Cathy Hamilton: Mathematics never factored into lifelong plans |

Cathy Hamilton: Mathematics never factored into lifelong plans

Cathy Hamilton

This week, I learned that April is national Math Awareness Month (or MAM, as my accountant would say). Who knew?

MAM was started in 1986 with the goal of “increasing public understanding of and appreciation for mathematics.” Unfortunately, that was 23 years too late for me. Or, is it 24? Sorry, I can’t do the math.

What I mean is, if I had been encouraged to appreciate math in 1962 when I was 7 (or was that in ’63?) I might be working in a business that’s a lot more secure than newspaper journalism right now. You know, like banking.

As a young girl in parochial school, all I learned to “appreciate” about arithmetic was that a person could get her knuckles rapped by an angry nun if she didn’t learn her times tables, forward and backward. Ruler-whacking, I could understand.

But I was a word person – not a numbers kind of gal – and, no matter what the grade, math class always was an agonizing, 180-degree uphill battle.

You name the function, I struggled with it: Multiplication, short division, long division, telling time, color-by-number and – worst of all – the dreaded thought problems:

“Mary visits her friend, Sally, then returns home by the same route. She always walks 2 mph when going uphill, 6 mph when going downhill and 3 mph when on level ground. If her total walking time is 6 hours, then what is the total distance she walks in one mile?”

(I mean, who cares? And why would anyone walk for six hours just to visit somebody? Is Sally her crack dealer or something? Because, if not, Mary definitely needs to find another friend. Or, at least, take the bus.)

High school was no better. The only reason I survived algebra was because my teacher was a raging alcoholic who kept confusing me with the smartest girl in class. (Sure, I feel guilty Mary Anne didn’t get into M.I.T., but what was I supposed to do, set the old lush straight? I had to graduate, after all!)

I remember thinking, what was the point of algebra, anyway? What good could quadratic equations and polynomials possibly do me in my future career as a Broadway diva? When I win the Tony Award, will anyone care that I can rattle off all 10 prime numbers?

What pushed me over the edge was sophomore year geometry class when my teacher – a sadistic, deranged young nun – instructed us to write a 500-word essay proving the Pythagorean Theorem without using numbers, letters or diagrams. To this day, I have not forgotten the agony of writing that paper, and I’m convinced the sister who assigned it now is happily employed at Abu Ghraib.

These days, I avoid math at all costs. I use my debit card so I won’t have to count change. I’ve forfeited all bill paying and checkbook-balancing duties to my husband. And that “Deal or No Deal” TV show? Watching it literally makes my brain hurt.

Oh, and don’t even say the word Sudoku to me, or I can’t be responsible for my actions.

Fortunately, I have a spouse whose left brain is considerably heftier than my own. And, if misery loves company, I’m lucky that some of my coworkers – witty and wonderful wordsmiths – share my pitiful lack of mathematical aptitude. (I won’t mention names, but I pray they didn’t do their own taxes this year.)

Still, I am five-square in favor of Math Awareness Month if it will put a positive spin on some of the dismal numbers I’ve been seeing lately: Jobless claims more than 6 million, housing starts down 10.8 percent, $14.6 trillion government bailout, the national debt at $11,222,577,101,900.53 and climbing. That’s the kind of math that keeps me up till 3 a.m. (that’s 0300, military time).

So, I urge you to jump on the MAM bandwagon and spend the rest of this month appreciating number crunching and the people who do it well. Take a math teacher to dinner. Let her order anything she wants, your treat. But when the bill comes, be sure to let her calculate the tip.

Cathy Hamilton is a 53-year-old empty nester, wife, mother and author, who blogs every day at

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