The simple addition of 1 + 1 is the first math learned by children. Addition is followed by subtraction, division, and multiplication. The nuns at Our Lady of the Foothills believed in the power of rote education and each student was expected to memorize the math tables from 1 to 12. Fingers and toes aided the learning process. They were the only calculator available to students in the early 60s.
Progress was measured by perfection in reciting the math tables. Mistakes were rectified by a slap rap of the knuckles to the boys. The girls were threatened with harsh words. Kyla Rolla and I competed for top honors from 6th to 8th grades. I won a scholarship to an all-boys high school run by brothers. My score in the diocesan math contest was 2nd best. Kyla was # 1, but she refused her reward.
8 years of nuns were enough for her and she opted for the town high school. My request to attend the same school was rejected by my mother. She had hopes that I might be a priest. My father didn’t care either way as long as I received a good education. He was an electrical engineer for New England Tel & Tel and agreed with the United Negro College fund commercial that a mind was a terrible thing to waste.
My prowess in math seemed a fluke throughout high school. My grades in Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus were mediocre, but I surprised my teachers and parents with a high math mark in the SATs for college entrance. A Boston Catholic college granted me early acceptance as a math major. My classmates wore thick glasses. None of them played sports. I was cursed as a geek. Kyla Rolla knew better. She was the best cheerleader at the town school. We were going steady. To her I was never a geek.
Four years on top of six grammar school years had exhausted my tolerance for religious education. I had been an atheist since age 8. It was time to quit pretending to believe in God.
I didn’t feel ready for college and asked my mother to sign papers to join the Marines. I was a 17 year-old senior in April of 1970. She tore up my enlistment papers. Without her consent I was stuck in my hometown, which was even a worse fate than having to study math for the rest of my life.
If I wasn’t going to be a priest, she was determined that I would be Isaac Newton. He had discovered gravity under an apple tree and she baked a great apple pie. Everything in the universe was linked by synchronicity.
“You’re going to college.” Her edict was final. She chose the school. Kyla and I broke up after she heard about my next step into Catholic education. Her last words to me were ‘momma’s boy’. Who was I to deny my mother?
Not having a scholarship I supported myself as a taxi driver. My early Calculus classes started at 9. I finished driving at 2. There weren’t enough hours from the time I fell asleep till the alarm clock rang at 8am for a proper night’s rest. My grades suffered from the exhaustion and pot smoking. I scrapped through freshman year with Cs. I wasn’t so lucky in 1971.
My professor in Multivariable Algebra was a genius. The bald 45 year-old in a soiled suit calculated missile trajectories in his head. He had a permanent slouch from drawing formulae on a chalkboard. His shirt cuffs were covered with ink integers.
Air Force officers sat in his class. The young men in uniform were acolytes from Missile Command. They dreamed of nuclear war. I was a hippie peacenik. We had nothing in common other than a desire for the professor’s daughter. The skinny brunette was cute for an egghead. We smoked pot together. The soldiers had no chance, but neither did I.Renee was in love with the abstract. Her parents expected her to transfer to MIT. Both colleges were close to home.
That autumn I devoted more time to driving taxi and demonstrating against the war than classes. My grades suffered across the board. After mid-terms I attended one math class. It was a recipe for failure and I showed up at the final with no knowledge of Multi-Variable Algebra.
“Where have you been?” The professor was surprised to see me.
“I’ve been busy.” The soldiers snickered at my appearance. I had put in a double shift behind the wheel. My eyes were as red as deviled ham. “I thought you withdrew from the class.”
“Withdrew?” This was a new concept.
“Yes, when you feel to challenge by a course, you withdraw, but it’s a little too late for that. Have you even read the book?”
It had a blue cover.
“A few times this week.”
The professor motioned for me to to approach him.
“And you still want to take the test?” His voice was low. “I’ve seen your record. You’re failing German.”
“Ich weiss.” My stutter had trouble with umlauts.
“Why do you take such hard courses?”
“Ich weiss nichts.” I mostly did what people wanted me to do.
“I don’t know isn’t an answer.”
“I still want to take the test.”
“Why?”“To see if my reading the book three times was enough to score a passing grade.”
“That would be a miracle, because no one reads the book.”
“Why not?” It had a plot about the mist of mathematical mystery. The ending was meant to be clarity. I still saw the fog.
“Because it’s unreadable. Math is poetry. If you don’t hear a poet, you don’t hear the music.”
“Oh.” Bob Dylan was my first poet. GATES OF EDEN was on the flip side of LIKE A ROLLING STONE. Neither song had anything to do with math. “Let me take the test. I bet I can score a 50.”
“That’s still a failing grade.”
“But a miracle for someone who never came to class.”
“If you get a 50, I’ll give you a C+.”
“It’s a deal.” I took a test and blue book from the professor. His daughter smiled at me. The Air Force officers sneered at me, as if they had inside information on my draft status. My SSS # was 96. If I failed this course and German, I would get kicked out of school. Without a college exemption, the draft board had the right to induct me into the military.
Destination – Vietnam.
The exam lasted two hours. I answered every question from the shreds of my memory. I fabricated a formula proving the speed of light wasn’t an absolute in a universe of infinite possibilities. The bell rang to terminate the test and I handed my paper to the professor. His daughter and I walked into the corridor. Hundreds of students were filing from other classrooms.
“How you think you did?” Renee had a sweet voice. We had never kissed other than to shotgun a joint. She smelled of patchouli.
“As good as anyone who never attended class.” I hoped my formula would save me from expulsion. Christmas was around the corner and while I didn’t believe in God, I always maintained a place in my heart for Santa Claus. “What about smoking some weed.”
“All my tests are done.” Renee shrugged with satisfaction. She was a straight A student.
We left the college and boarded the trolly at Chestnut Hill. We got off in front of Concannon and Sennett. The bar had pinball, Mexican food, quarter beers, and a painting of a naked woman riding a pink elephant. Most of my friends were celebrating the end of exams. I drank with Renee. She didn’t comment about my expression. I felt like I had buried my puppy.
“Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
“Yes, tomorrow is another day.” I ordered two more beers.
After seven there was no more tomorrow, until I woke up in Renee’s bed. The covers were soft. Snow was falling outside the window. A cold draft was seeping through a gap. We were two warm bodies, but neither of us shouldn’t have been naked.
I remembered her saying something about living with her parents. Teddy bears were lined against the wall. Posters of the Jefferson Airplane were nailed to the wall. This was no dorm. It was the professor’s house. I poked Renee’s arm.
“What?” She snuggled into me with a feline purr.
“Are we at your parents’ house?”
“Yes, but they’re cool with me having friends over.” Her breasts were soft as marshmallow.
“Are they downstairs?”
“My mother will make you breakfast if you want.”
“That’s very cool, but I’m not that cool.” I slipped out of bed and picked up my clothing. “Would you mind if I left by the window.”
“It’s the second floor.”
“I was a long-jumper in high school.” 19 feet 3 inches was my personal best, but that leap was horizontal and not a dead drop from 15 feet. “I’ll call you later. We can meet at Concannon’s. This time we go to my place.”
“Do what you want?” She was happy either way and I jumped from the window into the branches of a pine. They slowed my descent and I stuck the ground with my feet. I tasted copper in my teeth like someone had bastinadoed my toes.
“They are all are if you can walk away from them.” I struggled to not limp through the snow. I ducked under the kitchen window. The professor was speaking with his wife. He yelled for Renee. I ran into the woods and caught a taxi to my cold-water apartment in Bug Village. There was no passing that exam or German. I was heading to boot camp.
Results for the exam were posted a week before Christmas. Somehow I had passed German with a C+. The professor like my cosmic take on Kafka’s DAS URTEIL. Cockroaches was a secret word for Nazi.
Renee and I approached the professor’s office. The test results of Multivariable Algebra were tacked to a corkboard. Renee squeezed my hand. Her score was at the top of the list. Mine was at the bottom.
15 was a long way from 50.
“Talk to my father.” She knocked on the door. “I never said anything about us. I’ll see you at your place.”
She kissed me on the cheek. I was getting used to patchouli. The professor said, “Enter.”
I pushed open the door and he looked up from a pile of official papers. Each was marked TOP-SECRET. Renee’s father covered them with a book on Experimental Dimensionalsm. I would not be reading it in Vietnam.
“I just wanted to thank you for letting me take that test.”
“Proved that I don’t belong in Math or college.”
“You’re right about the first, but not the second. Your treatise of Einstein not taking into account hod rod speeders was very amusing as well as the premise that the speed of light only pertains to the speed of light.”
“Infinity opens up the highway.”
“If I gave you a passing grade in this course, would you drop your Math major?”
“In a heartbeat.” I shook his hand with elation pounding through my heart. Vietnam was on the other side of the world. Renee was waiting at my apartment. We wouldn’t last the Christmas break. She was into me for the holidays. Next semester she transferred to MIT. I majored in economics and minored in history. My grades improved, but not enough to graduate with honors.
1972 was the end of my math career and I haven’t opened a math book since then, although I have learned that western man didn’t come up with the concept of zero until well into the Second Millennium, while the Mayans always had zero or Pohp for their 20-based numeral system.
Still I don’t have to use my fingers for long math and neither does man’s best friend.
“If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Fido only two of them.” Phil Pastoret.
Arf Arf Arf equals three, especially when 1 + 1 = 2.
it’s just simple math.