Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thing One and Thing Two: A Brief Tale of Friendship and Math

Friendships are as different as leaves or snowflakes. Each has its own rhythm, its own balance, its own customs and rules, overtly or tacitly agreed to immediately or with the passage of time. Each is entered into differently, and each beginning is unique, even when familiar patterns provide framework.

None of these notions crossed my mind when I recently opened friendship negotiations with Amy.* We liked each other on sight. In fairness, I think Amy likes most people on sight; she is as bright and open and curious as anyone I know. Still, we did like each other right away. I could tell, because within a matter of an hour, she asked me one of those fundamental questions of friendship, "What's your favorite color?" Her tone was one of overture, of exploration. She was friendly, but not too friendly, you know? The way you are when you think you might like somebody, but are wary in case they turn out to be a complete nerd and you get stuck with them because you've been too nice. I should probably note here that Amy is not yet ten years old. I'm much older, of course, but this is one of those familiar framework things even I could see at a distance. I considered. "Hmm," I said, reflecting. "I love blues and purples; there are so many great colors, you know? But I probably have to say green. I think green's my favorite."

"Mine, too!" She nodded enthusiastically, her curly hair boucing on her shoulders, her hazel eyes wide and sparkly, her face lit by her smile. Some months prior I'd sent Amy's family a gift of a field guide to birds, and from her mother I knew that Amy's the family birder. So her next question seemed perfectly natural to me, though her tone told me it was a more significant question. She leaned forward. "What's your favorite bird?" This one, I thought, was a bit of a test. I considered again, struggling. "That's a hard one," I said. "I love all the songbirds, all the passerines. But I love the raptors, too...", and Amy came to the rescue, words tumbling out. "I love cardinals," she said, "And the owls and those big white water birds, and..." By now she was turning the pages of the book I'd sent to her family as well as amuch larger coffee table book filled with bird images. Her mother said, "Don't forget the penguins," and Amy said, "Oh, yes! I love penguins!" So we talked about penguins and puffins and the relative loveable merits of more birds than I can remember. Eventually we moved on, and Amy's serious, scientific mind brought her to a probing question about favorite insects (we both love dragonflies) and onward toward reptiles (mutual favorites include lizards, frogs and toads). And then, finally, the offhand question neither of us thought much about at the time. Amy's nonverbal cue was telegraphed by her and read by me in a millisecond. "Like math?" she asked. "Ewww," I said. And it was done. We were friends.

But it was wrong, of course. She's a girl. She's a smart girl. Her brain is wired for science; she wants to be an oceanographer, a marine biologist, a researcher, a solver of the problems of the natural world. Math is critical. And I'd dismissed it because I wanted her to like me. I was ashamed of myself. It kept me up nights. And then I knew what I needed to tell her: it was what I wished someone had told me - and made me wrap my head around - when I was ten years old, hated math, and couldn't for the LIFE of me figure out its value. Thing One? Math is a Language. Thing Two? Math is Good for Your Brain.

Thing One: Math is a language, as surely as English or French. But its building blocks come to us later than those of the native languages we speak; its alphabet is numbers. Its sophisticated sentences and paragraphs are dependent on things we must take on faith. Equations depend on memorized multiplication tables. Math depends on symbols that are quite distant from those of mother tongues. As a language it poses challenges like those encountered by linguistic students tackling a new alphabet, cuneiform or Cyrillic characters. Babies are sung to in their mother tongues before they're even born. Math? You have to learn the basics after you have command of that mother tongue. And yet math is the language of complete specificity. To be a scientist you have to be able to communicate with your colleagues in specific terms. If you're counting sea turtle nests, you must be able to say, There are 50 sea turtle nests here, and 50 more there, for a total of 100 sea turtle nests this year. I know you know this, dear and gentle reader. But did you know it when you were ten years old?

Thing Two: Math is like a discipline of physical exercise for your brain. The mere act of calculation, however simple or complex, works your brain so that it becomes nimble, supple, muscular; it becomes stronger and more fully developed. It develops capacity it wouldn't have had otherwise. It's like learning Latin. You don't do it because you have a burning need to be conversant in a dead language, but if you do it, you develop parts of your brain that might otherwise never be awakened. Math is good for your brain. Don't love it? That's okay. Do it anyway, for the same reason you eat an apple when you're thinking about a cookie; for the same reason you go for a walk when a nap might be nicer; for the same reason you read a book instead of watching videos on YouTube. It's GOOD for you. And here again, I know you know this. But if you didn't have a native facility for math when you were ten years old, would you have seen the benefits on your own? Yeah. Me neither.

We had dessert; we talked about it. I told Amy I'd thought about it, and sketched out my notions of Thing One and Thing Two. I told her I was sorry for not telling her the truth, and I told her I'd said it because I'd wanted to be her friend. And I told her that real friends tell each other the truth. Which matters. Because Amy's truth and her future are big stuff. She'll need all the languages she can learn, so she can open her big thoughts to the whole, wide world.

*Not her real name

Photo credit: Angela Christensen Cooking credit: Umm, that was me, too. Those are Cream Biscuits from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by the late and very much lamented Marion Cunningham (by way of James Beard) with fresh strawberries and raspberries and homemade whipped cream. It sweetened the regrets considerably.

A tip of the hat to Dr. Seuss for the notions of Thing One and Thing Two.


  1. I bet you're using the new Blogger interface, thus why no paragraph breaks (unless you were going for a Jack Kerouac sort of ramble effect, in which case it is perfect.)

    True about math (all of it is true.) I've always been good at it, so it is my friend, but it also helps to open up areas of the mind that may not otherwise get needed exercise. It's important for that alone.

  2. Suldog - right you are! Note that the
    tag seems to have corrected the display issue, for as you well know, I ain't no Kerouac, though I am all-too-capable of the ramble. Thanks for the math endorsement; coming from a person for whom Math is a Friend, it rings. As always, thank you for reading!


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