Remembering Trig

Trig Function (by StarbuckGuy)

I went through school before the ‘new math’ arrived. Grades 1-12 focused on arithmetic, including the rote memorization of the multiplication tables, which occurred in Grade 3. I don’t recall a lot of specifics but I remember being bored to tears by arithmetic homework. As the grades progressed the columns of numbers to add became deeper, and long division got … longer. (Electronic calculators hadn’t yet been invented.) By Grade 8 I was sick of the whole thing, despite getting straight A’s. Looking back, I rather wish some of that ‘new math’ had trickled into our curriculum for at least Grades 7-8.

Then I graduated to high school and landed in algebra class. I couldn’t believe it. Math was suddenly exciting and novel. Solving equations for those mystery numbers, the x’s, y’s, and z’s — I was blissed out. I fell completely and totally in love with algebra.

Second year high school brought plane geometry. I had a sense of distrust about geometry before I even took it — a foreboding that it was going to be supremely boring. The prophecy was fulfilled. I intensely disliked geometry, even while acing the course.

Third year high school: advanced algebra. Back to my first love and it was sweet. The equations got tougher but deliciously solvable and I enjoyed the ‘story problems’ — like the ones about trains going different directions and speeds and where would they meet? My greatest high-school achievement was scoring 100% on the advanced algebra final exam.

Year Four was different. Being university bound, students in Year Four math received a hodgepodge of more advanced maths, including spatial geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. Spatial geometry surprised me. It was fun — more like problem solving than memorizing axioms. Calculus was exotic, and scary. But Trig, my oh my, trig hit me the way algebra first did. It was amazing.

Sines, cosines, tangents, arcs, radians, and all those wonderful Greek letters — all the Φ’s, Θ’s,  Δ’s, and Σ’s that replaced the x’s, y’s, and z’s of algebra — great stuff. I’m not sure why this has resurfaced in my memories after all these years, but for me, at the time, it was a heady experience.

Now if all this makes you think I must have been a real nerd, you’d be very close to being exactly right. Almost. But the strange thing is that despite my science/math orientation (I was going to become an engineer), my best subject of all was English. And that world was less nerdy and more explorative of the human condition, which for high school nerds, meant getting to talk about poems and novels with some of the school’s very pretty girls.

Things changed when I went to university. I started out as an Engineering student, but was doomed from the start: I bought a guitar and learned how to finger pick. I began learning Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Peter Seeger, and Tom Paxton lyrics.  I became a folk singer. It was life changing.

In second year university, to the amazement and total bafflement of my older friends and family, I switched majors to English. I never looked back, and never had a moment’s regret.

But I still recall the thrill of trig.

P.S. If you ever loved trig, you might find this enjoyable: Dave’s Short Trig Course

2 thoughts on “Remembering Trig

  1. Gene, by the sound of it, I liked math(s) as much as you and was lucky enough to go on to three years of engineering at University in Edinburgh. I had a natural talent for it and only began to lose the plot a little with Fourier series in my last year, but by then snooker, bridge, chess and other distractions had stolen time form attendance at class … I still indulge an interest in maths from time to time.

    Like you, I had a natural bent for English.

  2. Adam, you followed the maths much farther than I did. I fizzed out early, for many of the same reasons. Not only do you have a natural bent for English, you’re artistically talented as well! Good on ya!

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