Few things are as satisfying as sharpening a handful of pencils, then holding up the little tools to contemplate your finished product. You examine the light glint off of the lead tips, relish the idea of potential that lies within.
I haven’t done this in years. It’s a throwback to true “old school” days. But pencils have been a hot commodity in my house lately. My preteen children have begun bringing home their math homework. I’ve vacillated from extreme irritation (at my kids’ slowness to grasp simple concepts and at my own lack of patience) to great satisfaction. It feels so good when we manage to figure out a problem that initially stumped us all. So I’ve come to realize that I’m not quite as nurturing as I thought I was. And I’ve decided that I actually like math.
I like problem solving, logic and the sense of control I get with being able to break things down into measurable, analytical little pieces. The laws of math don’t ebb and flow as human emotions do. With math, I’m not at the whim of the unexpected. And when I get stuck, good ol’ trial and error comes to the rescue.
If only life were like math.
A Harper’s magazine article recently lamented the installation of America’s core common standards in schools and an accompanying nation-wide push to make Algebra mandatory for all high-school students. The writer sympathizes with math-hating students and argues that high-level math isn’t for everyone. It isn’t necessary for survival, he says. Since biology, physics and chemistry aren’t mandatory high school subjects, he thinks algebra shouldn’t be either.
I’m not sure how I feel about this.
There’s something to be said about math’s logic and how it offers a sheer refuge of hiding amongst numbers and immutable laws. About stretching the brain to ask new questions, to look at a problem from different angles, to persevere at something dark and obscure until it magically opens up and blooms before your eyes.
All of a sudden I’m convincing myself that math might just become a new hobby for me, like piano, foreign languages and gardening. Is this a sign of the rabid confusion that currently envelopes my life? Probably.
That unsettled, haunting feeling of transition ain’t goin’ nowhere. Tectonic plates are still shifting under my feet, but I think I’ve found another little pocket of solitude—in snatched moments of teaching my offspring that 6×7=42, that square roots have a pattern and that numbers actually reflect and communicate some snippet of reality.