Maniacal Mathematics

Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head.  ~Carl Sandburg, “Arithmetic”

I homeschooled my oldest son until 5th grade. When we would study math, he could work numbers so fast in his head that I had to try to race him on paper to see if he was getting the right answer. I let him work them however he wanted; he was a natural, so why mess with something organically brilliant?

There was a blithe certainty that came from first comprehending the full Einstein field equations, arabesques of Greek letters clinging tenuously to the page, a gossamer web.  They seemed insubstantial when you first saw them, a string of squiggles.  Yet to follow the delicate tensors as they contracted, as the superscripts paired with subscripts, collapsing mathematically into concrete classical entities – potential; mass; forces vectoring in a curved geometry – that was a sublime experience.  The iron fist of the real, inside the velvet glove of airy mathematics.  ~Gregory Benford, Timescape

I myself didn’t even like math until I began to study Einstein, relativity, and the rest of the mind-blowing theories of how to understand the world. I began to appreciate that math wasn’t just a torture device, but was actually a way to investigate reality itself.

Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.  Rigour should be a signal to the historian that the maps have been made, and the real explorers have gone elsewhere.  ~W.S. Anglin

My son has been doing less than stellar in high school math. We received his abysmal honors Algebra II class grade (on the same report card where all the other grades were A’s) only days after he brought home his standardized test results: he is in the upper 90th percentile in all areas.

Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence.  Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting.  I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.  ~Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Now for me, I give little credence to any of those random numbers: the tests, grades, percentiles. That’s not reflective of reality. That’s not math. That is an attempt at control, an enforcement of policy, an effort to remove all vestiges of the individual and place him or her on a spectrum of value compared to the rest of the population.

So what to do about a horrifically bad grade? Is it the teacher’s fault? Is it the student’s fault? Is it the subject, the number of students in the classroom, the bureaucracy, the textbooks or the lack thereof?  Is it the age, the weather, the parents’ lack of involvement or the fact that they won’t push their offspring to conform, chopping off bits to fit their kids neatly in the box the way the PhD’s have decided they should?

Although I am almost illiterate mathematically, I grasped very early in life that any one who can count to ten can count upward indefinitely if he is fool enough to do so.  ~Robertson Davies, “Of the Conservation of Youth,” The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks

All I can think is how, when he first started school, they wanted to put him in remedial language arts because his spelling and punctuation were atrocious. When prodded, the teacher acknowledged that, yes, the content of the writing sample is well above grade level.  So, the part of the writing that a monkey couldn’t do is amazing…

Although he may not always recognize his bondage, modern man lives under a tyranny of numbers.  ~Nicholas Eberstadt, The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule

Within a year he was in the AIG program. The announcement was something to the effect of: Congratulations! Your child is gifted intellectually! I swear to heaven above if we had the funding, we would actually provide him with some great resources! Now go on about your business! As you were!

I know I am just his overprotective Mama, certain my little angel is right in the face of any evidence to the contrary, defending his inherent genius against the Big Bad school system with its infallible judgments rendered against the very soul of the intellect. I am surely, pathetically, unforgivably blind to any of his faults – my darling could not possibly be lazy or apathetic or rebellious or *gasp* unable to grasp a concept!

Sometimes it is useful to know how large your zero is.  ~Author Unknown

I want to cry when I think of the days he and I spent playing with numbers. Adding, multiplying, strategizing, using them to build and bake and live.

They’ve done nothing but use their suspicious numbers against him. Against all of us. I will defend my boy against any of their numbers, big or small.

I hope someday he remembers that he and the numbers used to be friends, removes them from the clutches of the pencil pushers and rebuilds a meaningful relationship with them.

One of the endlessly alluring aspects of mathematics is that its thorniest paradoxes have a way of blooming into beautiful theories.  ~Philip J. Davis


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