When I entered the 9th grade, age 14, I left behind the boring world of arithmetic and entered the new world of algebra. I was transfixed. It switched on something in my brain that validated all my thoughts about studying math and science. I felt I had arrived.
The experience was heightened by lucking into a great teacher at just the right time. My algebra teacher, Roger Buikema, was fresh out of university on his first teaching assignment. He was late-50’s, early-60’s cool, sporting a crew cut, black-rimmed glasses, and a fondness for the Kingston Trio. His enthusiasm for math and science was infectious.
Algebra was the most elegant thing I had yet encountered in school, and even now, fifty years later, the study of algebra, then advanced algebra, remains as one of the highlights of my education. I was never a math wizard or math precocious, but I liked math and did moderately well at it.
I later studied plane and solid geometry, and trig, which I also loved. I dipped my toe into calculus, but by the time I reached that point in my study of math, my primary interests had shifted to folk music, girls, and literature. I always regretted I hadn’t taken math a little further.
A few weeks ago it occurred to me (I’m a slow thinker) that there was nothing preventing me from restudying math. I was already doing puzzles — crosswords and sudokus — and math exercises are the same: puzzles to be solved. I thought I’d start with trig, but when I looked at the subject anew, I realized my math infrastructure had rusted out with age and disuse. I needed to rebuild the scaffolding in my brain by backing up and starting with algebra.
In my brief one-year stint as an engineering student, I had discovered the Schaum’s Outlines series of publications on math and engineering topics. They were excellent as supplementary material to the main textbooks, and served as inexpensive tutors. I liked them because they were clear, but terse. They didn’t muck about with long explanations of things. They gave the essential information then presented a bunch of exercises and review exercises. They also provided the answers so you could check your work as you went.
Just the thing, I thought. I checked Amazon.ca and the Schaum’s Outlines are still going strong, so I sent for Elementary Algebra. The covers are much slicker than they were in the mid-60’s, but the content is much the same.
As I started my review, I’ll admit outright that my brain hurt from working on the exercises. I could no longer “think math” the way I once did. I kept mucking up signed number operations and even simple arithmetic. But I’ve kept at it, relying on brain plasticity to work up some new neurons or perhaps reassign some old ones to get me back into math think. (Note to brain: I really don’t need the complete lyrics of all those 50’s rock songs in my head. Perhaps you could reassign them?)
Slowly, it’s beginning to work. Each lesson becomes a little less strained. I picked up a nice Texas Instruments scientific calculator for $20 to use to check my work, as well as to learn its higher functions. Back in the day I used a Post Versalog slide rule. Calculators hadn’t yet been invented.
As of today I’m working on the review exercises for chapter five, “First Degree Equations.” Chapter six, “Formulas,” appears to be a review of plane and perhaps solid geometry.
I won’t say it’s been easy, but it’s been worthwhile. Some of the excitement of a long-ago fourteen year old is returning. Each exercise is another puzzle to solve. They feel good when I get them right with no errors. They make me think hard when I get them wrong and have to backtrack through my work to see where I went off the rails. That’s good exercise too.
My brain’s capacity for math is improving daily. Not that it’ll help me tie my shoelaces in the morning, but I’ve recovered a lost love. I have no idea where this might lead, if anywhere, but the journey is stimulating.