Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Algebra

Change is the only constant.

If changing one school a year taught me anything, it was that nothing in life was constant, and nothing stayed important if you changed the context.

Since my essays had so impressed my previous French teacher, I expected the same from this new one in 5eme. French literature and writing was not only rather tame at Lamazou, but the teacher never seemed to notice anything exceptional about my or Saadia’s writing. I tried my best descriptions, my most astounding vocabulary, my amazing acrobatics in grammar and rhetorics, all to no avail. I was totally unable to draw one word of praise from my new French teacher.  Eventually, I stopped trying. I would just hand in my essays, and that would be that.

Biology this year was non-flowering plants. Although I was a bit surprised to find that algae, mosses, lichens and ferns had a really strange reproductive cycle, this could not compete with cow teeth, dog skeletons, or a thick folder herbarium filled with primroses, violets and lilies-of-the-valley.

Juggling algebra

Juggling algebra

Actually, my biggest surprise was Math. I discovered in the depths of myself a passion for algebra. It was really nothing more than a bit of pre-Algebra and the first steps of elementary Algebra, but it fascinated me. I relished the neatness of line-by-line work to reach the final solution.  It was a wonder that perfect order and sense could produce the solution to a mystery: the value of x! Our Math teacher would regularly assign one measly problem to solve as homework. Occasionally, she dared assign TWO!  But one day, she picked up enough courage to hand out THREE math problems for just one evening!  The students could not believe their ears. I mean, they did have a life, after all! Three math problems? Did the teacher go crazy or what? They argued and bargained, and finally, the entire class decided to go on strike the next day. Well, in a manner of speaking. First of all, I had not agreed to strike, but no one had asked for my opinion. Secondly, striking really meant not doing the Math homework. I was in tears. No! Please! I wanted to do it! I really really would have LOVED to do my algebra homework, the one passion I had that year! Come what may, I did it anyway. And enjoyed every bit of it. The teacher was forced to re-assign the homework for the day after, with Number 3 downgraded to a bonus question, since it involved material she had not taught us in class. But with the principles already in hand, we should have been able to derive the solution. It turned out that I was the only student who succeeded in solving it. The Math teacher duly praised my work in class. And I decided that Math was my new love.

binary system

The year had started in a rather strange way, for we had been introduced to set theory and the binary system, with the comment that this was Modern Math, “New Math”, and we would need that for computers, which were the way of the future. Now, 45 years later, I still haven’t used — ever — the binary system for anything, and especially not for computers. I won’t deny that trying to use a home computer — once they came on the market — did throw me a tough learning curve. Even so, the hardest thing about it was using DOS (remember that dinosaur?). Everything since has been a piece of cake, comparatively.

To come back to New Math, I could not believe how easy elements and sets, and union and intersection were compared to trains that chugged toward each other at differing speeds, or converting cubed millimeters to cubed decimeters. Gone were the sweats and drudgery of long divisions. I did regret a bit the fun of constructing angle bisectors and such, but the sheer satisfaction of manipulation symbols to come to an elegant solution was absolutely incomparably amazing! It was the epitome of puzzle solving!

As a result, the Math teacher loved me. She also happened to be our Art teacher. One day, we had the choice of drawing and painting any landscape we felt like. I started  sketching a cliff, like the ones I’d seen on Chinese paintings. The teacher looked over my shoulder at the sketch. “The Chinese are supposed to be really good at painting. Tell me, what are you painting here?” I stuttered and stammered, because I didn’t really know. Nothing like high expectations, voiced out, to make you unable to produce anything good. I got stuck. I didn’t know what to do with that cliff. I added a winding river, but something looked wrong. I wondered whether to paint the cliffs green or brown. Eventually, the whole thing turned into a messy disaster. The teacher walked by again, and she looked disappointed. I felt disappointed too, for having disappointed her.

Chinese landscape painting, cliff

Chinese landscape painting, cliff

Today, as I teach my students to paint landscapes, I realize that no child is born as an artistic genius. All children have creative seeds inside of them, but we need to give them the tools, not expect them to re-invent the wheel. No one expects children to solve quadratic equations without any instructions, yet we do expect children to pop onto paper a wonderful painting if their parents claim they are artistic. Yes, we read in the news stories of artistic prodigies like Alexandra Nechita, but we forget that she was given colors, paper and the freedom to experiment and practice. All children who are allowed to doodle and sketch for endless hours, days, months and years do turn out to be great artists. That seemingly effortless winning painting did not spring out of nowhere!

 

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