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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Math Story

Previously (10/7/2008):
I wasn't interested in math going into the school system, and I wasn't interested when I left. Math was a series of rules that you needed to memorize. Toward the end of elementary school, I got a video from "The Teaching Company", of an enthusiastic math teacher explaining all of basic math. To him, math was totally obvious. He convinced me that math was totally obvious by explaining and arguing and engaging. For a few years, I was coasting on the perspective I got from that one video. All math was easy to me, because it just made sense. And then I got into more advanced subjects, and was being taught those subjects by teachers with no points to make. Math no longer made sense, so I stopped caring. I didn't really learn anything new after that. That's why I never took the math Bagrut.
There was a time when I looked forward to math tests, as one looks forward to a boss fight in an action game. I guess that'd be ninth grade. I never prepared for them in the usual sense, memorizing rules and revisiting notes. But I was always ready, because in math classes the teacher would keep my mind sharp with riddles. And every now and then I'd read ahead in the textbook, not just to keep up my image as the smartest one in the class but also because I just wanted to see where it went.

When a test day came, everyone else would be groaning. But I was excited by the challenge. I would look at the first question, and be taken totally by surprise by it because I hadn't been paying attention to what everyone else was learning. But it was just another riddle. I'd sit there for a minute, just rereading the question over and over, trying to wrap my head around it. And I'd scribble down some general calculations at the bottom of the test sheet, to figure out what the basic principle was that I'd need to be using. And I kept analyzing and scribbling and pondering until I felt that I understood the question. And then there was no problem at all, just the fun of seeing it through.

Thinking back on it, I guess I had a really nice teacher that year. Russian guy, I think. He got me into a national competition once; I didn't really care about it, but he was pushing me to be in it so I was in it. I got in, and then I dropped out because I just wasn't as fast as anyone else there. See, the questions were much tougher. And I could have analyzed and pondered and scribbled for hours and hours, and I'm confident I could have figured it out. But there was a time limit.

I remember having trouble with time limits. Often I'd realize during a test that there were only twenty minutes left, and I still had too many questions left. Then I'd need to rush myself, and I got into a bit of a panic. Learning-by-doing works, but it's slow. You can't be slow.

There was a competition before that -not a serious one, but a competition- that I was in. Sixth grade. (I guess I must have already been doing well at math by that point.) It was a silly little thing, set up by our school for boys of my grade. It was in our local matnas, the same place where we recently opened 1776. I don't remember the format. What I do remember is being up there, on stage, feeling that I needed just another thirty seconds, and I remember crying so that they'd give me what I wanted. Man, I was a crappy kid. I think they caved and gave me a bit more time. In the end I won. Probably first place, though I can't be sure. The prize was the board game Abalone, which to this day I've played probably three times.

Those competitions didn't make much impression on me at the time.

In between the two there was seventh grade, where I spent the classes scribbling Visual Basic code onto math paper, or improving the alphabet I'd invented the year before. (I called it "Arellian", after my middle name. I don't call it that anymore.) The teacher once gave me a tenth grade test, and I passed it. It was a really simple test- it must have been for the three-point bagrut guys. That's why, at a time when I suspected I was going to get expelled, I was instead allowed to skip eighth grade.

That's why in ninth grade, I felt a lot of pressure to seem more intelligent than I actually was. If I wasn't always the best in the class at whatever I had a chance to be good at, everyone would see me as privileged. As the spoiled little boy who cried about how terrible school was until people gave in and treated him to what he didn't deserve. So in computer class I started (and never continued) working on a Breakout game, in Hebrew grammar class I was correcting everyone else's mistakes, during recesses I'd show off my piano playing, and in math class I needed to be above everyone else. It may very well be that I would have done all this anyway, but there was a lot of pressure to be that person all the time. There was especially a lot of pressure in math class, because we started sharing that with the neighboring school, whose students were more typical Israelis who -I was certain- would have mocked me for any slip-ups.

When people came to me for help with their math homework, on the one hand I was happy because it meant I was still doing okay, but on the other hand it meant that I needed to be very careful. For the first thirty seconds of frantically analyzing the question, I knew less than the person asking about how to solve such a problem. And I needed for them to not see that, or else I'd be a joke.

(That was the year when I briefly considered developing multiple personalities. I didn't realize at the time that it was a well-known practice, rather than just an idea I myself had invented. I never started, though, because I never saw an immediate need that year.)

The following year we moved to the Mevasseret yeshiva's campus, and used their math teacher. He was a loathsome fellow, who mocked his students rather than challenging them. I saw the reason for this on many occasions: he didn't really understand math, and was using this behavior to cover for it. (I'm only thinking about this now, but he must have been so nervous walking into the classroom.) I stopped trying to act smart, and very slowly the rest of the grade caught up in their memorizations with what I understood. And then tests were something I dreaded. I had lost most of my motivation for learning math, but I sometimes was incapable of understanding the questions in the time allotted. The first time that year I had a math test I couldn't pass, I walked back to the bus crying. Still spoiled, I guess.

The last math teacher I had was lousy, but not offensively so. For a time I came to classes and spent them imagining videogames, and then I just stopped coming.

Every now and then Dena asks me to help her with her homework. It hurts me a little, because I can't anymore. I really can't. Things which used to make sense to me (with some effort) no longer make any sense at all.

I still use math every now and then. In programming games, I often run into very simple geometry or algebra problems which I solve on bits of scrap paper. Very rarely there's a trigonometry problem. I can solve them, with some effort.



To this day, I remember you teaching me some math in fourth grade, which made an impression on me because I was at the top of my class at the time. Nobody my age would ever teach me any math.

You're have a gift for math, you know. Every so often, I feel sad that your math talent is being ignored, but then I remember that you're doing what you feel like you should be doing and are using other talents you have in the process. Then I'm not so sad.


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