A Pain in the Math

No strength in numbers

Please don’t call on me, I kept thinking. Please don’t call on me.

Before the 8th grade, math had made sense. Math problems involved numbers that were either added, subtracted, divided, or multiplied. Oftentimes, you would perform a few of those functions in a logical order to come up with an answer. Life made sense.

Somewhere along the line, though, some jerk decided to throw letters into these math problems. What had once made sense now became a confusing jumble of frustration. Please excuse my Dear Aunt Sally (PEMDAS) became some warped rallying cry for angst ridden pre-teens. What did Aunt Sally even do, anyway? It was at this point that my hand, once perched confidently on the cliff of Mt. Math, began to slip precariously.

By the time the 8th grade and Mrs. Federline had rolled around, I was falling off Mt. Math at a rather alarming rate.

None of this was Mrs. Federline’s fault, of course. Her overhead projector and short hair style were just reminders of how far I’d fallen.

It was 1990. At that time, there were varying theories on how to avoid being called on by your math teacher. One side of the argument stated that you must unequivocally avoid eye contact with the teacher. Looking elsewhere had the potential to give off the appearance that you were blending in. This was called the Wallflower Theory.

Detractors of that argument, however, stated that you must look the teacher confidently in the eye, acting as if you wanted to be called on. This showed the instructor that you knew the answer and that it wouldn’t provide them with a valuable teaching moment if they called on you. This was called the Bluffing Theory. Now, I’m not a gambler, so I was partial to the Wallflower Theory.

Much to my consternation, however, my 8th grade math teacher was an enigma. Five months into that course, I still didn’t know how to avoid being called on. I had tried both approaches, but unsuccessfully. I was now convinced that she was simply out to get me. She’d probably call on me if I was absent. That’s how bad it was. In truth, she called on everyone.

“Josh,” exclaimed Mrs. Federline. “What answer did you get?”

I didn’t have the right answer. I didn’t have any answer.

Mrs. Federline stared at me like an apparition, the light of the overhead projector casting an aura of superiority around her. She awaited my response. My classmates did the same – the goodie two shoes expecting me to answer incorrectly, the others just relieved that it wasn’t their names that they’d heard.

I reasoned that it was better to guess than to say I didn’t know. At least throwing out a number gave me a miniscule chance of guessing correctly and, more importantly, it created the possibility in Mrs. Federline’s mind that a simple subtraction error had thrown off what otherwise would’ve been a correct answer by me.

“17,” I said.

“We are discussing the 4th problem of your homework,” she said. “Not the 5th question.”

“Oh,” I said, clearly stalling for time. “29.”

“Very good, Josh,” responded my surprised teacher.

I was dumbfounded. Not only had I guessed correctly on my math problem, but on the next one too. The goodie two shoes next to me knew I’d gotten lucky, but it didn’t stop me from giving her a look of brazen confidence. Feeling overly self-assured, I asked her to the school dance.

She responded, with an air of disgust, “As if?”

“How in the hell did you get that answer?” asked my best friend, Jim, after class. He was clearly impressed with my last minute guess.

“I don’t know, dude,” I responded, still confused by it all.


A few years ago, I found Mrs. Federline on Facebook. We had a very nice discussion, and she was pleased to discover that I had survived my fall off Mt. Math and had gone on to live a fulfilling, math-less life. I was pleased to discover that she didn’t actually remember me. It confirmed that perhaps the wallflower approach had, in fact, been the best approach. I was relieved to have made my peace with her. I’ll never completely find peace with that overhead projector though.

3 thoughts on “A Pain in the Math”

  1. haha, I was always good at math, it was other subjects I avoided getting called on. Such as history or English, or anything that required me to have read for more than the 2 seconds of my attention span. I could always pull off a miracle and just figure out a math problem by looking at it, but if you didn’t read about why the Sultan of some country waged war against the King of another country, you couldn’t fake it or just figure it out on the spot. I did crack up at this line “I was now convinced that she was simply out to get me. She’d probably call on me if I was absent.”


  2. Also nerd alert: The reason we use “X” as the default unknown in a math equation:

    Algebra is Arabic, the original word was Al-jabr. Which meant something like finding the unknown parts (no exact translation). When the European mathematicians were translating the Arabic lessons, the word for unknown thing was al-shalan. But Spanish didn’t have a sound for “sh” to they replaced all sh words with a hard k sound (using ck, which in Greek is written with the letter X (Chi). They eventually shorted it to just use the Greek letter X to fit it into equations. So X is what we use for a default unknown. Heard that on NPR about a TED Talk, and loved the back story. They even said, ahh if it wasn’t a sh sound, we could have ended up with another random letter, and a show called “The B-Files” etc.


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