Monday, September 5, 2011


Among my father's many talents, teaching found small place. He could have taken someone who already knew a good bit about precision tool engineering and taught them a good bit more. Faced with a sixteen-year-old daughter who actively didn't want to know algebra, he was out of his element.

I wouldn't have asked for help until it was beyond doubt that there was something in the homework I couldn't figure out myself -- which would have happened sooner rather than later. I didn't so much hit a wall as fall into a Slough of Despond. I couldn't see how to do the work, or even get enough of a grip on it to it to ask specific questions. I'd try some approach that I vaguely thought might work, probably because it, or something enough like it to be indistinguishable to me, had worked before. When a problem turned out to be structured differently enough that the tried and true, applied mechanically, didn't work, my mind would go blank, its contents blurred and then obliterated by helpless panic.

Given that state of mind, I'm not sure who could have helped me. Clinging to whatever I thought I knew and resisting all attempts to tell me anything different -- if I let go of the one thread in my possession, my feeble grasp on this alien, forbidding and profoundly uninteresting material might unravel altogether -- I must have come across to my father and teachers as perversely and willfully obtuse.

Competent teaching requires an ability to see, or anticipate, someone else's difficulty. My father could figure out and solve an algebra problem himself. He could suggest an approach that would have worked if I had followed it -- not exactly what I was being taught at school, sometimes not in the same universe as far as I could tell. He couldn't begin to identify and impart the one tidbit of information that would have broken up my log jam. Even less could he have relieved the terrified rigidity that kept me stuck on Square One.

He must have boosted me towards getting the right answers at least some of the time. I did pass algebra, if not by much. Since school is more about getting right answers than about understanding what you're doing or remembering it the day after graduation, let alone being able to apply it to any real world situation, getting enough right answers to pass was all I needed to do.

The worst of our tug of war that year was those accursed problem sheets. They weren't part of the regular curriculum; the teacher would distribute a mimeographed handout with ten or a dozen of them, saying "Just try one or two."

During that part of the year, he must have thought he was teaching a class of parents: my father, Carol's father, Eddie's mother. Only Ross, my boy friend at the time, whose father had quit high school during the Depression to help support his family, was tackling these things on his own. I don't know what anyone else in the class did -- probably folded the paper up in the textbook and thought no more about it.

I tried to explain to my father that the most minimal effort on behalf of the evil problem sheets would suffice. It didn't, as we now say, compute. From his point of view, if I was given the sheet of problems as homework, then that was my homework. Whenever one of these horrors came to his attention, he diligently set out to do damn all of them. At least once, he asked if I had a problem sheet to do that night. I suspected him of actually enjoying these things.

On one occasion, Ross happened to be at our house when Dad and I were wrestling with a set of them. He and Dad became so absorbed in some particularly thorny specimen that they apparently didn't notice when I quietly took myself off to the kitchen and baked a cake. Dad may have been as relieved at my departure as I was -- and he would have enjoyed the cake.

That may say something about 1950s gender stereotypes. To me, it mostly speaks to the personalities of the people involved. My head seems not to be wired for finding my way around either the countryside (see IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME: ROADS BETTER NOT TAKEN) or abstruse algebra problems. If more women than men share my mental configuration, I'm sure I apologize. I have felt that I ought to apologize for my preference for the verbal and logical over the spacial and quantitative ever since I found out about that fault line; but apologizing is all I can do. I can't make myself take to math or spacial relations. I've even wondered, heretically, why I should.

When Latin was the language of the Church, the law courts, and educated men throughout Europe, there was an imprecise feeling that students were improved simply by exposure to it, apart from whatever value the knowledge itself had. In my day -- the immediate post-Sputnik 1950s, when helping to beat the Russians was an almost religious obligation -- mathematics was the language of all worthy endeavor. It was also advocated, as Latin has been, for mental exercise, comparable to developing muscles by lifting weights.

For most of us, mathematics, like Latin, is something of a dead language, of no practical use whatever. Upon escaping from a chemistry course that I misguidedly wandered into in my freshman year in college, I forgot not only algebra and trigonometry but every scrap of arithmetic I had learned after fourth grade. The most complicated calculations I have ever had occasion to use have been in multiplying recipes.

But in the throes of Algebra II, I didn't know that; nor would it have helped me if I had. Applicability to life, or even to further study, wasn't the issue. I'm not sure anyone thought I would actually use in later life any of the things I was set to learning in high school. Algebra II was required for college. It never occurred to me to question that, or that college was the sine qua non of a good job and a valid life. Whether I have achieved this last is open to question; I certainly never managed the first, algebra notwithstanding; but all of that is another story.