Saturday, November 10, 2007

Math is Hard... and Then You Die: Chapter 1

Welcome to a brief biographical sketch of how I got from snot nosed kid to sullen adult. I am calling the story Math is Hard... and Then You Die. In a recent post, Dr. Monkerstein discussed his math education with a bleak recall of childhood that would do Charles Dickens proud. His story is not uncommon. Many folks feel that if they just had a good teacher somewhere along the way, things would have been much different. I teach for a living, so in some way I buy into this narrative, hoping to inspire people to have a little bit of the love I have for math.

But when I look back on my math education, I have to say no math teacher inspired me until I was a junior in college. Let me repeat that. I went fourteen years through the public education system with teachers that didn't inspire me to go farther in math. I went farther because of my own love and certain promises the education system held out in front of me. Some were good, some were bad, but it was my own interest in the topic that pushed me forward, even over some big hurdles.

I loved math when I was a little kid. My dad did a fantastic job giving me a first push, but just like he taught me to ride a bike, once he removed the training wheels I kept riding a bike on my own because I enjoyed it, and likewise I did math for my own enjoyment. So let's start at the beginning.

Here's something my parents did right, absolutely without question. They subscribed to the LIFE Magazine Nature Library and the LIFE Magazine Science Library. I loved, loved, loved these books. They were tall, slim hardbound books on glossy paper, all with the same layout. Chapter of text with some sidebars of pictures with paragraph caption, then a boatload of pictures, great Life magazine quality pictures. Even before I could read the whole things, I would pour over these books again and again in the same obsessive way kids listen to a single song or watch one DVD over and over.

Of course, Matty Boy being Matty Boy, the Mathematics edition of the series gets a picture all by itself. Looking around the 'Net, I found out that David Bergamini is the author. He did a great job, but whoever came up with the common format for these books deserves a lot of credit for how good these were.

Tip of the hat to everybody who worked on these books. A-1 Tip Top stuff.

By the time I was four, I could read some and knew my numbers up to 100. In the math book, there was a multiplication table. (The one I show here goes up to 5x5 = 25. The one in the book went up to 12x12 = 144.) I was confused. I thought if they listed the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in the first row, why not keep counting 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 in the second row? It didn't make sense.

I explained this to my dad when he came home. He was patient in explaining, but I still wasn't getting it. After several explanations, he got the idea of giving me some tracing paper. Obviously, I wasn't allowed to write in a nice book like this one. I was pretty damn bright for a four year old, if I do say so myself, but I still had the attention span of a four year old, so my dad had to be patient. Below is what he showed me.

1. Pick a square, any square.
2. Draw the rectangle that starts from the top left corner to the square you chose on the tracing paper.
3. Do the Mattyplication thing, putting the numbers 1,2,3,4... in the boxes.
4. Put the tracing paper back over the multiplication table. The number in the lower right corner of the Mattyplication table will be the number in the multiplication table in the same position.

But it's just the lower right corner, my dad told me. Technically, it's the whole rightmost column, but the lower right was cool enough for me.

When I was four, this was the coolest magic trick I ever saw. "It's not magic, it's math." my dad told me.

And that's all it took. "See ya, Dad! I'm going to wander around the forest of math by myself!" I said, metaphorically at least.

"Okay, Matt. Be back in time for dinner." This could have been metaphorical or literal, I'm not sure.

My dad wasn't a teacher. He was an insurance adjuster. How he came upon this little trick of math pedagogy I do not know. I've told him the story and he doesn't remember it specifically. He remembers me always asking a boatload of questions or spouting whatever fun facts I learned in a day, but this particular memory is one that I have saved and treasured all my life.

But like any good story based on a Dickensian view of childhood, this moment of youthful bliss will now be followed by chapters of misery and despair.

Tomorrow, Chapter 2: Mrs. Kruger, She Wolf of the SS.

Now playing: The Ramones - When I Was Young
via FoxyTunes


Karla said...

I remember you teaching me math games, the most famous of which was Pico Fermi. Not so much math as logic and deduction, but with numbers, see?

I also remember being about 4 and hearing the opinions and questions flying around the dinner table, with Dad firing interesting questions and challenging us to think.

I realized that I didn't have strong opinions about the topics, and that that wasn't very interesting. I thought to myself: "I gotta get me some opinions, and how!"

And now look at me, fer chrissake!

But huzzah for Donald Lee ... Dad of Destiny!

Matty Boy said...

Yeah, you and Jenny really took to the logic games.

The dinner table was fun, no question about it.

Distributorcap said...

i had those books too! maybe that is why i went to grad school for math

Matty Boy said...

Those books were just so cool. I had a science teacher in middle school who didn't believe in evolution, a cracker from North Carolina named Mr. Martin. So I brought the LIFE Science Library Evolution book into class. This didn't convince him, since as he put it "A dog never gave birth to a cat." But a lot of the class ended up on my side, especially when we went over the finches on the Galapagos.

Mr. Martin didn't convince me that evolution was a hoax. He did more to convince me that folks from the South might not be the sharpest crayons in the 64 color Crayola box.

(In my now longer experience, I've met some clever Southerners, so I don't hold onto the stereotype anymore. Not saying there aren't stupid Southerners, just that not all Southerners are stupid.)

FranIAm said...

Well we had those books and I still turned into the dummiest of maths dummies. And how I loved all the Time-Life books we had- we had the whole lot of them on every subject.

Nerd-chile FranIam spent hours pouring over them and the encyclopedia.

We see where that got her!

Life must have been interesting in Casa de Maths de la Splainers.