Monday, June 6, 2011

What I learned in Algebra and Geometry

Forty-two years ago(!) I entered high school, and embarked upon the study of, among other things, (somewhat) advanced mathematics, or "maths" as they say across the pond. I can add, subtract, multiply, and divide quite well, but I never seemed to get the hang of that "algebra" thing, which put paid to my plans to take Advanced Algebra (with Trigonometry) and Pre-Calculus as I moved up the high school ladder of knowledge. (We'll talk about Chemistry and Physics some other time).

I had Mr T (not the tv star, and not related to the Robert T of this blog). He was a good teacher, although I was not quite up to his hopes for me as a math student. I started off the year with an 80 average, good for a low B, and improved my grade each successive grading period, finishing the year with an 85 for the final term. Even if I did not quite grasp all of it, I believed what I had learned would help me the next year in Geometry.

Well, that was my thought, anyway.

Geometry and I never really got along. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the material (a poor workman always blames his tools), or perhaps it was the teacher, or a combination of all three. Be that as it may, I had the (mis) fortune to be a student under Sister Elizabeth Anne, known variously as Mouse or Peahead; both of which were aptly applied. She was a quiet, soft-spoken nun of indeterminate age who spoke with a thin monotonic voice. She began every class session throughout the day by standing in front of the room with her right hand upon her brow and left hand on her midriff, in the classic "I am beginning to make the Sign of the Cross" stance, and literally would hold that position until she had the attention of each student, whereupon she would recite a prayer. Once that was finished we would commence to learnin'.

After each chapter we would have a test of perhaps 25 questions and problems to do. If we passed with a grade of C or higher, we were free to pay exclusive attention to the material in the next chapter she taught. If you did not achieve a C or better, you would be required to retake the chapter test, this time only 10 problems long, mercifully, until you got all of them right or only missed one. Each time you took the re-test and did not achieve the proper score, your grade went down one point. You could take the test 100 times, but, if you finally passed, the lowest you would get was a 70 (D-). But, hey, at least you passed!

Thus, she made it terribly difficult to fail the class, thankfully. She also had one other saving grace. She required all students with an open period at 12:15 who still had chapter tests to make up to come to her room and begin taking them. At 12:30, she left for lunch and left us unsupervised, whereupon most of us would start to converse among our fellow under-achievers and do a group workup on the tests so we could get out sooner, and hoped we passed. Usually, we didn't.

After my Sophomore year I thankfully parted ways with Peahead.

And when I received my class schedule for my Junior year, there she was again, this time as my Algebra II (sans Trigonometry) teacher. I had to endure another year of her. My grades did not improve, either.

At this point it may occur to you: why did you not ask for help? Well, it did not occur to me at the time, but I probably would not have wanted to spend any more time with her than I already did, not did I have a smart and pretty female in my Algebra (or Geometry) class; they were all in the advanced math classes, and I was a bit shy around girls.

Still am.

Nor did I think to ask a guy for help, since guys just didn't do that. All that is to my eternal regret.

I will say this for Sister Elizabeth Anne: I did manage to learn one thing in the two very long years I had her as a teacher. It was her favorite prayer, the one she began every class period with, The Memorare, a prayer to the Virgin Mother of God. I can still recite it to this day:

"Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.



  1. Do you even know a-squared + b-squared = c-squared? And just what are you invoking the blessings of our Beloved Mother Mary for? (However I am ending that sentence with a preposition and am therefore in violation of Mr. Brown's English rules). So much for our Catholic education.

  2. Yes, I do know that; however, I have never had an occasion to use said formula.

    The "ending a sentence with a preposition" ban is mainly a snob construct by those academics who tried to fit the rules of Latin to the emerging English language. With regard to English, it is an artificial construct, and although taught to you and me, it is not a requirement, unless you are attempting to be rather formal in your usage.

  3. Megabyte has just been handed the Algebra I book to work on over the summer and is talking about taking it in an online class that is self-paced through the Riverside Virtual School. Now I have to do some more looking into it to see if it will work. She wants to complete it this summer and do Geometry instead of Algebra in 8th grade. I'm ok with it, as that's what I did. However, the math teachers at her school will have to work with us on this one. Totally weird!

  4. 1)The "Memorare" was also one of mother's favorite prayers - and there were those of us who learned it long before the exposure - once again - to Peahead and her memorable plea.

    2)There are those of us who still cannot end a sentence with a preposition - and anyone who had mother correct the usage of grammar in a paper prior to turning it in will attest that the apple doesn't fall from the tree.

  5. I think my grammar Nazi child - also known as Miracle Baby - can attest to this. She is the ultimate reference in our house when grammar is in question, much to her siblings dismay sometimes!