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The Problem with Math


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It’s just one of those things that I cannot do. Math. My kids caught on to this handicap of mine quite early in life. And I realised how tuned to my failings they were, when my daughter called me for help with her homework one evening. “Amma, can you help me with homework? Oh, never mind, it’s math!” Daughter dear was in fifth grade then. Can’t blame the girl. Every time I tried to help her with her Math homework, she had more crosses than ticks in her worksheet.

I think it is a psychological issue. My mind just freezes over every time I see numbers. Then how do I get to make it work those numbers? Letters light up a brilliant candle in my brain. I see colors, hear music and sense emotions. Numbers just make me go blank. I can count to twenty all right. But beyond that, I am lost! (I am an expert at surreptitiously counting on my toes. It’s an art; believe me.)

I remember, back when I was in school, I somehow managed to wrap my brain around the concept of numbers and came to terms with their existence and their basic functions. I realized I had to know them and use them. And just when I got used to the idea of numbers, identified them and learnt what to do with them, in came the letters, in combination with them. Yes, I discovered the painful world of Algebra.

Now really! What in the world were those nice letters doing in my math book? They belonged in amusing books that transported me every day to wonderful worlds. Not in dreadful math books and checked notebooks with squares for writing stern numbers. How could they consort with the enemy?

You don’t believe numbers are stern? They are the most adamant entities ever. Allow me to explain. Take a letter. Let’s say ‘U’. You can call it ‘U’, read it differently in ‘put’, ‘but’, ‘puny’ and so on. You can even write ‘you’ and call it ‘U’. On the other hand, when has a seven ever been anything other than a seven or agreed to substitute for an eight?? So rigid; so unimaginative! Get my drift? Letters are so flexible, so accommodating, and so nice.

Miss the ‘e’ in ‘nxt’ and you know it still is ‘next’. This kind of flexibility is the whole logic behind the modern texting language. Not that I am a fan of it, but you can leave out whole chunks of the word and your brain can still identify the word. Ever tried writing Rs.13’9 instead of Rs.134567829.00 on a check leaf? I rest my case!

Now do you agree that these numbers are the most obstinate, stubborn little imps known to mankind? And it is barely my fault that I have an issue dealing with such a pigheaded lot!

And just because you made a mistake while writing the first stanza in a poem, you do not automatically go wrong when you write the following stanzas. And no English teacher will ever ask you to ‘show your work’ on the right margin.

Then there are the units that can never make up their minds. If they are in meters they want to be in kilometers. If they are in gallons they want to be in liters. Come on. Pick a side and stick with it. Stop acting like the politicians of today.

And I am pretty sure that they have a panel of sadists who get their kicks in life by torturing children – setting question papers. Why else do farmers who want to fence or till fields, never have fields in the shape of something simple like a square? They have to fence fields in the shape of complicated polygons with confounding formulas for areas and circumferences.

Then one day I met Pi. Till then all I knew about pies was that they were stuffed with the most delicious things imaginable and baked to golden perfection. Then the horror was revealed to me that it had a secret identity. That there was a nasty Mr. Hyde to the sweet Dr. Jekyll and that it went by the name of 3.14159… and so on and so forth, and that it has still not had its fill of stuffing its bloated ego with numbers and that in all likelihood, no end was in sight! That disillusionment sort of proved to be the last straw.

And that is why even today, Math problems look to me like this: “If Sam woke up at 4 am and walked 12 miles to the market to buy 8 watermelons sold by a Martian with 2 heads, how many unicorns can sit on a golden pinhead? Give your answer in metric units.”

To borrow a line from my daughter to whom I seem to have passed on my Arithmophobic gene, “I’d rather swim in a tank full of killer sharks!”


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