D.T. Pennington

Writer – Photographer – Creative Coach

Math as a Liberal Art

The running joke in my family is that I am bad at math. Like, comically bad but no one laughs. No one would laugh until I was in my twenties when I would drunkenly leave a 200% tip on a bar tab because is anyone really surprised at this point? Carry the one, and just leave enough so no one gets mad at you. Then, laugh for all the wrong reasons.

My education transcripts are a history of barely scraping by on anything related to numbers – geometry, chemistry, physics, and even some home economics and civics classes. Of all, Algebra 2 brought the worst of it. I failed the class for two semesters in a row, but it remained one of the classes required to graduate high school. On the third run through, in the second semester of my senior year when graduation and colleges were on the horizon, things weren’t looking great. I was facing summer school and remedial classes that would likely assess my understanding of numbers all the way back to basic addition.

I gave the class everything I had and still only managed a D+ going into the midterm.

How bad at math was he? Well, you could give him the answers twice and he’d still find a way to get it wrong! *rimshot*

There was no reason for me to pass this class. No reason to graduate. Yet, I managed.

This was the semester with the young, hip teacher who was really into sports. He was teacher all of the almost-18-year-old girls had a crush on. This was the teacher who handed out copies of that year’s March Madness brackets and offered extra credit points for each correct matchup – 64 points in all.

It was worth a shot. I filled the bracket out in four minutes, handed it in, and completely forgot about it. By the time May came about I worked myself into a sheer panic with the final exam, knowing it was the only thing that would keep me from graduating with the rest of my class.

I failed the final.

But when the final grades of the year were posted, I managed a B-.

It was the kind of thing where you might not want to know the truth. It had to be a mistake, right? But if I pointed it out, there was just as much of a chance of having the grade corrected and the teacher going “oh, you’re so noble and honest, I’ll pass you anyway!” I kept a lid on it until my diploma was securely in hand.

How do I end my run in public education with the highest math grade I’ve ever received, ever? After graduation, I sought out the teacher for answers.

“You had a perfect bracket,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” He went on to explain that the 64 extra credit points were nowhere near enough to yield me a passing grade. “Don’t get the wrong idea, you are dumb as fuck when it comes to Algebra,” he said, “But I put five bucks on a handful of brackets, yours was one of them, and I netted about forty grand.”

It takes me another 18 years to realize the essential connection between living as an artist – hell, living as a human being – and letting yourself be in complete, simultaneous awe between the ideas of zero and infinity. Neither helps with paying the bills, I’ll never get a pragmatic grasp on either, but the sheer thought of either are the exact tools I need, we need, to determine our exact place in this universe of ours.

Maybe this comes with getting older. Zero, infinity, the intangibles and irrationals, they are all appealing. Never mind that I still can’t figure out what 20% is on a tip form nor do I ask any questions about what the tax software says I owe various governing bodies (when you can’t do math, marry math – my wife is far better and more interested in the pragmatic side of numbers and finances). You settle in with A Theory of Space-Time or Six Easy Pieces on a cold night with a tumbler of whiskey and your mind sort of opens up at 38 the way you couldnt’ imagine at 18.

It takes me 18 years to let this piss me off enough to hate the way I was taught math. The structure of the programs – if the fundamentals aren’t second nature to you, then you’re closed off from the theoretical and philosophical practices. Sorry, kid.

I only let Kyla cheat off me because I wanted to mess around after class, and I knew she was wearing that lacy green pair under her sweatpants. Kyla lived in the house across the street from mine – something we realized after the first few sessions of our 6 PM math class that took place in a sterile, generic room in the basement of the campus physics building. The realization continued when we both stopped at the same bar between the classroom and my house – where as sophomores we were both still a shade too young to be buying booze – and again when our routes matched for the rest of the stumble home

This made for a natural academic partnership consisting of about 20 minutes of cracking the books, three times a week, before turning to other studies that were far more drunk and naked than any sort of mathematics requires.

A few days after she cheated off me (but weeks before she would cheat on me) our test scores come back. Kyla scored a 92 to my 76. I suspect the middle-aged, balding Mr. Lane also knew about her lacy green pair of panties.

This was Math for the Liberal Arts – a course was designed by the university for the kind of student who needed to fulfill a GE credit in math, but were still dumb as fuck when it came to things like Algebra and overdraft fees. This was for the students who were on the teacher-training track (which was my case, for a moment) and needed to know just enough about how to weight grades and create a system of points for the coursework we would eventually assign.

It was also for athletes who struggled to count past the ten yards needed for the first down, but that’s a different story for another time.

Math for the Liberal Arts was a primer on the art of gambling. It was as though the university looked at their alumni numbers, saw where the donations were coming from, and decided the liberal thinkers weren’t making a ton of money compared to their STEM counterparts. Maybe they’ll make rent if we teach them how to run a craps table. All of this was disguised as a low-level stats seminar presented through the probability of drawing an ace or rolling a nine. Also, how to get a return on your investment, what lottery tickets are likely going to pay out, and what to look for when placing a sports bet.

The instructor, Mr. Lane, hedged every lesson by saying, “And whatever you do, never keep all your eggs in one basket. Spread the risk around.”

One evening, after the midterm was done and graded (72%), Mr. Lane started to repack his bag as he did at the end of every class. Tonight, though, we were maybe ten minutes into the session when he stacked his folders and said: “Never keep your eggs in one basket. But, if you do, and it pays, you’re set.” He explained how he made a risky-yet-significant investment that just paid out bigtime.

“I guess that means I’m done working,” he said. He walked out of the room, we never saw him again. The university provided no substitute – I suspect the school wasn’t even aware of his absence – and at the end of the semester we learned the course had been changed into a Pass/Fail – and we all passed.

What are the odds?

It might not be math.

It could be the whiteboard.

I suspect no one has ever effectively taught anything with the aid of a whiteboard.

Maybe this is why language and writing were rarely an issue – paper has the kind of texture you can lean on. There was never a language class where the instructor asked me to work out the problem on the whiteboard while 20 of my classmates stared holes into my back, watching my every error.

Ban the whiteboard.

We moved a lot when I was younger.

From one city to the next, then from one neighborhood to the next. The cities – across Texas, into Colorado – to follow my father’s career. The neighborhood as they tried to nail down the right house. Renting, then buying, then starting at a new school in the middle of a semester.

Despite the legislature, every child gets left behind in some manner. Even with national standards, rare is it that two school districts will share the pacing of a curriculum even if they are geographically adjacent to one another.

Mix in a handful of private Catholic schools (seriously, Texas public ed has been a problem for a good while) and there wasn’t much for consistency. I missed the introduction to long division and it all went to hell from there. As a nine-year-old I had no idea where any of it was going and no one noticed that there was something missed along the way. It wasn’t until I was observing and volunteering at a high school for my teaching license (which I never finished. Again: another story, another time) in the after-hours sessions reserved for parents who had no idea how to help their students with the homework assignments they were bringing to the kitchen table.

Of course, my parents wanted me to do well, succeed, and move out of their house when I turned 18. They had both at one point been CPAs, and math was just sort of a thing you worked out. “There’s only one right answer,” my mom would say as I welled up tears of frustration over figuring out whatever the hell integers might have been.

Only one right answer. Yet, my gift was in finding the wrong way to do everything.

In the opening paragraphs of “Atoms in Motion,” Richard Feynman writes of the necessity of an “expanding frontier of ignorance.”

Things must be learned only to be unlearned again, or, more likely, to be corrected.

The problem with math – at least with math instruction – is that everything is presented as a problem to be solved, and there is one solution. It wouldn’t be until a seminar on etymology that I started to understand where my mathematical collapse begun.

They weren’t problems, they were equations.

Equations – equal, aequatio, an equal distribution.

Duh – one side needs to equal the other. That’s all it is. At any moment the universe is in entropy and attempting to land on the lowest, most basic, and equal state of being. Math was never about the rote learning of numbers but extracting an idea that the world is searching for equality – which means there could very well be more than one right answer.

There is always more than one solution. When you start with the absolute of zero, the potential is infinite. Getting there requires a bit of correction.