Sep 252012

Adults in the work force need a basic understanding of mathematical – and particularly accounting – principles.  Adults in the work force also need basic reading comprehension skills, as well as the ability to construct and use a simple sentence.

That’s my mantra, but the world wanted me to learn algebra. And I’ll be damned if there did come a day in my life where I used basic chemistry, statistics, and even some of the principles of physics in health care management positions, but algebra, never.

I made it up to high school on a wing and a prayer, a teacher’s daughter always getting honor roll grades.

Then something went rotten in the State of Denmark.  I blamed it on the “new math.”  When I was in the younger grades of elementary school, mathematics was taught as it always had been, with long division and carrying over x.  In the “Space Race” era, there was a new focus on science and engineering, and elementary schools across the nation changed the way mathematics was taught. Somewhere about 1965, I lost track of my common denominator.

The fact that I, like Benjamin Franklin before me, had dyscalculia didn’t help.  I saw numbers in the same out-of-focus fashion as those with reading dyslexia deciphered words.  Except that in fourth grade I was reading things I should not have been reading way above grade or mother-approved level, and yet I couldn’t add a column of two digit numbers.

I sat before Mr. Mowrey in second period algebra as a freshman in high school.  He was nearing retirement age, rarely stood up except to put his undecipherable chicken scratchings on the board, and spoke with a low rumble. I did not engage. He might as well have been speaking Mandarin Chinese, a language that wasn’t in vogue in north central Indiana in 1971.

The thing about algebra is that if you don’t get it right away, you just don’t get it. My parents hired another teacher as my tutor.  Her name was Mrs. Dunn, which was appropriate, because before she started with me I was done.

I passed the first six weeks with a D.  Then the quick drop, by Christmas, to the bottom of the class. I was not alone. Lives were changed by Mr. Mowrey’s grades. Rumor had it he flunked his own son several years before, but those kinds of rumors were started by the same people who said my own teacher-father had a wooden leg.  He did not; he was born with a club foot and walked with a slight limp.

I took general math the next year and got an A. It was easy. Believe it or not, Mr. Mowrey died in his second period algebra class that year.  Right in class.  It was awful. There was no EMS at the time, so the local hearse doubled as an ambulance and drove over from Miller Funeral Home to take him to the hospital.

Because I failed high school algebra, my college choices were limited.  My class rank took a nosedive, and even the tender mercies of Phase Elective English couldn’t bring it up to scholarship level.  For years I felt terrible about myself — it was my shame.

Then I fell in love and oh he was so much smarter than I was.  He didn’t fail high school algebra.  He got a D and went on to fail high school geometry.  What a pair we make!  Out of this loving marriage, we produced a National Merit Scholar.

How did this happen?  I was present at both his conception and birth; I know I was involved and who the father is.  Even if I don’t understand algebra, I do understand multiplication..

Somehow spawning a child who could score more than 310 on the math portion of the SAT vindicated my terrible failings as a youth. While it probably isn’t appropriate to live vicariously through your child, who cares?

I also managed to get a master’s degree and work through graduate level statistics (with the help of a tutor), and today I serve as the President of British Petroleum.  Okay, while that last part isn’t true, I can read a clinical study and I know a chi square from a Chi Omega.  Does that count?

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