Algebra is getting easier, but I’ve noticed something odd about the path we’re taking. During the first week of class, we were doing the kind of algebra I did in ninth grade. There’s nothing special about that, necessarily, because Back Then we didn’t have anything called algebra until the ninth grade. Later in the current class we did things I’d never seen before, like matrices and three-variable equation systems. Next we went on to do the type of problems I remembered from Algebra II, which was eleventh grade. The week after next, we’ll start on quadratic equations, something I struggled with in the twelfth grade in Advanced Math. (I was out sick the day the teacher originally presented it, and when Paul Peck tutored me over the course of the next week he insisted I was making it much harder than it had to be.)
Slowly I’ve come to realize that although I’ve always felt I was good at math, I don’t remember anything about doing it except when I struggled. Negative numbers in eighth grade, quadratics in twelfth, and “what on earth does e stand for?” and “who is this i fellow?” in college calculus.
(Geometry was different. Geometry ROCKED. Give me a proof to prove and a construction to construct, and I was off and running. It was much more tangible for me than algebra, even though my grades were pretty much the same.)
What I do remember are the things I did in math class instead of math. Sorry Mr. Mudd, in ninth grade I devoted myself to reading James Clavell’s Shogun, which was the longest novel I’d ever read. (I believe my paperback edition was 1,026 pages, which is the only fact I remember from Algebra I.) I paid attention in class only when you started calling on people from the other side of the classroom, which meant I would have to answer (out loud!) one of the harder problems. I would figure out which problem was mine, solve it, and go back to the novel until it was my turn to speak. If I didn’t understand what we did in class that day, I asked Ben Jordan to explain it to me on the bus ride home. Even though his class had the new book and mine had the ancient book, he was always able to get me back on track before he got off the bus. (I always thought he’d make a heck of a math teacher.) But you probably knew all this already.
In geometry, if I didn’t have a proof or a construction to do, I wrote moody poetry (some, sadly, still exists) and passed notes back and forth to Paula Howard. We spent that year comparing life to a chess game and happily pondered who would end up playing Kings to our Queens. Sorry, Mrs. Beathard. But I’m sure you knew all this already. You were pretty sharp, and I respected you.
More apologies to Mrs. Beathard for Algebra II and Advanced Math. I must have done the work, but I don’t remember a thing. (I do remember creating user-unfriendly programming on the Apple II for our school’s second-ever Computer Math class, though. I still have my 5.25 inch floppy disk for that class — I wish I remembered what my password was, because I encrypted it. I’d sure love to see what’s on that disk.)
Onward and upward…. this course still has half a term to go, and with all the things we’ll be covering I will still have one more full college course before I am ready to take calculus again. And now I have to remember what I’m doing; the physics will be useless without the math. It’s more than remembering — it’s a matter of absorbing, incorporating the mathematics so that I’ll be able to see the patterns, to pull out the relevant data instinctually, to be able to set up the problem correctly and use all my tools to solve it. Those gravitons aren’t going to discover themselves.