Depending on where you were born, you will identity with either the singular or plural abbreviation of the word mathematics. As an American, I grew up with the word “MATH”, a giant creature under whose opaque wings lurked all the mind-bending formulas which tortured me as a child. Math was a monster, and it had a looming bodily form, a black-hole face scarred with + x = – /, and a deep, monotone voice which closely resembled that of Darth Vader. And the worst part? The math monster lived on the BLACK BOARD.
While many people are able to make sense of the world with numbers, I’ve always preferred to decrypt it with letters, something that came naturally to me. I was conditioned to believe from any early age that I had a math handicap and the label became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well into adulthood, I shied away from numbers, still counting on my fingers under the table as anxiety rose up to heat my cheeks and my mind became a jumble of floating numbers that faded just as I was about to seize them. It took me a long time to understand that being “bad at math” wasn’t a learning deficit, it was based on the fear of failure and a lack of a way to understand and make sense of math.
Having never been given formal math instruction, my children look at it as a useful ally in life. My son, who is mad about architecture, geography and aviation, learned percentages by stacking colored Lego towers. He uses statistics to understand the scale of buildings, places and the people who inhabit them. This year, he’ll be tackling algebra in order to get his pilot’s license so he can navigate the skies. My daughter, who at 11 has her own small jewellery business, learned to manage her finances in order to invest a certain percentage of her profits in new materials.
These days, I prefer the British reference, “maths”. Add on one little ’s’ and the word feels less threatening—lots of little concepts waiting to be examined and tamed. Or maybe it’s because my children helped me see that maths are everywhere in everyday life, not just relegated to one hour a day in a chalk-dusted classroom.
Maths are in the kitchen hidden in measuring cups, recipe division and the percentages we use when mixing certain ingredients together or dividing up a pizza for five. Maths are melodies and harmonies and crescendos intertwining and repeating in music. Maths are the algorithms found in the patterns of nature, in the weave of your favorite sweater and in the database that allows us to document and share our stories on the internet. I’ve even come to suspect that one little mathematical muse often helps me form sentences that carry a cadence when I write.
Lately, maths have even taken on a soulful quality that I never could have imagined. The other day my son and I discovered the wonders of pi π. I relate to pi because it has been described, like me, as an irrational number. It just goes on and on at random. I like that about pi. And I like it because it sounds like ‘pie.’ But I had no idea that pi was so complex and playful. Did you know, for instance, that this infinite non-repeating decimal contains entire sequences such as our birth dates, driver’s licence and social security numbers, even binary representations of DNA? While it’s never been proven that the decimal expansion of pi contains every finite sequence of digits, it does contain many of them.
There’s even a website to search number sequences found in π.
I wasn’t really expecting pi to recognize me, but I popped in the numerical equivalent of my name and my birthdate and hit the search button. And there I was, right there at position 142791179, part and parcel of pi. And I’m so happy we met. Contrary to what I have always believed, I was never “bad” at math. We were just never properly introduced.
This essay is adapted from my forthcoming book, “Everything I Thought I Knew: Reflections on Living, Learning and Parenting Without School” scheduled for release in the Spring of 2017.