Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lost and Found; Found and Lost: a Brief History of Math and Me

SAN DIEGO – “Your middle school is now a jail,” he shook his head incredulously.

I tried to explain it was an evolution of a building in a small town; how it wasn’t a middle school, it was Lebanon Junior High.

I tried to explain how it was built in the 1930s when the former high school with the gymnasium in the basement had burned down.

How it was the high school up the hill from the football field, where the Sellars Funeral home is now located, before it moved across town behind the hospital, which is now a care facility, and how the building became the junior high; how it was built on the corner across the parking lot from the new elementary school named Highland Heights with the cafeteria in the basement.

But this native Californian was not buying it, honed in on a school being turned into a jail.

Donkey Basketball

My explanations seemed to just make the whole idea even more nonsensical.

I told him the 1936 gym ran along the north side between the two schools. It was where I saw donkey basketball when I was in McClain elementary. The locker room was in the basement. That was where my best friend Henry Harding, the ring leader, and other football players put itching powder in my underwear while I showered, and how it stung and burned, and eventually got Henry into a bit of trouble.

“You went to school in a jail,” the Californian kept muttering.

Apparently, they don’t reuse buildings out here in the Southwest corner: just tear ‘em down and build something else.

And I remembered how that old building was the beginning of my math cycle, found, lost, found, and lost.

I had done okay in math at McClain and the first year at LJHS, getting it done with as little effort as possible so I could watch Howdy Doody in the afternoon and Milton Berle’s “Texaco Hour” before going to bed. But in the eighth grade, I struggled until one afternoon. Mrs. Mora Purnell was helping me solve a problem. An explosion went off inside my head. I smiled and Mrs. Purnell responded with a smile of her own.

“I can see you’ve got it,” she commented wisely.

Major Leftwich/Colonel Brown

This would be a better story if then Major Leftwich had been my math teacher at Castle Heights, but his job was to mold me into a decent journalist and a better man.

I drew Colonel Harvey Brown. He had been a real Army colonel, ramrod straight, pencil thin mustache, and a short brusque flattop. He laughed wryly out of the side of his mouth and drove an MG sports car.

He was cool.

My math under Colonel Brown flourished. I am not sure how I made the cut, but I was in an accelerated program with LeRoy Dowdy, Frank Sutherland, John Thompson, and David Whitten. I took to it and stayed with the front runners through trigonometry, analytical geometry, and integral calculus. I’m sure Mrs. Purnell had a great influence on it happening at all.

Then in spite of my natural inclination, I chose an engineering major at Vanderbilt.

Somewhere in about a month into my first semester, I lost math. I don’t know where it went, but it was gone, not a good thing if you are a civil engineering student with the proclivity to play more than study.

So I struggled, specifically 22 hours of engineering calculus and statics, and left Vanderbilt not a great deal wiser.

MTSU/Daughter’s Trig

At Middle Tennessee, I profited from extremely wonderful English professors. Dr. Richard Peck and Dr. Bill Holland immediately come to mind, but all of that math stuff was gone, lost. Then as I entered the last summer before graduation, my advisor informed me I needed one math course to graduate. All of those D grades in calculus had not transferred as credit.

I found it again. Of course, it was rehash but I got an A in trigonometry.
Five years ago, my daughter asked me to help her with her high school math homework: trigonometry. I was thrilled and could not wait to demonstrate my acumen.

It was gone again. I couldn’t remember anything.

Maybe they should send me back to jail.

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