Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
I never learn how to solve proofs.
First hour geometry freshman year of high school is taught by a middle-aged man whose wardrobe consists of thin-wire glasses, baggy khaki slacks, Hawaiian shirts, and a thermos in his right hand. The first day of school, he gathers us around a table near the front whiteboard and teaches us a gambling game that is impossible to win.
Each day, he spends most of fifty-three minutes making jokes—
What does a dyslexic insomniac atheist do at night?
Stay up, pondering the existence of dog.
—and discussing the radio club he facilitates after school. We sit, our textbooks and lined sheets of homework untouched in the backpacks by our feet.
“Can you show us how to solve problem three?” someone asks one day.
Radio Man’s shoulders drop and his head hangs back like an exasperated five-year-old being told to clean his room before going outside. “Come on, man,” he says. “Don’t change the subject.”
Near the end of the hour, he writes the solutions to tomorrow’s test’s proofs on the board. I am not the only one who hastily copies the answers into the whitespace of my homework. At this point, we only recognize one geometric definition: If we do not want to take Radio Man’s class again, then we must learn how to pass somehow.
That night, I try to understand. I mostly memorize.
Radio Man’s grading system is impossible to decipher. He returns our tests with a series of slashes and blank spaces. I get two slashes for each proof I recall correctly, one for a few correct lines, and a gaping blank space for the story problem on the last page about the distance between A and B and C and how high is the kite?
pretty damn high
I was in first grade when my sister scribbled an equation on a piece of paper, rearranging the simple 1 + 1 = 2 problems I was solving, and demonstrating that numbers could be letters: 1 + 1 = X, or 1 + X = 2. I was furious. Now, I understand that Radio Man might also be furious. He lets it slide but writes on the bottom of my test that “math isn’t a matter of opinion.” It can be proven through reason.
If dog is real, then you shouldn’t write cuss words on your math test.
The universe can be proven, too, I suppose. The sun is 92.96 million miles away from earth. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum. There are roughly 120 million rods and 6 million cones in the human eye in which to see the colors, shapes, lines, and bruises reflected in that light.
Google gave me those answers.
I’m just going to believe them.
There must be thousands of reasons supporting each step in the equations to those numbers, but I’m not trying to pass Radio Man’s class anymore, and it’s not the correctness of the numbers that matters to me anyway. If the sun is 92.959 million miles away from earth, rather than 92.96, then that’s still pretty damn far, and there are still millions and billions of remarkable phenomena involved in the precise positions of the earth and star that sustain life.
“The charm,” Lewis Carroll writes about math in Alice in Wonderland, “lies chiefly in the absolute certainty of its results; for that is what, beyond all mental treasures, the human intellect craves for. Let us be sure of something! More light, more light!”
Isn’t there a certain bit of wonder involved in math when it’s stripped down? Even when solving proofs, the first line is given. A postulate. A fact assumed to be true in the beginning.
First comes belief. At the very least, a question: