“Do you ever have nightmares?” He is soaking in a too-hot tub and hasn’t yet worked up to dunking his head under.
That’s easy. “Yep. Rising water.” I trail the washcloth across his knees.
“What was the worst one?”
I remember it too well. His blonde mane disappeared under the surface of a brown lake and I couldn’t get to him. My hand plunged down and I tried so hard, his hair slipping out of my fingers. “It has you in it. Do you want to hear?”
He shakes his head. “No. The worst one about you.”
I describe leaping off the bow of the ship into the open ocean before realizing my folly. “It’s not really about drowning,” I say. “Drowning is a metaphor.” We’ve talked about analogies often enough but he still gives me a blank stare.
“Remember? You and I rushing out the door in the morning is like stepping on firecrackers.” He nods and returns to poking his fingers up through bubbles. I try to explain that the dream of water probably has something to do with feeling like I have too many chores and I can’t keep track of everything.
The shampoo is a blue jewel in my palm. His hair a gold fish slipping past. He buries his eyes in a dry towel. “What’s your second worst dream?” He mumbles through the terrycloth.
“The test,” I answer without a beat. That endless, infernal, always-on-the-brink-of-failure test. Exam time, class I forgot to attend, no studying, clock ticking, panic mounting. . . How many decades of this? How many millions of us? I laugh as I describe the dream. “When you get older, I bet you and your friends are going to talk about having the exact same dream.”
“What’s the test?” He dunks his washcloth all the way to the bottom and lets it float up under his knees.
“Algebra II. Always with the Algebra II!”
Damned good question, my son. Here is the sound of evasion: “Well, it’s a class I failed and had to take over. Get this.” I reach back to a basket of magazines by the door and pull out an old Harpers. “This guy Nicholson Baker has a whole story in this famous magazine that even your grandparents read. It’s all about how hard Algebra II is and how it’s taught so badly people all over the world hate it.”
I open to page 31 and start reading about the elegance of mathematics lost to a global loathing for the subject. Baker sums up the misery and bafflement of generations of students by quoting a middle-aged college professor who admits to taking algebra unsuccesfully three years running:
I have no idea, to this day, why I find math, and algebra in particular, so excrutiatingly hard, but I do. I admire those who can learn it, but I could no more master algebra than I could leap off a roof and fly. The experience of being made to reenact your inability, over and over, is deeply warping. . . If you continually ask a one-armed man to play guitar, he’ll either come to hate himself or hate you.
The piece goes on to explore curriculum reform of the early 20th centry, the rise of New Math, and the push to place even stricter requirements on schools and students. Baker implicates the arguably misguided, myopic advocacy of such “Standardistas” as Arne Duncan and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Instead of making math more accessible and enjoyable, they support the expanded reach of such texts as the Algebra II Common Core which Baker describes as a
highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellant terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.
Baker makes a strong case for revising the standards and adapting instruction to make math simpler, more applicable, historically richer, and fun. Introduce everyone to the basics, he argues, and allow those students who are so compelled to explore it further. Stop requiring Algebra II for college admissions.
Forcing every child to suffer the Iron Maiden of an advanced mathematics they are very unlikely to need doesn’t create a numerate citizenry. Quite the contrary. It produces one generation on top of another of innumerate citizens who despise and fear all things quantitative. They will assiduously avoid all through their long lives any endeavors that may require math, no matter how compelling or lucrative those endeavors, because of a firmly planted perception that they are genetically incapable of understanding it.
This issue of Harper’s has been in the loo for months but this is the first time I’ve given it more than a cursory glance. As I flip through, a flood of relief rushes over me. Their bellies may have had stars, but I wasn’t the lone Sneech with no stars upon thars.
The tide goes out just as quickly as it had come in. All that’s left is a little eddy of regret. It’s far too easy to become blind to the elegance of mathematics because of some noxious residue that clings even decades after clawing out of that 10th-grade hell.
The road to math conversant is a rutted and unmarked. It is especially tough when you’ve bitten your tongue raw trying to shape a grammar the blackboard neither translates nor palliates. But I’m not mute yet. Defiance and a little luck has created a world in which Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea resides on my bedside table. On a good day, I can almost hold up my end of a conversation with an engineer who happens to be smitten with the Fourier Series.
I realize now you don’t have to suck at something or master it completely. You have every right to mess around with any art or science that strikes your fancy. Knitting? Tantric poetry? Give ’em a go. History of fertile crescent? Read up. Hydroponic tomato farming? Dig in. It is possible to enjoy a subject as a dabbler without dragging six extra tons of emotional baggage into every encounter with it.
Which is why at this moment I stop reading out loud.
I glance over the steam-wilted pages at my son who is now regarding the whorls in his fingertips. Bug really doesn’t need to hear about a mass aversion to any area of human experience. My job is not to help close doors. Bug’s fondness for the puzzles of mathematics has pretty strong roots. I hope they are more stubborn than mine.
Into the pause he asks, “What is algebra?”
I show him one of the equations on the page. “Like that stuff your granddaddy is always writing.”
“But what is it?”
Geez. Fine. I close the magazine and punch through the wall of resistance into the place where learning cobbled together some kind of a permanent residence.
“It’s like this: the letters are called variables. They mean something else.”
This is also that.
His hair is a silk drape caught on a current. His eyes are the wall of a cresting wave.
“The letter stands for a certain number. Let’s say X equals 2. What’s 2X?”
Bug thinks for less than a beat.
“Exactly!” We both break into wide grins. “Baby, you are on it. If X is 2 and Y is 3, what’s X plus Y?”
“Five,” he says. “Duh.” He tries not to smile.
“Yes it is.” I hold up my hand and he slaps me a wet high-five.
I help him from the tub and wrap him in a turqouoise towel he’s about to outgrow. I used to lift him to the mirror after baths and we would look together at the little pointy hooded face peeking out. “You are a blue fairy. A red caboose. An ice cream cone,” I would murmur.
“A butterfly. A galaxy.”
“You are a kitty cat. A mountaintop. A blind cyclops. A book.”
Every time, we ended there: A kiss into his damp hair. A whisper, “And you are my beautiful little boy.”
This is that.
Solve for X.
Math is magic. Algebra is pain.
The variables do not remain constant.
You are your story.
Metaphor is fate.
“Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II” by Nicholson Baker can be found in the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.