Mathematics and Me – How I Found X (Or didn’t)

What’s the difference between numbers and words?

Not much, it would seem. You can string numbers together to make a bigger number, and you can string words together to make a sentence. Both serve the purpose of quantification: numbers help us quantify amounts and words help us quantify our thoughts. Numbers can be used to confuse people and we call this “statistical obfuscation”. Words can also be used to confuse people, and we call this “Shakespeare”.

In fact, numbers and words are so similar that the ancient Romans became rather muddled; some of them started to mix up their words and numbers and instead of giving them medication for learning disorders, we started to call these numbers “Roman numerals”. And then we started teaching it to children in schools, because, as you must know, Romulus was quite the hunk.

So what is the difference? Are numbers and words actually the same? Were they created by the old druid Getafix to ensure that Julius Caser and his Roman pals would never take the little Gaulish village? Or were they created by the Illuminati to confuse the children of ancient Rome so that they all got Cs in their maths tests? (Or 100s, I can’t be sure)

The difference is this: Words make sense to me, but numbers don’t.

My tryst with mathematics began approximately – wait, let me get my scientific calculator – 4,273 years ago. No, that doesn’t seem right. Let me try again. 3,289 years ago. Yup, that’s it.

Anyway, I was born premature, and to quote my mother, “You indicated your problem with maths early. You came 3 weeks before due date and were in (fetal) distress.”

That was just an indicator of things to come.

Mathematics has never been my friend. I would say that I have a love-hate relationship with it, but there’s negative infinity love here. Mathematics is that annoying kid in class who keeps making paper planes and makes vrooming noises when he aims them at you. Mathematics is that toast that you just dropped on the floor, butter side down. Mathematics is all those times you try to get the thread into the eye of the needle, but in the end you decide to stab yourself to death with the needle because you just cannot, like, literally.

With mathematics, I just cannot. Like literally.

I’m not going to say that I can’t add two and two. Of course, it depends on the time of the day, and whether I’ve had my coffee yet, but I usually can. I’m not going to say that I’m terrible at anything to do with numbers – I’m a pro at calculating how many marks I’m going to lose before I get back the grades from a maths test. I’m usually spot-on.

What I can’t do, though, is the tests.

In the fourth grade, I wrote an original short story about maths, called “The Maths Test”. My mother preserved it and I read it recently. My mother says that I wrote it after a particularly distressing math test, and you can detect, from the handwriting, that I had certainly been traumatised at the time of writing. The story goes like this, and I quote verbatim:

“There once lived a little girl called Mary. She was a bad girl. One day her mother told her to learn maths because there was a maths test. But Mary was a bad girl and did not learn anything. On the day of the maths test she did not know anything. When the results came out Mary looked at the results and she saw she got everything wrong. This is a lesson not to be lazy.”

And in that moment, Mary and I were inextricably united in our sorrows. Mary was me. I was Mary. We were bad girls. We were infinite.

(I hope to make this into a feature film some day)

Mary still haunts me. She has loomed ominously over every single maths test I have done till date. I find it hard to explain. Before the maths test, I am perfectly fine, confident, raring to go – “Hit me with your best numbers”. After the maths test, I am usually sobbing uncontrollably, making vrooming noises and throwing buttered toast and needles at the boy with the paper planes.

Every sum on the sheet of innocuous white paper seizes me with a sense of terror. Regardless of how easy the question actually is. I’ve developed a coping mechanism over the years but a single mention of “find y” or “sketch the graph of sin x” can shatter the walls I built so painstakingly in an instant. It’s a lot like falling in love, to be honest. Replace “fall in love” with “fail in math” and even Demi Lovato, the Alan Turing of Nickelodeon, could describe my plight:

“So I’m putting my defences up
‘Cause I don’t want to (fail in math)
If I ever did that
I think I’d have a heart attack”

Heart Attack, Demi Lovato

Recently, I gave my (hopefully, fingers crossed) last math exam. It was no different from the rest. It wasn’t a hard paper, but Mary took over again. One of the questions was about a goat named Kimberly who walks around a field and eats grass and we had to find out the amount of grass she had eaten based on the perimeter and area and other math-related stuff. Of course, I paraphrase – it was actually a sheep named Juan Rodriguez, but counting sheep makes me fall asleep so I’m going to go with Kimberly the goat for now.

What confused me was the fact that they had named the goat. ‘Why Kimberly?’ I wondered to myself. ‘What is the mathematical significance of the name ‘Kimberly’? I’m sure they’ve mentioned it for a reason. They could have called the goat “Daisy” or “Billy” (those are the most common goat names in Enid Blyton books) or maybe “Moo” if they were sadists who wanted to give poor Kimberley an identity crisis. Wasn’t Kimberly the name of the mother of the guy who invented geometric sequences? Ahhh so they’re giving us a clue. We have to use geometric sequences.’

So I used geometric sequences and arrived at the conclusion that Kimberly the herbivorous goat had eaten negative 2.57 square metres of grass, and thus she was not only herbivorous but also environmentally conscious, replanting more grass than she ate.

I tend to overcomplicate.

And that’s my problem. Question seems too easy? I decide that I’m going to complicate it for myself. Question seems too short to carry a whole 7 marks? I decide to do this:

Foxtrot - Math

But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I felt a little bit sad when that math exam ended. Maths has played an important role in my life. Call it a first world problem, but it has taught me to get through adversity. It has taught me that numbers can describe, define, mystify, investigate, and confuse. It has taught me that algebra is nothing but a tragic love story where x never finds his y and ex is forever alone, whether differentiated or integrated.

And of course, I’ll miss Mary.