Is School Useless? (Nobody Does Geometry at Cocktail Parties)


Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.26.50 AMI was helping a kid with his geometry. I didn’t do too bad. I said “shit” once. It slipped out. I apologized. A lifetime of math anxiety rolled up into four letters–coulda been worse. I stepped back and stared at the cleverly infused algebra problem stuffed into one of the angles in the triangles and crossed lines, reasoning that x+whatever must be added to 180-70, because there was an opposite angle labeled “70” without any tricks or algebraic distractions. And everyone knows that two lines tilted next to each other on a straight line has to equal 180 degrees. It’s a complementary angle.

“Supplementary. 180 is supplementary.” Good call, kid, good call. Because I walk around cocktail parties saying things like, “You know, I was figuring out algebraic equations embedded into supplementary angles the other day and I discovered…” Never.

“Miss?” He asked after we knocked off the last angle or two, me as much as him, and I finished up my victory dance. I was pretty proud, I’m not going to lie. I solved tenth grade math. Perfectly. Now, maybe if I have to take standardized tests to prove I’m better than a tenth grader to keep my job someday–it’s not out of the realm of possibility–I’ll be able to succeed on problems with triangles and lines with supplementary angles and algebra embedded inside for no particular reason.

“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” I thought hard through my several careers. Career one in insurance came the closest. I used math to reconstruct traffic accidents–but not really. The officer usually did that and gave me a number. I used math to resolve negotiations, but in truth it was more or less like volleyball than geometry, spiking numbers back over the net.

In waitressing, I calculated bills. No supplementary angles there. Just extra costs on upsells. In business, I spent a ton of money, and got bills for a ton more. Still no triangles or supplementary angles. I’ve built lots of things, but when it came down to brass tacks I never used the Pythagorean theorem to plan materials cost or measure distance. More often than not, I eyeballed it and went back to the store several times, or measured an approximate length across what would be the hypotenuse, hacking and swearing until it was close enough.

But I can’t say that because I’ve got a kid sitting here taking an entire course in geometry that’s going to think he’s wasting his time if I don’t come up with something intellectually plausible. I learned “thinking on my feet” from public speaking and negotiations, not math, though. And if I don’t come up with something quick, he’s going to question whether my class is a waste of his time next. After all, what do I teach about? History. Dead people. How many dead people is he going to meet at cocktail parties?

Before I know it, the whole house of cards will come crumbling down and he’ll be questioning all of public education, just because I succeeded in solving one set of geometry problems with algebra snuck inside. Can’t have that.

God intervened. He does that if I’ve been especially good that day.

“Oh, that’s easy.” I said. “In twenty years when you’re helping some kid with his geometry.” I walked away. I didn’t want him to ask me about calculus next.


Irish Blessing for Teachers (God Help Us, Every One)

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 6.28.26 AMI need a prayer to inspire the first day of school–a prayer useful to the religious and secular alike. I took a philosophy course on a bet once, learning about the nature of prayer in the process. My friend, the future electrical engineer, said he was smarter than me–that engineers, moreover, were smarter than liberal arts majors.

My major was Russian–it was an amalgamation of history, bad economic forecasts, political upheaval, and really long depressing literature–it’s the reason I make people cry with my emails, having earned the nickname “Madame Tolstoy.” I’m improving–wouldn’t trade my academic path for all the engineering salaries in the world. The spirit of the Russian people taught me a lot about teaching–about creativity, making something from nothing, about getting the job done without a lot of resources. Russian philosophy is a little like zen, but with a despot lurking in the background.

For our bet, we chose a neutral class.  The academic DMZ. Philosophy 101. He skipped class. I learned about how to spend an inordinate time fixating on the smallest detail, the meaning of God, what constitutes a pile, and other useful things. For example, if you have one piece of hay, it’s not a stack. If you have two, it’s not a stack. If you have a stack and take a piece off, it’s still a stack. At what point does it become a stack or lack of a stack? You can use this in life. Just substitute manure. If you’ve got a bit of manure in your life, it’s not a pile. If you add a bit more, it may not be a pile, but at some point, it becomes a pile. You have to shovel it away. Farm wisdom that can help you transcend the day-to-day BS in any career and still smile.

The second thing I remember was about God. Many people believe in God and many do not. If God exists, and you messed up on earth, that’s an epic fail. You’re going into the inferno forever. If God doesn’t exist and you were good just in case–well, you don’t go anywhere for eternity but you make people smile in your time on the planet. Is that so bad? It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis.

My friend won the bet. He is smarter than me. He showed up for two classes–the midterm, and the final. He smoked me. I got to learn about the great Western philosophers, the nature and philosophy of prayer, and earn my first C-, my only low grade unless you count Calc, which I dropped twice before finally getting a “just go away” C, escaping higher-level mathematics forever.

Without further adieu, the prayer, “The Irish Blessing,” in its original form and it’s adaptation for education: The original is in italics.

May the road rise up to meet you. May you not get a flat tire on the way to work, and may the potholes not wreck your oil pan.

May the wind be always at your back. May you avoid hurricanes, storms, and floods that force you go to school until July.

May the sun shine warm upon your face; Likewise with snow days.

the rains fall soft upon your fields Don’t drink too much, because there’s no bathroom nearby. You’ll have to wait till 2:11 to pee.

and until we meet again, I won’t see you for 180 days.

may God hold you in the palm of His hand. May the school year not kill you. God help us all. 

May we have the best school year yet. May we do the greatest of things.