The Uphill Slide

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Math Genius

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I wasn’t one, a math genius, that is. Math was just too hard. I wonder now how much of that belief had to do with gender bias, my own and teachers’. I read that math and literature are introduced to boys and girls at the wrong times in their development, but school is standardized without regard to certain developmental differences. A year ago when my oldest grandson was tested for speech delay, one of the women said that boys and girls develop their speech and motor skills at different times, a gender difference in development. Perhaps home schooling is the answer.

My high school math teacher did not inspire enthusiasm for math. If I hadn’t been college-bound, I would have stuck to general mathematics. But I took algebra and advanced to geometry in my junior year. I had the book inside a book perfected. The teacher who paced the front of the room wearing a hypnotic gold symboled ring never caught me. Inevitably I had to join the class. It wasn’t the teacher who sparked enthusiasm, but geometry that did. Now, though, all those theorems are gone with the shorthand symbols I learned a few years later and used only once on the job. If you don’t use it, you lose it. The theorem of life perhaps. Despite my eventual love for geometry, I couldn’t get past the flatness of the teacher and skipped trigonometry and calculus and the nerdy slide-rule my senior year.

Math classes at Penn State don’t even hold a place in my memory. Obviously, less than inspirational. My junior year roommate, though, was a math major. I thought she must be a genius. When I last was in contact with her years ago, she had taken a job with Amtrak reservations. My sophomore music-major roommate graduated from college to become an airline stewardess (politically correct at that time). Even forty years ago, college grads were taking jobs outside their majors. I left Penn State with no greater knowledge of higher mathematics. I had what I needed. I could calculate the change in my head to know if I was being short-changed. I could rough sum my groceries to avoid embarrassment at the register. I could figure out how much the shirt at 25% would cost. I could double or half my recipes. I could balance my checkbook, although I never searched for that elusive penny.

I was done with all but everyday math, until I returned to college in my 50s. My four years without graduation from Penn State netted me 30 transfer credits when I entered Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Only 15 of those were even useful. I was starting all over again. At orientation, they wanted me to take the math placement test. I said, “I don’t want to waste my time. I’ll start at the beginning.” I took the brush-up course and then moved into calculus. I call calculus the math that doesn’t make sense. Calculus for its own sake. Someone described it as measuring the falling ball, math for rocket scientists. I passed with an A. How did I do it? I had practice problems that I copied to homework and test problems. I mimicked the process without being able to answer why. Calculus is on my Alzheimer-preventing things to understand the why. It will stretch my brain to the outer limits.

If I had it to do over again, I would be a math genius. I would push my daughter to be a math genius. She failed the simplest college math two or three times. That might have been, though, not the smart girl who really didn’t get math, but the fun-loving one who just blew it off.

Math is fun. It has a rhyme and reason. Look at the patterns in The magic of the Fibonacci numbers.

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