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The day that math stood still

April 17, 2009
By Bob Seidenstein,

Although most people can't recall the precise moment their lives started to spin out of control, I can. I was midway through Mrs. Smith's second-grade class.

Until then, I hadn't liked school, but it hadn't posed any kind of threat or challenge either. That all ended as soon as Mrs. Smith started teaching fractions.

Previously, I'd found math ridiculously easy. This resulted in a dangerous smugness that made me believe all math was ridiculously easy. So when Mrs. Smith mentioned fractions and proceeded to write 1/2 on the blackboard, I looked at it and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was completely lost.

She started to explain what that meant, but it didn't matter. I didn't understand a word of it. And it never got better.

Within a few classes, everyone was positively grooving on fractions - everyone but Little Dopey Boy, that is.

I got the basic idea that they were a part of something and they weren't like other numbers, but why or how they got that way was beyond me. Take our old pal, 1/2. After a while, Mrs. Smith pointed out that it could also be 8/16's, or be 4/8's, or even 3/6's.

Meanwhile, all I could do was nod idiotically and gnaw my pencil so much I ended up with a mouthful of cedar shavings but no idea about fractions.

And then, to make things even worse, some brilliant little snot in the front row raised his hand and chirped out that 1/2 could also be 7/14's or 30/60's. Mrs. Smith beamed in approval; I could've strangled both of them.

Eventually I achieved a marginal grasp of math, but I never really knew what I was doing. So I struggled on, a nervous wreck, barely getting by and knowing that sometime down the pike I was going to lose my shaky grip on the great cliff of math and plunge to my doom on the rocky shore below. And sure enough it happened.

Ruined by the Russkies

It was the cursed Russians who did it, when in fall of 6th grade they launched Sputnik.

Immediately, the U.S. went into full-scale panic attack.

The commies had rockets and we didn't, which meant two things. One was they could now wipe us off the face of the earth with the flip of a switch. The other was they obviously had vastly superior scientific and educational systems. That neither of these things was true was irrelevant - we sure thought so at the time.

So what to do? Well, In addition to producing weapons up the wazoo, we decided to ramp up public education.

And the good folks in charge of education in My Home Town contributed their fair share by throwing together an advanced program starting with next year's 7th grade.

The plan was to put elite 7th graders in one group and give them advanced English and history, a foreign language (before then, it began only in 9th grade), and worst of all, two years of science and two years of math - in one year!

Certainly, the people behind this had their hearts in the right place, but their heads were in a place that could be found only by a proctologist. Proof of that is they put me in that class.

Amazingly, I got by. But that was because it was just more of what I'd had before. However, it all changed the next year.

In 8th grade, I was taking algebra, which, as Mr. Peightal explained on the first day, was all about finding unknowns.

Finding unknowns? I asked myself. How was I going to do that when I couldn't find knowns?

Not that I didn't try and not that Mr. Peightal didn't try but both to no avail.

He even tried to make algebra fun by giving us problems that had little stories attached to them. One was this: "Uncle Leroy is courting a woman in the next town and since he doesn't have a car, he has to get there by rowboat, against the current. The current is 2.5 mph and he rows at a steady 4 miles an hour. When he starts, the wind is blowing upstream at 3 miles an hour, but after he gets halfway, it reverses, and blows downstream at 1.6 mph. The stream is seven miles long. If he asks you how long it'll take for him to get there, what will you tell him?"

What would I tell him? I'd tell him to start hooking up with the babes in his neighborhood and save himself a whole lot of hassle for some foolish fantasy that would come to naught.

It was sage advice from my perspective. Unfortunately, from Mr. Peightal's perspective, it wouldn't count at all. So I tried to find the answer he wanted. Unfortunately, the only way I could approach it was by just trying one number, then another, then another then the bell rang.

And so it went for the entire school year, my grade being a solid F. Things looked grim, especially because this was a Regents course, which meant I had to pass the Regents final in order to get Regents credit for the course. And since I wanted to go to college, I needed Regents credit.

What to do? Simple, I availed myself of The Secret Weapon.

Actually, it wasn't secret, but in a sense it was a weapon, since it'd empower me to pass the Regents.

And what was it? It was the Barrons Review book.

and saved by the US of A!

The Regents test, the acid test for New York state education, was both tough and standardized and it was given under mandated, almost penal, conditions: The tests were kept sealed in a safe till test time, monitors were always in the room, no one was allowed to bring any papers in the room, it was started and ended at precisely designated times and so on. The only thing missing was a strip search and I'm sure if the Board of Regents had ordered that, we would've all been lined up in our birthday suits.

Anyhow, the beauty of the Regents was, perhaps because it was standardized, they gave the same test in each subject, year after year after year. Oh, sure, they changed the fine points, but the principles they tested were always the same. So in algebra the numbers in the problems were different, but the problems themselves were the same.

Barrons, capitalizing on this, published books that were nothing but copies of a buttload of old Regents tests, with the answers at the end. In some ways, it was legal cheating, I guess, but all I cared was it was legal.

So three weeks before the Regents, I started going over the review book. After a while, I started to see the patterns of the tests, and then I started to figure out how to answer the specific questions.

The tests went way back - for all I knew, I took the test Mr. Peightal took when he was in ninth grade - and each night I pored over them till I could've done them in my sleep. In fact, since they took up so much of my life, I probably did do them in my sleep.

And it paid off. When I sat down to the real Regents, it was just like the ones I'd been doing all along. I passed it with a solid C, nothing less than amazing for someone who'd gotten F's before.

So what did it mean? Only this: While I'd learned no algebra during the school year, I learned how to take an algebra test in three weeks.

It's something that has stuck with me over the past 50 years - and I am especially reminded of it whenever someone starts extolling the virtues of standardized tests.



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