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Denominator 3: Rise of the Asymptotes

2003-09-07 - 5:06 p.m.

I am writing from my best friend's office, where the unexpected abduction of my #2 pencil by said best friend's egregiously xenophobic office supplies has stymied my attempts to practice for the quantitative portion of the GRE. Damn you, terrorist gel pens and staplers, hiding my beloved pencil from me so that I might leave the comforts of this office to wander aimless through a real estate building Purgatory, begging for a #2 pencil like some indigent looking for booze. Damn you to Hell!

This is what happens when you spend a weekend in a vain effort to resurrect a part of your brain that has lain sleeping since the previous millenium. This is what heppens when an unapologetiv English major tries to do math.

Actually, I shouldn't be this hard on myself, or perhaps this falsely modest. I am not a slouch at math, by any means. I think I put it best one day in eighth grade, when my math teacher, Mrs. Bright, had us write, on little index cards, what we thought about math. I wound up writing down the following:

"Math and I are like an amicably divorced couple: we get along fine when we're together, but we'd much rather be apart."

Yes, I know that is a very neurotic, Woody Allen-esque thing for a thirteen year old to write, but I was that kid in eighth grade, and had been since sixth grade. You know those moments in movies where an adult is flashing back to childhood, and the kid at some point turns to the camera and makes a remark as an adult. That's my life, right there.

Anyway, this amused the heck out of Mrs. Bright, and confused the fuck out of the other kids, but it was very true. I managed, with the help of some kick-ass math teachers(i love you Ms. Trinnamen, Mrs. Bright, and Mr. Romano!), to make it all the way through Calculus AB, getting a 5 on the AP, ony to have my brain short out the moment it had to process sequences and series. I never thought that a brain could ever stop learning, but mine did.

When I got to college, I was thrilled that the AB-AP got me out of my math requirement, and the only math I would have to do from then on would be in the sciences. And as I was an English major, I only had to suffer through a semester of astronomy and enjoy a semester of environmental studies, and I would never have to worry about math again.

Ha. Fucking. Ha.

The math on the GRE is meant to be easier than the math on the SAT because the makers of this test know that not everyone who is taking it will have kept up with their math in college. In fact, that's sort of the point of college, if I recall: to focus on the area of study in which you are most interested. That's all well and good, but let me say that for the first time ever I am glad that I always tend to view math as the enemy, because this time I picked up a prep book, and if I hadn't, I know that I would have gotten to that test and bawled my eyes out.

As is, I still might.

I forgot about range, mode, median, and mean. I forgot about determining the area of a trapezoid. I forgot about solving equations with more than one variable. I forgot about factoring. Thank god this test doesn't involve calculus, because if you asked me to integrate an equation I'd probably try to write an essay on the civil rights movement.

I came down here to seek aid from my best friend, who I always considered my better in math, and who has since done more work in math, the sciences, and economics than I have, and I think she put it best when, after we spent ten minutes trying to remember how to find the slope of a parabola (which, thank the lord, is not on the test), she said, "I never thought I'd have the occassion to use the expression, 'We've forgotten more about this than some people will ever learn,' but now I think I can."

Studying for this has been a process of excavation, and not a careful, delicate, be careful not to disturb the fragile human remains excavation. It's been a blow up the door, get the treasure before the roof falls in, Angelina Jolie with a bad accent kind of excavation. Actually. it's more like that "where did I put that vitally important letter I received last year" sort of excavation. Not only do you have to go through a lot of junk to get what you need, but you wind up finding things that you had forgotten abut, things that you missed. And things you'd rather forget.

I remember my geometry teacher, Mr. Bailey, undoubtedly the dumbest teacher I'd ever had. He taught us conjectures, and he gave little nicknames to them. For example, the formula for the circumference of a circle might be named the Circumference of a Circle Conjecture, and nicknamed CCC. Well, one day he taught us the formula to determine the Area of a Rectangle. As some other conjecture had scored the nickname ARC, he decided to call this one A-Rect.

After about two solid minutes of non-stop laughter from the back, during which he repeatedly checked if he had chalk on his ass, he finally clued in. He then changed the name to Recatgle Area Conjecture, or RAC.

At that point the class realized that this would be a gift that kept on giving, and stopped laughing before he figured out what could be done with the new name.

I remembered that Calculus class during my junior year was the focus of so much of the drama in my life. I had a friend who could not cope with anything that was going on in her life, and during every test or quiz we had in Calculus she would have a minor breakdown. I, of course, had to be the one to tear myself away from my own test to help her deal with herself. It got to the point where I started having problems because I spent so much time dealing with her problems. One day I was feeling depressed and she said, "Feel better, so you can help me again!" It was a joke, and we no longer speak.

I think the memory I'm glad I found the most was the story I wrote sophomore year. Again, this was Mrs. Bright's doing. Feeling sympathy for all of us humanities kids, she offered us extra credit if we did some sort of art or writing project about math. I decided to write a children's story about it, in the Phantom Tollbooth tradition. It was too clever by half. I had irrational numbers (like pi) become these crazy dwarf-like creatures, while unreal numbers (like the square root of -2) became these ethereal beings. The heroine (because I always had female main characters in my stories at that age) went on this adventure and had to slay the evil wizard, who's name was . . . The Denominator. She beat him by shoving a zero into him, because, of course, zeroes could never be in a Denominator. I even illustrated it. With like, three pictures total, maybe, but still.

People liked this one, and it got passed around the teacher's lounge, with a minimum of derisive laughter.

So my response to math seems to be to write a story about it. My response to the GRE has been to focus on the memories it brings up, and the ways in which it inspires me creatively (because yes, the verbal section has already sparked a couple of short stories from me). This means that I am completley useless when it comes to anything practical, and that I will never be able to survive in an office environment, or anywhere else that will require focus or logic. This will be true no matter how well I relearn trigonometry, so I'd better hope I do well enough on these tests to get my crazy ass back into academia.

Which means it's time to get back to studying, especially since I found my pencil 10 minutes ago.

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