“Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it’s really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place—relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table. Or having to make a drawing that looks like the thing you’re drawing.” – Adam Gopnik, “Life Studies”

# Fingerpaints and doodles

Published inLit & Crit

When I was in school, I used to approach math class with what felt like a clenched fist in my stomach. Algebra seemed so logical, so doable. The teacher would walk up to the board and write out the formulas, and all you’d need to do is plug in the numbers and get an answer. But hard as I tried, my equations rarely came out correctly. And that was baffling, every time, and unnerving.

When I dropped out of school, I remember thinking, I will NEVER have to take a math class again. No sense of accomplishment in that thought, but what a fucking relief.

Algebra flummoxed me, too. Pitched me right over the crossbars and flayed me. My brother, who was two grades ahead of me, is a math whiz. The high school algebra teacher could not understand, nor even tolerate, that I had none of my brother’s analytical gifts. The following year, I took another algebra course with a different teacher. It was essentially the same course, but with a different name, so I could get my math requirements met.

As an undergraduate at Liminal State U., I had no math requirements. This, in retrospect, was I think a little odd–that someone could get a bachelor’s degree without any math requirements. When I later attended community college in a paralegal program, the college also viewed it a little odd and required me to take algebra.

Was the third time a charm? Mmm… meh. The teacher was cute and I asked her out but we never went. I had just divorced and was a wreck in many ways. But I didn’t do so bad in that class. In between sophomore high school algebra and community college algebra had passed seventeen years, one bachelor’s degree, art school, and two daunting encounters with graduate studies. Those all had sharpened my mind enough so that the third encounter with algebra was not so difficult.

In particular, one of the requirements for the philosophy degree I got was a course in symbolic logic. That’s essentially the algebra of sentences. I took it my second semester back in school and it was tough. I’m studying it again, over thirty years later, to sharpen and strengthen my middle-aged mind. I’ve had to go over the first thirty pages and the exercises therein three times, but I think I finally got the ten basic rules of derivation down. Disjunctive elimination is a particular motherfucker.

After I’m through the logic, I plan to study geometry again (I studied it on my own twenty-five years ago), and then–trigonometry! That ought to be interesting. I’ve never studied it before.

The problem I had with algebra way back in the way-back-when was I tried somehow to understand it, without understanding that all I needed to do was memorize the rules and when and how to apply them. I realized that was the key when I first studied logic. Another thing I’ve realized, and this more recently, is I have to be careful I don’t make these mathematical abstract thingies more complex than they are, because I tend to do that. (Another thing I’ve done over the years that has helped my analytical skills is study computer programming. I can’t program, but I have a better understanding sometimes of what it is that can go wrong with a computer.)

I made mathematics more complex than it needed to be as well. I do wonder sometimes whether as an adult who couldn’t give a shit about pass or fail, I might stand a better chance of absorbing some of the knowledge that evaded me as a teenager.

Then again, it might be better not to mess with my current sense of competence.

Stretch yourself. Go ahead. You may be surprised and delighted at what you discover.