to graduate with an English degree (so we could all figure out our chances of getting a job afterward?), and I thought it was the stupidest class I was ever forced to take. Who cares what my chances are of drawing an ace of spades or the probability of pulling the queen of hearts? Perhaps this was another attempt to teach us how to garner money for our futures by teaching us card game skills for Vegas, since God know that English degree won’t get you very far?

    • I had a bad experience in geometry class, so I never cared for it. I actually liked algebra. Learning to play poker and play it well would have probably been more valuable than learning probabilities. The road to riches doesn’t lead to teaching.

  2. I was fine with the numbers, but when the numbers turned into letters, some of them GREEK, I was quickly and permanently lost.

    What an engaging writing exercise it might be: take a math “word problem” and turn it into a fleshed-out short story!

  3. kkkkatie

    Don’t stop now, Little Sis! Shouldn’t you warn your faithful readers that math has elevated calculating to the art of Calculus…what do you suppose they are plotting with all those codes and variations? And what about all those sinister “unknowns” lurking in every branch of the mathematics tree…and so much talk of infinity…OMG! It’s a secret religion looking for a formula to take over the world! You must stop them and your insight will lead you to the solution.

      • That’s why I love the comment section. You added the missing parts. I have no doubt that there’s a conspiracy somewhere in all of this, and the fact that it seems to be completely hidden only confirms my suspicions. I hadn’t considered a chemist; they do have a lot of solutions.

        That’s why you are the smart one in the family.

  4. I too, remember the addings and subtractings by use of the fingers on our hands, and in fact, I think that today people feel that I must have been deprived of my digits during the process. As they keep giving me the fingers that they think I lack. And you can count on them too.

  5. That was absolutely brilliant. Addition, subtraction, division I could handle. I even liked “multiplication” although I didn’t realize it made me a slut. But Algebra? A high point in my movie-going life was when Peggy Sue went back in time and said to her Algebra teacher “I know for a fact I will never use Algebra.

  6. ntexas99

    I realize this story reveals what a perfectionist I have been in years gone past, but when I was in my thirties, I once took a college Algebra class THREE times in a row because I was determined to get an “A” (and the teacher was too ugly to sleep with, so I had limited options). Algebra was a language I did not speak, but I finally did manage to get that “A”.

    I never did manage to find that pesky x, though. Or the solution.

    • I liked a lot of my math classes, but for the purposes of this post, I exaggerated just a teeny, tiny bit, but I did not like geometry, and I blame it on the teacher. He should not have been a teacher.

    • Numbers have a certain elegance, and with time and patience, I think we can learn many of the branches of mathematics. As an adult, I don’t “do” a lot of math (other than on a calculator), but like you, I have always felt a greater affinity to words.

  7. I never got past the fact that two negatives made a positive. That just seemed so wrong. By the time they tried to tell me that numbers made shapes that could be plotted on a graph, I was all like, “yeah, whatever. Meet me in the bar.”

  8. To quote Mama from the Waterboy loosely, “Math is the DEVIL!” It was never, ever my friend and that is why I am still amazed that I took at class called Math for Fun while in 8th grade – talk about an contradiction in terms!
    It is a good thing I went to a fine arts college because they expected us all to be dumb with math!

  9. I took math for nonmath majors. Like all the others in my class, I moved immediately from the classroom to the instructor’s office to offer him an opportunity to say again what he had just spent the last hour telling us. It never soaked it. I made my only “C” and felt grateful.

  10. riatarded

    I don’t really like maths but somehow it is so much fun doing statistics!

    haha your reaction to your teacher’s request to take away your finger was adorable!

  11. I have to say I am still laughing, probably because me and numbers are not in a stable relationship, as a matter of fact I’m placing a restraining order on them tomorrow. Thank you so much for the laugh.

  12. Eliza

    This was such a great post! It actually made me laugh out loud. I’m not so sure I’ll ever regard maths as the same subject from now on …

  13. Hmmm. It seems that all the commenters who don’t like algebra are female. I wonder if the dislike comes from having two X-chromosomes and getting one X confused with the other. Males, having an X and a Y, would never mistake one for the other.


    • I think it’s wonderful that you loved math and did so well. As much a I loved Steve’s theory, I wonder if so many women have problems with algebra because they are tired of men asking where “x” is. If they had just put it away in the right place the first time, they wouldn’t have to keep asking. 🙂

  14. Thank you for the laugh! Awe some of the best medicine in the world. Math and I were never really good friends. Words on the other, well we weren’t good friends until a college professor introduced us, and I found we had a mutual friend named Creativity.

    It was not till I was in my thirties, that I had some tests done on me and I was told I was a genius. I really could not understand numbers, so I invented a way to take numbers and convert them to images, then solve the equation, and transfer them back into numbers. The doctor who was doing the tests on me told me it was mental gymnastics.

    Geometry! I love Geometry! Well I have never taken a class on it, but I work with it every day in my art and design work that I do. My daughter tried to get me to help her with her H.S. Geometry class, and I have to tell you there is no reason for all those fancy words to try to explain a problem. Images to numbers are so much easier!

    I also liked your current post on Puns. I wanted to reply, but I am beginning to think the ghost of Samuel Johnson did not want me to, because first my computer shut down, and then when I finally found my way back there was no reply box, and when I clicked the link to reply nothing happened. Must have been Samuel Johnson. (That may sound a bit like the dog ate my homework, but it couldn’t have been Microsoft updates have finished installing and rebooted your computer. NO!)

    Have a blessed day, oh and just to let you know on one of my other blogs, we are hosting a Writing contest for Charity. Would love to have you come over and check it out!

    Peace and Harmony,

    • It sounds like you are a multi-talented person. You should write a book about how to convert numbers to images to solve problems; it would help a lot of people. Thanks for the link to your blog. I will check it out.

  15. You are SO right… Perhaps we should start a movement to have maths banned from the public schools, since there are obviously so many negative impacts associated with the discipline!

    Really, though, this article was a bright spot in my day — thanks for making me giggle!

  16. I had a brilliant comment to make on your post as I was perusing the other comments, but by the time I got down here, I forgot it. Alas. On the plus side, I read your post to my husband who had come into the room to complain about an electronic game that was cheating. Your post cheered him up completely. He was especially happy about your teacher not asking you to give her a finger. 🙂

    I had a rocky relationship with maths for many years. At first I was entranced with it, then I was bored, then I was so far behind that I thought I’d never catch up… fortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s always waiting for you….

    It wasn’t until I got into Calculus for Business that I finally found one I thought I could understand. It did help that I was taking Chinese at the same time. Of Course!!! A Symbolic language. Math as language is So much better than math as something foreign and mysterious.

    I too hated the Data analysis course…. there was only One person in there who understood it. The teacher didn’t Want to grade on the curve, but if he hadn’t, he would have to have admitted that he didn’t know how to teach it. I actually learned the best problem I knew out of that class from a word problem in an economics text book. It was the standard deviation.
    Amazing. I still remember what it was called, though I have not used it since then.

    Thanks again for the laughter.

    • I sympathize with you. I start writing posts, forget what I’m supposed to be writing about, and write all kinds of unrelated things. I’m glad your husband enjoyed the post as well.

      Glad you reconciled with Math and even remember the standard deviation. I’m impressed.

  17. hello, yearstricken,

    this is really, really funny. i had troubles with math when i was studying – from elementary to college. my brain cells would panic once the teacher said the word represent. that means, abstraction. oh, how i wanted to vanish from the classroom whenever i heard that word.

    it was only when a friend of mine (who was making mincemeat of equations with five variables) told me that it really doesn’t matter what letter one uses to represent. that it’s the same whether the representation is x, y, z, * or …. that it seemed like things began to make sense to me, haha. ^^

    really love this post. thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Did your friend make mincemeat pi? That would make math much more tasty. I’m glad you were able to make sense of it all. You may not be able to say the same for this blog.

    • Until you get to Calculus and each of the Greek letter symbols is actually assigned to a particular set of algebraic functions….

      OK. I did learn something.

      Thanks you Chinese language, even though I already forgot that too.

        • Too true, but then I took the language because it was the most interesting and the most beautiful one available to fulfill my foreign language requirement.

          I love the sound of spoken Mandarin, and the look of the calligraphic Chinese characters.

          Not so much the simplified Chinese characters for the computer….
          Oh well. I’m sure it was absolutely necessary for readability of tiny font sizes to get all that information onto a page, for whatever the topic was….

  18. A.PROMPTreply

    Oh, this is brilliant! I have an adult son who is totally into math and I’m sending this on to him now! You have woven an incredible story here with so many little nuggets of fun! As soon as I read you were worried about the teacher taking your finger, I was totally hooked. Wonderful writing…..again!

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