Wednesday, August 15, 2007

By the Numbers

It occurred to me a few weeks ago as I was talking with someone about some of my favorite movies that there was a common theme -- mathematics: A Beautiful Mind, about a brilliant mathematician dwelling in an imaginary world of spies and secret codes created by his paranoid schizophrenia; Proof, about the daughter of a renowned mathematician whose life and career succumbed to a cruel mental illness, and she appears to be the inheritor of his genius and, she fears, his craziness, as she reluctantly confesses that she is the author of one of the most elegant and phenomenal mathematical proofs in recent history; and Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon makes his stellar debut as a tough street kid working as a janitor at MIT who sneaks into the mathematics department at night to solve complicated equations that have stumped even the most brilliant students in the department.

There is something inherently and deeply fascinating to me about mathematics. This is amazing considering that in high school I barely squeaked by in my math courses. That, however, was more closely related to my attitude towards school in general, and math in particular, and my firm resistance to homework or studying. It was in college where my affinity for mathematics first shone like a light in the darkness of my math anxiety, and not only could I do math, but I could do it well; not only did I understand math, but I loved it.

With the bad taste of high school still fresh in my mouth, I dreaded the required college algebra course. When it became inevitable that I would have to take it, I called a buddy of mine who was a math major and got his assurance that he'd be standing by if I got into a jam. I never called him back. Over the course of the ensuing quarter, I consistently made A's on homework, quizzes, and exams; the lowest grade I earned was a 93.

Nobody could have been more stunned about this than I, but I listened in class, took notes, read and studied the textbook, and best of all -- I got it! I even liked it -- liked it so much, as a matter of fact, that I discussed with my professor the possibility of changing my major to math (which I never did). The final exam was an interdepartmental final, which meant the exam was created communally by the five professors teaching the course that quarter. Dr. Mayberry cautioned us that we might encounter unfamiliar material, but not to worry, since different professors had not covered all the same material, and that would be considered in assigning final grades.

Since I had, in my own reading and studying, actually covered more material than we'd covered in class, I hoped I would be prepared. The students from all five classes gathered in Russell Auditorium to take the exam. Two hours later I walked out drained but exuberant. I was confident I had done well, but I was still shocked when the exam grades were posted: I had scored a perfect 100!

In my current vocation, I teach inmates in a state prison. For most of my Adult Basic Education and GED prep students, math is the subject they most often dread -- even fear -- but we have a great record of success. It is a source of continuous reward when working with these men, many who've been failures all their lives, when that light goes on and they get it. From time to time a student will even light up my heart by saying, "This is fun!"

Mathematics has become transformed in my judgment from a once mysterious and frightening subject to an avenue of tremendous beauty and delight. There is much that I don't understand, and I still study new areas of math, but I'm grateful that I see even the mystery of that which I don't yet understand as something of wonder and beauty. I'm reminded of the verse in the Bible, "Perfect love casteth out all fear." No longer do I fear math; I love it.

1 comment:

Megan said...

I can't stand math... Well, I couldn't in high school. I always had really bad teachers and if they were actually good- they didn't teach much or were too mean to help.

I keep wanting to get back in and try it again.. I have to take 4 math classes in college because I'm so terrible. Only one will count towards a transfer to university.

Thank you for your comments! Not to be conceited by any means, but it feels really good to have someone be proud of me and say it, to say I am doing good. I get a lot of grief from my mom and my father, well, we're kind of starting to talk again. I try to do good and keep on track- still one of two now in my family that hasn't gotten pregnant early and I am the only one who hasn't smoked or done drugs.

By the way- those are all great movies. Good Will Hunting is foul sounding, but the plot is beautiful.

Oh! Kaz! I should put up his picture... He's sleeping now! Little stinker. Gotta socialize him. He likes to be near my heart.

And 'Close to the Heart' you are one of the special friends!!! <3 (heart)