Imagine, for a moment, that you don’t know how to multiply.

Your lack of numerical savvy has not, thus far, been a really big problem. You were born in a small, insular town where complete lack of mathematical acumen was considered a sign of living the right kind of life. All mentions of addition and subtraction, let alone multiplication, were scrubbed as best as possible from public discourse. Well, it had been scrubbed in all ways except, of course, for constant mention that any manipulation of numbers is against the law.

Older people who have dedicated to a particular course of study were allowed engage in activities related to math in your town, though. Someone has to make sure that the books are balanced at the end of the month, after all. But it was regarded as an activity for those people and only those people.

Still, since it was impossible to completely get rid of math in your little town that means it was impossible to completely avoid being aware of math. Curiosity about the taboo topic eventually caused you to cobble together a working understanding of addition and subtraction and that -- as well as some text books that accidentally made its way in to the town library that you checked out one summer – gave you just enough information about multiplication that you were pretty sure you understood the concept even if you, yourself, couldn’t do it. But you never took that final step and learned your times tables because you, ultimately, didn’t want to break the law.

One day, though, you decide to move out of your little town. The job market sucks, your neighbors are actually kinda mean, and you’ve come to the conclusion that most of the other town laws are dumb and counter-intuitive, too. Dogs that have a spot on the left side of their bodies can only be walked around the block in a counter-clockwise direction, as they were obviously designed to go in that direction. History textbooks can only go up to 1964 -- except for a small bit about the years 1980-1992 -- and contain an awful lot of gaps in the parts they do cover. Women who choose to learn math are then told that they’re only allowed to engage in a life related to that one activity and women who decide not to are, in ways obvious and not, shamed and shunned. Men who do not choose to learn math, however, are praised for their sacrifice and perseverance.

So you leave town.

For a long time, you’re simply distracted by the new life you’ve chosen. Unpacking, finding a job, and getting accustomed to the day-to-day activities in a new place offer plenty of adventure on their own. You find that any curiosity you had about math is matched by curiosity about what happened in 1993 and, as it turns out, reading an almanac is way easier than figuring out why the books sometimes say 3x3=9 and sometimes say 3*3=9.

Still, eventually you turn your attention to matters numerical. And you quickly find out that there is really way, way more to this math thing than the simple trifecta of addition, subtraction, and multiplication that you heard about back home. Some people engage in division (which, for some mystifying reason, can be both long or short, depending). Then there are factors and irrational numbers and you’ve heard about something called matricies and even read a book that mentioned something called Non-Euclidean Geometry.

Soon enough you decide that there’s no way you can learn anything about math on your own. How, after all, is someone who needs to take off their shoes to work with the bigger numbers supposed to solve for x? But every time you try to figure out what to do about it you find out that people simply can’t get past the fact that you don’t know your times tables. The simple mention of the fact causes most people to look at you as if you came from a different planet. Some assume that there’s something physically wrong with you. Some assume that you are in some way ashamed of yourself. Some assume that you actually have no interest in math and wonder why you’re even talking about the subject at all.

Fortunately for you, though, you’ve also discovered that math isn’t really that important. It’s considered impolite to discuss the topic in formal or business settings, so if you simply avoid certain social settings it’s not an issue. As you’re the sort of person who constantly has other things to do, this situation is less intolerable than it is welcome. You’ve also found out that now that there’s no constantly telling you you’re not allowed to engage in multiplication unless you’ve been given special permission you don’t really think about it too much.

Still, every once in a while you make the mistake of trying to re-engage that particular social setting. And when that happens you’re quickly reminded that you’re a weirdo.

Eventually the idea of actually learning anything about math seems like a massive waste of time.

Hilariously, this actually is not an allegory for me.

We moved around a lot because my dad couldn't hold down a job. (And, apparently, each town we lived in only had one job available. Anyway.) Educational standards are different from place to place in the US, and the school I attended 3rd grade in taught multiplication in the 4th grade. Then we moved, to a new town where multiplication tables were taught in the 3rd grade. I didn't know them.

When I tried to tell my new teacher I didn't know multiplication, she replied with, "I thought you were supposed to be gifted," so hahahaha, got you! I'm such a kidder. I'm a 9 year old dork who can't fit in and has a sucky family life, gifted is all I've got lady, don't take it away from me!

I then invested more time and energy into cheating and faking knowing my times tables than it would have taken to actually learn them, because I was 9, and logic wasn't my thing at the time.

I never did learn my times tables. Okay, I know the 1, 2, 5, 10 and 11 up to 9. Whatever. All cell phones come with calculators, and I don't like math.

I do not. At all. I just spent all day reviewing black hole theories on wikipedia because I like theories.

Posted by: Personal Failure | 03/31/2011 at 03:36 PM

And now I find myself thinking about you differently than before.

Touche. Touche indeed...

Posted by: Geds | 03/31/2011 at 04:26 PM

OK. I'll jest take few moments out of my time at the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics conference to step on my lil' ol soapbox here.

It makes me sad to see math reduced to times tables and procedures.

Math is an intuitive way of how we see the world. I wish people would give themselves credit for the level of mathematical thinking they can do, but unfortunately many school programs seem to beat that out of impressionable young minds.

Bottom line? WE NEED MATH. And numbers. And math ideas. And mathematical thinking. It's just too damn bad that the idea of being good at math has been boiled down to some rote learning. Sigh.

'k, I'm done now. Steppin' off.

Posted by: Lainie | 04/14/2011 at 04:57 PM

I...um...I'm pretty sure that a point got missed somewhere in here...

Posted by: Geds | 04/14/2011 at 05:21 PM

ok...ok...i get ya...

Posted by: Lainie | 04/14/2011 at 08:29 PM