I have always had a love/hate relationship with numbers. In grade school they would give us a page full of times tables and we would race to fill it out within a certain period of time. I liked the feeling of filling in the tidy little boxes and discovering patterns. I liked the pat on the head I got when I did it quickly and correctly. Around 4th Grade, I got put in an “advanced” class for math, meaning I left the main group and went into a little side room for instruction, and then endured the sneers and teasing of my classmates when I emerged. I got the message pretty early on that it wasn’t good to stand out, and smart kids were considered teacher’s pets. Part of me liked being petted, but there were also times I purposely played dumb to fit in better.
My dad the math professor would give us kids playful math problems and number games as we grew up, I suppose hoping to instill a love for numbers in our hearts. He would be positively gleeful as he showed us clever tricks that "proved" 1 equaled 2, or gave us probability and logic problems. Some of us kids caught his enthusiasm and some of us didn’t. I didn’t. (Though I have kept for thirty years the scrap of paper on which he wrote the 1=2 problem.)
When I was about 16, I transcribed the 1840s journal of my 3rd-great grandfather. In it, he paced out the length of the ship on which he sailed from England to the U.S. and faithfully recorded the measurements in his journal. I think I know where Dad gets his love of numbers.
In high school, math got serious. And difficult. I would stare at the page and the numbers would stare back up at me mutely, refusing to reveal their secrets. My father laboured long and patiently with me every night to help me understand my homework. He made me do the work, but he took the time to explain to me the things my teachers just couldn’t seem to present logically. When I protested that I would never need to know any of this (and I haven’t), he would remind me that I wasn’t learning math; I was learning how to learn. I was practising discipline. I am grateful for those sessions because they got me through, but I remember automatically starting to cry every time we sat down to work. It was an instantaneous response. I don’t know if I’ve ever properly thanked my dad for dragging me kicking and screaming through those tedious hours, but the good grades got me the scholarship that let me get into university, where I could pursue my true passion: languages. (And he’d be the first to point out that math, a system of patterns, is a language in itself.)
Now I work as an administrative coordinator, and part of my job is keeping statistics. And I have flip-flopped again. I’m back to filling out tidy little boxes in Excel, playing with word problems, and looking for patterns. I can see how the math applies to daily life and makes sense of what otherwise would look like chaos. So I’m back to liking it again.
Son Number Three has a flair for math, and it is paying off for him in college. It’s one less thing he has to struggle with in his program. It gives him a boost of confidence. He knows he’s capable of learning. Maybe the genes have jumped a generation. Thanks, Dad.