by Matt Benoit
On this coming Saturday, March 5, rabid hoards of mathematics-crazed children will invade the Whatcom Community College Pavilion to engage in the annual, brain-frying ritual that is the Whatcom County Math Championships.
Although I now nurse an insipid, simmering hatred towards being forced to do mathematics, it wasn’t always that way. Back in the day (i.e. nine to 11 years ago), I was a battle-hardened math gladiator, a pint-sized John Nash (minus the schizophrenic delusions). I competed not once, but twice in the WCMC.
I first joined my elementary school’s “Math Team” in the 4th grade, and quite frankly, I have no idea why.
It might have been because my best friend, Walt, was a proverbial math whiz, and being on the math team enabled us to hang out more. It might have been because the girl I secretly had a giant crush on was on the team. It could have been because I was just a total idiot and didn’t think about actually HAVING TO SOLVE MATH PROBLEMS.
But I joined anyway, and soon our teacher, Mrs. Enfield, who often enlisted the help of her college-age son, Ben, proceeded to whip us into shape by having us practice all the different categories of math solving we would encounter at the “Big Math Dance”—individual problems, group problems, timed problems, mental math problems, word problems; you name it, we probably tried to solve it.
We were like tiny superheroes, keeping order in the mathematical universe by solving equations nobody else had the guts—or at least the critical thinking skills—to solve. We may not have known how to save lives, but by God, we knew the first eight digits of Pi after the decimal point.
After practicing for months, the big day arrived, and my dad dropped me off that morning at the Pavilion. Inside our teams assembled, and stared longingly at all the awards—both trophies and plaques—lined up neatly on tables at the front of the gymnasium. And then there’d be some kind of introduction, and then we’d split up and head to assigned classrooms to conquer our math foes.
The interesting thing about the competition was that the people who proctored all the tests would usually be well-meaning parents who didn’t really understand all the questions or math terms very well, which would explain why one time a proctor, in announcing the question “What is four factorial?”(1x2x3x4), saw the exclamation mark used to denote factorial (as in 4!), and loudly read the question as “What is FOUR?!”
Anyway, to be honest with you, I don’t remember very much from the fourth grade competition, but I remember my performance as a team member was not what you’d call MVP quality, and so, when my dad picked me up afterward, we went home and he played for me what is surely the best song ever written: “Math Suks.”
This is a song by Jimmy Buffett, the same man responsible for “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” So I knew it would be good even before I heard it. The refrain at the end of “Math Suks” is actually “math sucks, math sucks/ math sucks the big one.”
So needless to say, I strongly, deeply associated with it.
And yet somehow, in the sixth grade, I decided to again join the Math Team, much to the chagrin of my conscience, which was constantly trying to talk my 12-year-old brain out of it: “Look, it’s math…you know what it’s all about. You been there BEFORE! C’MON! Let’s focus on puberty instead!”
But to no avail. Soon, I was back in the world of equations and formulas, our teachers—Mrs. Enfield, along with her son and Mrs. Kamena—again putting us through the wringer. But that’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, because we often did, eating donuts and usually making up some sort of nerdy math jokes:
ME: So, then I say, “That’s no linear equation; that’s my remainder! Remainder, get it? Isn’t that hilarious?”
You can see how it was difficult to be popular with the ladies.
But still, we were expertly trained. We were kind of like “The ‘A’ Team,” only with an added M, T, and H. Also, things generally didn’t explode when we got the answers correct and we didn’t have automatic weapons (Although sometimes I would act like Colonel “Hannibal” Smith and say things like “I love it when a parabolic equation comes together!”).
Instead, our weapons were of the mind—the Pythagorean theorem, the knowledge of many square roots, the “Jedi Mind Trick,” the “Inception of answers from deep inside the proctor’s subconscious,” and, last but not least, the scientific calculator.
We loved the scientific calculator, not only because of its fantastic ability to help us solve complex equations, but also because you could spell out dirty words with it (not that we ever did this).
Anyway, the second-time around, I again stepped into the Pavilion to challenge for mathematical supremacy.
But to be honest, both years’ results were relatively similar—Walt would win a plaque, I would do poorly, and most of the trophies always seemed to be won by some school we’d never heard of that was even smaller than ours, and that usually sent only two team members who both wore glasses with lenses thicker than Kim Kardashian’s posterior.
The only real consolation about the WCMC was that, no matter how bad you actually did, you could always buy a t-shirt to remember your participation. These shirts usually had some clever, math-related phrase like “Do the math” (this year’s slogan) on them, when they really should have said things like “My parents made me do this” and “I wish I was more proficient at athletics.”
Now, all these years later, I’m in college and many things have changed, including the nature of the questions I’ve had to answer. Many of them are harder, but they are also more appropriate for my age group (“Johnny has four fifths. That’s A LOT of booze…”).
But not everything changed. I never became good at math. I never confessed my feelings for the cute girl, mostly because her likely response would have been to have written “U+ME=inequality” on a piece of scratch paper.
Today I’m a journalism major, and whenever I hear the word “calculus,” I feel like I’m going to have an aneurysm. Fortunately, though, I know there are children who do not yet feel this way about math, and who will be clamoring for those t-shirts and trophies this weekend.
Or at the least, clamoring to go home.
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