Thursday, March 31, 2005

ALGEBRA AND ME

Wait! Don’t hang up! I’ve had an interesting adversarial relationship with algebra. Most would say I won. I know I lost. But I eventually came to realize it was through no fault of my own.

It all began after I got kicked out of high school. (They called me a bunch of names like ‘incorrigible,’ ‘undisciplined’ and ’habitual truant.’ Do you think that’s fair? I was just a kid!)

I thought I was through with school. (A line from Woody Allen struck a note with me. In his fifties he said something like, “I give thanks when I wake up every morning that I don’t have to go to school today.”)

Then they told me I had to go to something called ‘continuation.’ How often? Every God damned day! What was the point of getting kicked out of school if I still had to go to school?

If I got a job it was only one day a week, so I got a job.

In this ‘continuation school’ they put me in an algebra class. I glanced at that crap now and then and it looked pretty simple, but mostly I slept in that class.

As soon as I turned 17 I put an end to school by joining the Air Force. Believe me, getting out of school was a major reason in my enlisting.

Flash ahead two years.

The armed forces hold a world wide competition among enlisted men for entry to West Point. I applied. Why not?

I killed on the exam. I got the highest score on the base. Only it wasn’t high enough to get into West Point. The exam was in three parts. In two parts I had a near perfect score. Trouble was the third part was algebra in which my score was dismal. Just a moderate score would have gotten me into West Point.

Justice? I don’t know. I can’t imagine me being a success in a military academy. I was still pretty undisciplined. They booted me up to staff sergeant at age 20 but that was because the Air Force rented me out to civilian contractors to run civilian survey crews. They pretty much had to give me some rank but that had little to do with the military or discipline. (At least I had become corrigible.)

Flash ahead 9 or 10 years.

After coming ‘home’ from Iran I decided, for some odd reason, to pursue a degree in engineering. I was already an engineer by definition (meaning that was my title and pay grade).

I enrolled at City College of San Francisco. Of course they put me into college algebra. I must say I creamed that course. In this junior college the class met daily. Every day there were problems to solve in class. Every day there was homework. Then there were periodic tests, and the mid-term and the final.

I got one problem wrong.

In the whole semester!

Everyone and the record would say that I mastered algebra. In truth, I failed miserably. Why? I had to cheat on every word problem. When they gave me a word problem I would solve it first through math and intuition, and then work backwards to set up the algebraic formula that would give the correct answer.

What the hell good is that? If you can’t solve word problems, then algebra has no practical application. And so it has been in my life.

Maybe the title of this essay should have been “Words and Me.” I’ve had the same problem with other types of word problems. I cannot do crossword puzzles or even give simple definitions of words.

But, as I wrote in the beginning, I have come to realize that it is through no fault of my own. That’s just the way my mind works. You have to play with the hand you were dealt.

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