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I Was Absent

Copyright © 2001, 2002.
All rights reserved.
new math classThe New Math: Or I Was Absent the Day They Did That
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do you feel children can do math better than you? Are you challenged by what seems to be simple equations? If so, join the club and have a secret chuckle or two.


All of my life the "old math" has given me so much trouble that I am surprised to find myself even attempting to discuss the "new math." I am one of those numerically challenged people who live otherwise normal lives in today’s world. I can only guess as to how many of us there are as I cannot count accurately anyway. Besides not being able to handle more than the most rudimentary fractions, percents and decimals, I’m a perfectly normal person. I add by day and subtract by night. I lead two lives; one that makes me look like I can add and subtract whenever I’m at the bank or grocery store and another that makes me look like I can divide and multiply but not necessarily conquer whenever I am anywhere else.

The problem started when I was a little girl attempting to learn the old math with all the other children in my class. I never had what is called a "head" for figures and that includes the rest of my body as well. (I used to cut a cute one, but that’s another story entirely.) I’m an intelligent person, but somehow, when they were doling out mathematical aptitude in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York, I was in New Orleans. I was always slow on the draw as to how many oranges and eggs were left in the basket and other such problem solving equations. Even now, I always double-check the addition and subtraction in my checkbook because I am convinced I will make a mistake the first time around. I cannot do "math in my head." Secretly, I envy those that can and wish I could exchange that part of their brain with the malfunctioning section of mine. I know that’s trouble. Remember what happened to Herr Frankenstein.

My difficulties with math reached their scholastic crescendo when I was fifteen years old and introduced to the first real horror in my life: Plane Geometry One. (Plane Geometry Two followed suit, but not for a while as I had to take Part One twice.) Geometric proportions really gave me a new perspective on life. If I thought that I had problems with eggs and oranges before, I miscalculated terribly. (You’re not really surprised, are you?)

I cannot neglect to mention the bane of my teen existence, Miss Adelaide Crespi, who was my math teacher. (It was rumored that her first career was in the horror cinema, climaxed by the starring role in The Creature From The Black Lagoon.) I’d omit her name to protect her, but not only is she long dead, she is also not innocent! I dreaded going to her class. It wasn’t bad enough that she taught my most difficult subject. The situation was compounded by the fact that she would call the students, one by one, up to the blackboard to discuss the homework in front of the whole class. It was humiliating, even if you were one of those who understood the homework. Of course, I wasn’t among them.

Miss Adelaide Crespi was an aged spinster who wore her silver hair in a tight bun. She never smiled or even looked sideways. Her daily ensemble consisted of long black dresses and old lady shoes accompanied by a long wooden pointer, which she would slam onto the desk of any student who dared to be inattentive within her space. She was mean and enjoyed watching children sweat and cower at her mercy. I’ve thought of the old girl many times over the years, particularly after a fire in my apartment building and the Oklahoma bombing. I’ve never seen her again. Too bad. Lucky for her.

I remember her terrible tests most of all. I would study and study and get nowhere. After one exam I got such a low grade (20, I think) that I had to take my test paper home and have my father sign it. He looked at the red ink and then up at me and then he said: "Well, at least you spelled your name right. You’ll need to do that more in life than Plane Geometry." And so I failed Plane Geometry One and took it again with a math tutor. I finally passed and went on to Part Two, but for years afterwards I had dreams of isosceles triangles and right angles coming after me and tracking me down. Sometimes they had sharp edges that turned into long wooden pointers; sometimes they just left me alone.

Years passed and still the story continues. I became a teacher of Social Studies, but could not secure a permanent assignment. I worked in several schools as a substitute. In my second year of teaching, math reared its ugly head again. The school desperately needed a staff of substitute teachers to be on the premises at all times to be used as needed. Each time they used me it involved a different group of students and a different schedule. One snowy day only a few intrepid substitute souls arrived for work, I being among the stupid ones. Because of the shortage of teachers that day, they placed us where we were needed without regard for specialty or subject matter. My schedule included three social studies classes, one English class and yes, you guessed it, one "new math" class!

mathematicsNeedless to say, all day I worried about how I would handle this last period of the blind leading the blind. I scoured the premises in search of someone that could cover or switch with me, but there was no one available. And so I went into the seventh grade fray of twenty-four twelve year olds with absolutely no idea as to how I was going to teach them a subject I knew nothing about. I stalled for time the best that I could, taking as long as possible to introduce myself to the class and get the names of all the children. When I was informed that the regular teacher always went over the homework first before embarking on a new lesson, I saw my chance. There were two very bright children, a boy and a girl, in the first row. I asked one of them to come to the board and do the first homework problem for the class. (Shades of Adelaide prevail.)

The girl wrote something on the board that was hieroglyphics to me. I felt like a vaudevillian with an unfamiliar script and I had no choice but to wing it. I let HER answer the class’s questions as to how she arrived at her solution. I nodded when she indicated that the class got it right and shook my head when the class got it wrong. Somehow, the period of forty minutes passed in this manner with the other very bright boy alternating on the board with his answers and how he arrived at them. When the bell rang, I was ready to run out of the room BEFORE the children. Only mature self-control kept me cowering in the gymnasium. I left that school and assumed a new identity.

To this day the shadows remain. I am grateful that I do not have to deal with the new math wearing a mask and/or in the privacy of my own home. I know that if I ever see Adelaide again, I’ll run her over with my car. Otherwise, I feel fine. I suppose I should try to master math but then some people feel that way about Mt. Everest. After all, just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to be familiar with it. (Think of the repercussions in personal reputations and relationships if everyone adopted that philosophy.) It can be there, just as long as I am here. I’ve lived this long without figuring out decimals and fractions, do I really want to change horses in mid-stream even if I can’t count how many are swimming in the river? Who needs to count horses anyway? It didn’t help Abraham Lincoln who said that. It doesn’t even help the horses.

Support non-math! Counting is for the birds. Be a person, not a decimal! Half a person is not good enough, but it is better than a third. (I think.). Mr. Dewey could have been so much more if only he had listened to his mother instead of his dreams of owning a library. Who needs numbers anyway? Agent 007 doesn’t even have a decimal and look how famous he turned out to be. Many people can’t add. They just cover it up by subtracting or joining the circus. I’ll drink to the new math but only if I can find my glass. And please, whatever you do, don’t ask me to count how many are left in the cupboard.

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