Janet Sheridan: Why I didn’t major in math
I knew what the friendly lady with fiery hair would ask once she’d found a snack in her carry-on for her grandchildren; I also knew I wouldn’t know the answer. We’d chatted as air travelers do, talking about our flight’s 40-minute delay, our destinations, and where we were from. Now I dreaded the resumption of our conversation as she handed her grandsons a bag of carrot sticks — the perfect snack for two little boys with orange hair — and asked, “What’s the population of Craig?”
I reacted like it was a trick question: I spluttered, looked around for Joel, the numbers guy, thinking, “Where’s that man when I need him?” and then responded, “I’m not sure.”
I don’t know the population of Craig. Nor do I remember the year Richard Nixon was elected, the difference between a mile and a kilometer, the elevation of Pike’s Peak or the mileage between Craig and Denver. I need a calculator to figure a tip and my fingers to determine how many hours I slept if I went to bed at 9:30 and woke up at 5:30. I can’t read Roman numerals; nor can I mentally subtract an obituary’s date of birth from the date of death to see how my age compares to that of the deceased. Worse, I can’t tell others how many siblings I have without giving it serious thought. Now that’s embarrassing.
Obviously, I didn’t enter college as a math major. Instead, I majored in English because, an avid reader, I’d long been immersed in its specialized vocabulary, functions and rules. I might muddle math’s mean, median and mode, but commas, colons, and quotation marks march to my command. I couldn’t tell you how calculus differs from trigonometry, but ask me to distinguish metaphors from similes and, King Solomon threatening to cut a baby in half, wisdom streams from me as implacably as the mighty Mississippi flows to Louisiana.
I easily soaked up the vocabulary of literature and writing but make incorrect connections with the words of mathematicians, who call skinny angles acute.
I’ve never seen an angle I’d call cute.
Dilation, the word they use to describe something resized, makes me think of obstetrics; and, to me, fractal, a never-ending mathematical pattern, sounds like a rude noise emitted when ill. Yet, I readily admit that, as a striving poet, I appreciate the lyrical sound of multi-syllabic mathematical words I don’t understand, terms like isosceles, Cartesian coordinates, and exponential expression.
I see no need for square roots since I can’t grow and eat them; and have no use for a pi that equals 3.14 rather than a delightful eating experience.
I can’t dance to an algorithm. Sector and tangent don’t hang out in my circles. And, to me, probability theory means trying to predict if the heroine will find true love before the novel ends.
On the other hand, I think punctuation is both logical and useful: You insert the little marks where you would take a breath when reading aloud; then the marks remind folks who are reading silently to breathe rather than passing out from lack of oxygen, which would ruin their reading experience.
I’d have to guess on a multiple-choice test question that asks whether 127 is a rational, irrational, amicable or imaginary number; but I could attempt an essay answer that might receive partial credit: An imaginary number shares secrets and laughs at your jokes. An amicable number is named Miss Congeniality; A rational number is sensible like sturdy shoes; and an irrational number is as crazy as Uncle Fillmore.
I once coaxed our young granddaughters to tell Joel English majors are cool and math majors drool. I coached them until they chanted the rhyme in unison quite nicely and seemed to enjoy it. I thought perhaps I’d convinced them poetry is fun. But when they approached their grandfather, they betrayed me, switching the words so Joel was cool, and I drooled.
And I deserved it.