I was helping a kid with his geometry. I didn’t do too bad. I said “shit” once. It slipped out. I apologized. A lifetime of math anxiety rolled up into four letters–coulda been worse. I stepped back and stared at the cleverly infused algebra problem stuffed into one of the angles in the triangles and crossed lines, reasoning that x+whatever must be added to 180-70, because there was an opposite angle labeled “70” without any tricks or algebraic distractions. And everyone knows that two lines tilted next to each other on a straight line has to equal 180 degrees. It’s a complementary angle.
“Supplementary. 180 is supplementary.” Good call, kid, good call. Because I walk around cocktail parties saying things like, “You know, I was figuring out algebraic equations embedded into supplementary angles the other day and I discovered…” Never.
“Miss?” He asked after we knocked off the last angle or two, me as much as him, and I finished up my victory dance. I was pretty proud, I’m not going to lie. I solved tenth grade math. Perfectly. Now, maybe if I have to take standardized tests to prove I’m better than a tenth grader to keep my job someday–it’s not out of the realm of possibility–I’ll be able to succeed on problems with triangles and lines with supplementary angles and algebra embedded inside for no particular reason.
“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” I thought hard through my several careers. Career one in insurance came the closest. I used math to reconstruct traffic accidents–but not really. The officer usually did that and gave me a number. I used math to resolve negotiations, but in truth it was more or less like volleyball than geometry, spiking numbers back over the net.
In waitressing, I calculated bills. No supplementary angles there. Just extra costs on upsells. In business, I spent a ton of money, and got bills for a ton more. Still no triangles or supplementary angles. I’ve built lots of things, but when it came down to brass tacks I never used the Pythagorean theorem to plan materials cost or measure distance. More often than not, I eyeballed it and went back to the store several times, or measured an approximate length across what would be the hypotenuse, hacking and swearing until it was close enough.
But I can’t say that because I’ve got a kid sitting here taking an entire course in geometry that’s going to think he’s wasting his time if I don’t come up with something intellectually plausible. I learned “thinking on my feet” from public speaking and negotiations, not math, though. And if I don’t come up with something quick, he’s going to question whether my class is a waste of his time next. After all, what do I teach about? History. Dead people. How many dead people is he going to meet at cocktail parties?
Before I know it, the whole house of cards will come crumbling down and he’ll be questioning all of public education, just because I succeeded in solving one set of geometry problems with algebra snuck inside. Can’t have that.
God intervened. He does that if I’ve been especially good that day.
“Oh, that’s easy.” I said. “In twenty years when you’re helping some kid with his geometry.” I walked away. I didn’t want him to ask me about calculus next.