The Rise and Fall of My Math Mojo

In elementary school I did well in math. By the time I hit Junior high, I was a year ahead of the curve. When I started 8th grade at a new school, I noticed that the textbook was the same one I had used in my math class the previous year. I could have shut my mouth right then—coasted through with an easy A, but pride didn’t let me. I approached Mr. Weiss after class one day and said “I think I’ve done some of this stuff already.”
“You mean you can calculate area?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “and volume, too.”
His gasp was nearly audible. “Volume!” he exclaimed, “you know how to calculate volume?”
I nodded with the confidence of someone who had just solved a complex previously thought to be unsolvable equation.

That landed me in a classroom taking a placement exam. I did better than pre-algebra. I was in algebra, baby!

I did pretty well. The following year I had Geometry and did pretty well there, too. Then came Algebra II. I did okay, but some of it was guesswork. Then came Trigonometry. I did a little less okay, but I passed. I wanted to quit then. With one last year of high school, I only wanted to take what was required and the line was drawn at Trigonometry. I was signed up to take Art until my mother turned me around and insisted I change it back to math. That is how I was introduced to the dreaded thing known as calculus.

Calculus! Say it! That’s a grown up math. The big leagues.  It even sounds serious. Calcu-LATE-Calcu-LUS. It’s a B.F.D.

I sucked at it. My teacher had been the one who ushered me through all of the high school math courses aside from Geometry. He was also my Physics teacher. We weren’t friends, but I wasn’t some random kid either. He had mercy on me and I passed.

Then came West Point. The first summer included all you ever wanted to know about drilling with rifles, getting fitted for uniforms and working out so hard that you’re still sweating after the shower, but it also had a placement test. If I remember right, it was taken in an auditorium on a summer afternoon. My head was spinning and I was going through the questions and guessing the answers. It was like taking an exam in hieroglyphics. I turned it in, still feeling strangely confident that I had done okay. When offered the chance to take “Rock Math” I declined. Ha! Rock Math? Phooey! Didn’t they read my transcript? I had knocked out that Calculus business in high school! I was already a year ahead, I aint no dumby! I would be starting out my college career on par with the rest of my peers, at the very least, thankyouverymuch.

Humility, thy name is James T. Sandefur. Mr. Sandefur’s name is etched in my brain because this was the man who authored the text used in my first math class at West Point (and the second, but we’ll get to that in a bit). The name of the text (and the course) was “Discrete Dynamical Systems,” AKA “D.D.S.” or “MA103” (what happened to MA101 & MA102?)

If you’ve ever ignored a problem and later realized that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, it just makes the problem become exponentially worse, then I don’t have to explain why I failed. I could blame exhaustion from having a first hour Phys. Ed. Course, or staying up late shining shoes, but the simple fact was, from lesson 1 and everything thereafter, I Didn’t Get It. Not only that, but despite the course being the only one with lesson plans that went every single day instead of every other day, I continued to Not Get It. I also had an $85 graphing calculator which could have been more helpful, I suppose, but it also had a 100+ page instruction manual. What good was a calculator when you needed the entire semester to learn how to use it?

Failing the course meant getting a second helping of D.D.S. This class was pared down to eight students, all of whom had also failed the course. We had a teddy bear of an instructor, a goofball major who had graduated from West Point in the ‘80’s. His name was still up on the record boards in the intramural pool. He had once been one of us, and when you were a cadet, you sometimes preferred the officers who went to West Point because they knew what our lives entailed. No matter how many years had passed or what changes had taken place in that time frame, they knew.

The second time around was better. I actually understood it and I scored a decent grade. Then it was on to Calculus. Ha! Calculus. Haven’t we seen that before? Turns out, no, because if we had, we would have scored better than a D (See also, Physics). In fact, my best math course was also the one most widely hated by other cadets. Probability and Statistics, AKA "Prob & Stats," AKA "MA206."  Years later, I still maintain my fondness of Venn diagrams. This was where I redeemed myself and closed out my math course history with a respectable B (okay, B-). Do I use any of this stuff in day to day life (just like “they” said I was going to?) I don’t know, maybe abstract thinking is so subconscious that maybe I have used it. Maybe the trick is that you can’t prove you don’t use algebra every day. All I know is that I’m humbled. If I never take another math class I think I’d be just fine.  Sometimes I long for the story problems of yore. If a train leaves Philadelphia at 5 p.m., traveling at 55 miles per hour, I could easily predict when it would pass the one that departed Washington at 4:30 moving at 45 miles per hour. Better yet, ask me to calculate the volume of a cube! I was good at that. Once.


Brian said...

Great story! I actually have a site called MathMojo, and will be mentioning your post in it.

Keep up the good work,
Brian (a.k.a. Professor Homunculus at MathMojo.com )

-GRC said...

Thanks, I will check it out, provided I don't break out into hives. :)