Let it be known. I have forgiven my math teachers. Now that some years have passed
(far more than I care to admit), I even like some of them. At least the ones who will still
speak to me. Let me say up front that it was not entirely their fault for making me feel so
dumb. I was dumb. At least as far as “cipherin’” was concerned. I just didn’t get it.
Numbers just didn’t stick in my head. I think Kentucky humorist James Tandy Ellis was
on to something when he said "Mathematics are for people who neither expect nor derive
any pleasure from life." I always hoped against hope that when they were putting my
dismal math grades on my otherwise decent report card, my teachers would notice the
good grades I got in History and those right-brain subjects like Literature, Band and
Creative Writing. But alas, if they did see those scores, it certainly didn’t seem to make
any difference. I was a failure. I was destined for the ash heap of history...or arithmetic.
I suppose I could blame some of it on the fact that I was in the guinea pig generation
when the wizards of education were pushing “new math”. I really didn’t get that. For most
of my third and fourth grade years, my dad, who was good at math, would sit with me at
the kitchen table and say “I don’t know how they expect you to do this, but here is how I
would do it!”. Good old long division. But I guess the “new math” excuse won’t really fly
either, because some of the kids...most of the kids...in my class DID understand
(although, I recently reconnected with a favorite elementary teacher who confessed that he
didn’t get it either).
When I reached junior high, things really started to unravel. All that stuff I didn’t learn in
elementary was coming back to bite me. It didn’t help that I was assigned a seat in the
very back of the class next to a kid who’s two biggest talents were drawing caricatures of
hot rods and distracting me with dirty jokes.
Somehow I made it through eighth grade and landed smack in the middle of a man-
made purgatory known as algebra. The class may as well have been taught in Esperanto.
I would look around and see the dawning of comprehension on the self-satisfied faces of
my peers while I remained hopeless, fumbling around in the dark. The pitying looks of
my classmates soon turned to disdain and dismissal. I had been left behind.
It quickly became obvious to me that my teachers had not only lost faith in my
prospects of becoming a rocket scientist, but were beginning to have serious doubts
about my being able to make change for a dollar. During one semester, I got two F’s and
a D minus and my teacher was so desperate to get me out of his class that he gave me a
D as a final grade. My first thought was “NOW who’s dumb in math?” After getting out
of that class, I swore I would never take another math class as long as I lived. Then
came chemistry. Who knew?
I must confess that perhaps one of the reasons I was not so good at the numbers game
was because I spent most of my spare time holed up in my room, playing electric bass
and guitar for hours on end until my fingers bled. In addition to being an escape from the
tyranny of mathematics, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young and The Guess
Who spoke to me. Here was something I could be good at. Not that my math teachers
ever noticed. I was still a dud as far as they were concerned. A nobody. A nonentity. At
least it felt that way. I can still remember their exasperation and their incredulity as to
how anyone could have so much trouble with something so easy, so cut and dried. One
frustrated math teacher who really only wanted to help told me “Math is just like
music. It’s just numbers”. My thought was “If that’s your idea of music, I'm glad you chose mathematics”.
School did eventually get better. Teachers in other disciplines did see potential in me and
cheered me on and made me feel pretty good about myself. But it was music more than
anything else which gave me an identity. Something I could call my own. Something the
straight A students or the jocks couldn’t necessarily do so well. Something that might
keep me out of a career in motel management, as one of my teachers suggested.
As I said, I have forgiven you math teachers and apologize for making your jobs harder
than they had to be. I feel as though I owe you something. In the spirit of friendship, let’s
get together for coffee. Let’s bury the hatchet. It will be my treat and I will even use my
debit card to make sure I don’t mess up the bill. You can leave the tip. I’m still not too
good at figuring percentages. Afterwards, come on over. You can play and sing one of
your songs for me. What’s that? You haven’t written any? There’s really nothing so
hard about that. It’s only words and a melody. Whadda you mean you can’t? You can
TALK can’t you? Have you ever written a grocery list? Anybody can do that. It’s the
same skill set. You do READ, don’t you? If you can talk, think and hum, you can write a
song. Anybody with half a brain who has ever listened to the radio should be able to
figure it out.
Maybe you can figure it out, or maybe you were created with other talents... ones that I
don’t possess. I’m glad for that. I respect your abilities. I don’t like to imagine a world
where the people who design nuclear technology have math skills like mine. I also don’t
like to imagine a world where musicians boil everything down to an algebraic equation.
It’s not that one is superior to the other. I still think you are an ok person and I wouldn’t
vote you off the island. The world would be a pretty boring place if we were all the same.
Some kids were never meant to be physicists or engineers (and yet the “experts” are
determined to reshape them and pound their little round heads into square holes until
they all don’t know the same things). Skills do not need to be utilitarian in order to be of
value. Sometimes it’s ok to create something just for the sake of being creative. Potato
plants are far more useful than a pot of mums, but somehow I don’t think potatoes
would do much for the ambiance of my deck.
Now, how about I have another cup of coffee while you balance my checkbook?