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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Earlier Experiences of Defeat – and One Memorable Victory

Many people expressed fear at the very idea of a spelling bee the first year I tried to get a team together, and many since have shivered at our team's experiences. There are a lot of memories involved in these fears, so I went back to visit some of my own this morning, memories not having to do with spelling victories.

I was my grade school spelling champion in third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, but that doesn’t mean I escaped the experiences of losing and even of outright humiliation. A fast runner and excellent tree climber, good with addition and multiplication tables, in upper elementary school I started falling behind in math and sports. Story problems made my blood run cold: they were not the kind of stories I checked out of the school library, that’s for sure! Long division required estimating, but who wants to guess? Give me a surefire algorithm, or forget it!

Then there were gym classes and playground sports. Who but the shy, nearsighted, undersized child can understand the fear of a ball coming right at you? In volleyball games, I ducked rather than jumping toward the ball. At home plate, bat on shoulder, I was cringing before the pitcher even threw the ball. In my elementary school days, boys and girls played together on softball teams. Two people would be chosen by the teacher (these eager beavers volunteered to be chosen, of course) to select the rest of the members for their teams. Back and forth, they took turns choosing. Who was always left until last, so that the team whose turn it was to choose last simply got stuck with me? When our team was in the field, I was in the outfield, looking for four-leafed clovers, picking dandelions, and praying the ball would never reach me. Usually it didn’t. (That’s why I had been sent out there.) Sooner or later, though, when our team was up to bat, the turn came around to me, and that was the worst, as the other team would call out jeeringly, “Easy out! Easy out!” They were absolutely right.

Then came junior high and even more nightmarish mathematics, but this was complicated by scheduling. I was in an accelerated homeroom in seventh grade but also in orchestra, with only one other girl from my homeroom, so while the rest of our class was having accelerated math, we were in orchestra, and later in the afternoon we had math with a regular, non-accelerated class. (Fine with me!) Ah, but then the powers that were decided it was unfair for two young violinists to be deprived of accelerated math, and they re-rigged our schedules so we could have math with the rest of our homeroom. For me, this was disaster. The rest of the class had covered two years in one in seventh grade. We violinists, on the other hand, were skipping from seventh to ninth grade. I wouldn’t have minded skipping a year of English, but a year of math? Going straight to algebra? NIGHTMARE!!!

Rather than end this sorry tale in the quagmire of later high school mathematics and my sorry SAT score on the math section, I’ll tell you of one triumph, because it meant so much to me that I’ve never forgotten it.

Freshman year of high school. A combined township high school and junior college population of five thousand students. Freshmen on half-days because of overcrowding. Country mouse dropped into noisy, exciting pushing and shoving of urban life. Classes with complete strangers. And, because of that eighth grade (nightmare) experience with algebra, dropped into a geometry class with sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The only freshman in the class.

But geometry was better than algebra. It was visual. You could look at the problems.

So one day the teacher posed this question to the class: A bicycle tire has some object – I forget, but say it was a piece of chewing gum picked up from the pavement – stuck to it. As the rider proceeds down the street, what figure in space describes the path of the piece of chewing gum? The hands of confident students shot up into the air, and one by one they gave their solutions, but all were wrong.

I thought and thought and could see it in my mind, but was it even possible that I could be right? At last, with everyone else wrong, I raised my hand and gave my answer. The teacher asked me to come up and draw my answer on the blackboard. It was right.

The rest of the class could not keep quiet. “The freshman got it!” one jock exclaimed in disbelief. “The freshman got it!”

A little embarrassing but mostly music to my ears! So much better than “Easy out!”


BB-Idaho said...

Good for you!
There is some nefarious math involved in bubble gun on a bike
wheel. The British architect Sir
Christopher Wren was an early investigator...not sure if he had
a gum problem with his bicycle....

P. J. Grath said...

BB, THANK YOU SO MUCH for the link to the action diagram! Yes, that is exactly what I saw in my head but did no math at all to come up with the image. I don't think my geometry teacher mentioned chewing gum. Maybe it was a thumb tack? I just liked the gum image.