Friday, January 22, 2010

Adding enthusiasm, subtracting civility

Math rocks.

I am currently enrolled in my first college math class. After 20-plus years with words like "interger" and "numerator" completely absent from my vocabulary, I am now fully factored into the world of fractions, supplementary angles, and algebraic expressions. And I love it.

I completely forgot how addicted I am to "getting it." Sometimes, when I'm trying to solve an elaborate equation with all its intricacies and parentheses, when I finally get to the "x-equals-______" part, I'm so excited I want to jump up and yell, "I got it!"

How often does one get such a solid handle on "getting it"?

For many of us, daily life equals negotating our way through rough terrain and murky water. Parenting decisions are made rapid-fire and off-the-cuff, hoping for the best. In-boxes overflow with a steady stream of open-ended projects that never deliver a sense of completion. Relationships present a broad array of communication breakdowns, behavioral modifications and half-hearted compromises.

But math. Ahhhhhh math. Justice and fairness within easy reach as I master the maneuvers to get the left side to balance with the right.

If the left side were equal to the right side in real life, I'd receive an equitable wage from all six of my jobs. If the left side were equal to the right, kids in school would worry about a geometry test instead of whether a homemade bomb would explode in the chair next to them.

But math. Now there's nirvana. The place where we can all peaceably co-exist.

Take X for example. X is a thing of beauty. X never carries baggage from previous equations. X always enters the picture clean and untainted, ready to tackle the next solution set. X and Y never have long, convoluted conversations about X's ex or why Y isn't spending enough time with XY. Y never asks X if X was with Z the night before. X never berates Y for Y's inability to pick up Y's socks and toss them into the cylinder with the 24-inch radius.

No. X and Y just jump in the equation and get down to business. It doesn't matter whether X had a positive male role model from when X first came to be. None of that matters. X is solid and unwavering. X is constant. When X equals 5 you can take it to the bank. No argument. No professionals are brought in to assess the situation and offer their suggestions as to how to fix X. X equals 5. Yesterday, today, and 20 years from now. Math equals rock-solid predictability.

That's what I love about math.

What I don't love about math is the attitude of some of my classmates. They just don't seem to share my perspective. They don't get it. They don't want to get it. It is uncool to love math. Rude and insolent and 20-plus-x years younger than me, their disrespect is chilling. If a student enters a classroom 45 minutes late, has not handed in the last four homework assignments, walks to a chair 26 feet from the door, and immediately starts a conversation with another student traveling in the opposite direction, what percentage of the class will be disrupted? Check your work.

I get so exasperated with the constant yammering and side conversations that take place all around me. I am literally seconds from standing up on my seat and yelling, "Where were you raised? Have you no sense of decency? Do you think good instructors grow on trees? They don't! I should know! I'm a full-time college student! When a good instructor comes along like the one who is standing at the front of the room, expertly explaining exponential equations, I nearly pass out from the shock!"

But I don't. I remain quiet and stay in my seat, looking down at my math book. I float back into my altered state of bliss, marveling at X and its rock-solid strength.

published November 5, 1999 in the Downers Grove Reporter