Monday, November 12, 2007

Math is Hard... and Then You Die: Chapter 3

This may be hard for my gentle readers to believe, but when Matty Boy actually was a lad, he was a bit of a smart ass.

Gasp! That just can't be!

Yes, it's true. And it harmed my academic career as well.

I was a junior when I was taking geometry from Earl Nethercutt, known to his students as Earl the Pearl, only because the Duke of Earl was a song too far out of date. I loved geometry. As a teacher, I can see that geometry is a problem academically, as it introduces proof to students. Proof is very important to math, but it's definitely a gatekeeper. Some folks are going to get proof and some aren't. If you can't get proof, there's no chance of going farther in math, but some people don't.

I don't judge people based on this. It's like music. Nearly anyone can listen to music and enjoy it. A smaller segment of the population can sing or play an instrument well. A smaller proportion still are the people who can write music. Likewise with proof. Following a simple proof should be possible for anyone willing to pay attention. Being able to reconstruct a proof on demand is a harder talent. Being able to create an original proof yourself is another thing entirely.

I loved proof. Mr. Nethercutt's class was almost all about proof, and I ate it up. He wrote in dry erase marker on an overhead projector. He would tell us what we were trying to prove first, then write out the steps. To keep it interesting for me, I would try to finish the proof before he did. He would write fairly quickly, so it was a challenge for me. If someone asked a question, he would stop to answer it, which gave me a good chance to get to the end first. I didn't say anything while doing this.

One day, he put up a statement that would take many steps to finish. Someone asked a question, and I was off to the races. It took about nine steps to finish, if I recall correctly, and when someone asked a question around step four, Mr. Nethercutt answered it and continued. Up to step five, my proof and his agreed, but on step six he went in a different direction.

He turned left at Albuquerque.

All the things he was saying were true, all of them things you could prove from the geometric drawing we were studying. But none of them were getting him closer to the conclusion. I didn't say anything. Maybe he had a different way of getting there. It's possible. But at step fifteen of his proof, he stopped, realizing he was completely lost.

"I have the proof if you want it." I said.

"What?" he said, a little flop sweat appearing on his forehead, shining in the light of the overhead projector.

"You were good through step five, erase the other stuff and I'll give you the last four steps."

He erased. I waited. I started telling him the rest of the proof and he took dictation.

Incorrectly. He wrote something down other than what I said.

"Sloppy, Earl. Real sloppy." I said, smartass teen that I was.

"Mr. Hubbard! I am not here to please YOU!"

"Well, you're doing an excellent job of it."
Red card for Matty Boy! Not unlike the French star Zidane when he headbutted that Italian guy in the World Cup final. Asked to leave the class. When tempers cooled... well, tempers didn't cool. He would not take me back into class. He wouldn't let me take the tests away from the rest of the class. I didn't take any more math in high school. It didn't hurt me in the standardized tests. I got 790 in math and 710 in English on the SAT. But worried that I was now behind other college students, I decided to become an English major when I started at Cal State Hayward.

In the next exciting chapter: Philip Roth vs. Fortran!

Now playing: Beck - Minus
via FoxyTunes


dguzman said...

Oh dear, Matty. I wasn't that smarmy until college!

Matty Boy said...

I was a precocious smart-ass, I admit.

Karla said...

Oh me luvz prufs! They are so fun!

And I think I'm just as much of an asswipe as you were in class, but as a gal, I had to hide it.

Did I tell you that when I took my first algebra class in college, after a not very sterling high school career and intermittent years of itinerant laboring, I had a Dr. Fuckwith?

But he was so obviously a tool that I didn't pay attention to him. When we were looking at squares and square roots, I decided to memorize all of them up to 30 squared.

So I wrote them all out on a sheet of paper, and noticed all sorts of patterns in them. I spent two or three days working them out, and independently came up with this cool formula that would help me figure out squares.

So I show it to tool boy, and he goes, "Oh yeah, that's just the difference of squares formula - we'll be getting to that in a couple of weeks."

JUST the difference of squares formula! Bitch, I discovered it independently!

But he wasn't a good enough mathematician to understand what had happened. Luckily for me, I was.

Yay maths!

FranIAm said...

Matty Boy thrown directly out of the class. Whoa baby... that is big.

And an English major? Nice touch. And here you are today using all your "mad skilz."

I am love, love, loving reading about all these maths.

Today it hit me that for me math is like a language that sounds lovely from afar, but one that I have simply not learned.

Oh yes, I can add and subtract- although I have some weird numbers dyslexia so I must be very careful when money is involved.

Multiply, divide... Basics.

Then I am lost. I did not get thrown out of my math class. They just left me behind and I made almost no effort to get ahead.