The Secret Math Society

Algebra

I have and will probably continue to consistently struggle to find the words to describe my math teacher.  His time between classes is spent staring out the makeshift windows of the small, cramped space in the long forgotten rooms of the former bomb shelter that is called my math classroom.  He’s always humming a tune.  If it’s snowing outside he’s usually muttering some sort of rendition of “Linus and Lucy,” a song that I occasionally play on the old ragtime piano located two rooms down the hall just to confuse him.  He’s not a difficult man to confuse.  Some students simply sit down at the wrong desk and that is enough to set the wheels of his brain in motion.  The man likes order, in fact he’s obsessive-compulsive about it.  If you’re sitting in the wrong desk he has no problem pointing out that fact until you move.  Somehow the trains always run on time though.

Class starts before class, that’s the rule.  His mind begins in one world and winds up in another by the time class is finished.  This is understandable, at least to me, because of the temperature in the room.  Most old people turn up the thermostat and dress in as many layers of clothing as they’re physically able to put on.  He wears at least three layers of clothing to class each day.  I’m convinced that one day I’ll be walking back to my car and there he’ll be just kind of waddling across the parking lot between the math building and the gargantuan fortress that houses the new faculty offices and he’ll be dressed like an eskimo complete with snow shoes, parka, and one of those big Russian hats.  He wears boots that come all the way up to the knee, which most students don’t see because of the awkward configuration of the classroom.  At the very front of the room is a dry-erase board and in front of that is a desk that keeps almost everything from the waist down out of view. I’m fine with that, but I always wonder how he manages to get from one side of the board to the other since he moves so incredibly slowly.  Occasionally if he thinks someone is watching him he’ll duck down under the desk mid-lecture.  It’s odd and rather disorienting for many in the class because no one seems to know what he’s doing or why.  That’s how the secret math society got started however.

The secret math society was brought up in a Monday class that saw him hide underneath the desk no fewer than three times in the course of fifty minutes.  I wish I could say that that sort of behavior was unusual, but it’s not.  What, if any, impact this serial ducking and hiding had on the secret math society has yet to be explained.  According to popular lore the secret math society is apparently modeled after some shadow organization that he was a part of during World War Two.  This secret society involves some sort of hand motions and sign language, none of which were particularly clear to anyone involved.  Adding to the confusion was his insistence on referring to certain things in German, the purpose for doing so remains unknown.  As one young scholar behind me remarked: “everyone who knows the meaning of anything this guy does is probably either missing or dead.  These words were not particularly comforting to anyone in the class.

Of course, all of this eventually turns into a story about baseball.  The signs he was making began to look like signs that a base coach uses to communicate with a batter and a runner.  If the situation arises where he can explain something using baseball he rarely passes up the chance even if it involves hypothetical situations that would violate the rules of baseball but apparently not the rules of math.  For instance, he’ll bring up an example of someone hitting five consecutive times, but it doesn’t seem to matter if this person ever gets a hit, strikes out or hits a home run.  The game keeps going despite the fact that according to his story it seems like there is no real game going on.  That’s how math rules though.  One minute you can be doing something that makes complete sense and the next you can be off on a tangent accountable to no one except some long forgotten equation that only exists within the limits of certain characters found in forgotten areas of computer keyboards.  Equally perplexing as the secret math society is my math teacher’s wanton nature of re-enacting sound effects that he hears and maneuvering around the class while making subsequent sounds while displaying a complete lack of awareness as to anything else going on around him.  It’s like one minute he’s paying incredibly close attention to everything going on around him and the next minute he couldn’t care less.

Nothing in the wide world of mathematics will ever be quite as perplexing as the maneuvers he engages in when he thinks someone is watching him however.  It always struck me as rather perfunctory that he dove under the desk during class.  He performed this function so quickly and with such great alacrity that one can’t help but think that if elderly drivers moved their vehicles as quickly as he could duck behind a desk then no one would ever be late for anything in their life.  It never struck me as out of the ordinary for him to be doing things that didn’t make any sense because he was, after all a math teacher, nothing these people do makes any sense.  Someone once told me that the reason I had such a big problem with math was because I kept asking: “why?”  Apparently math doesn’t need things like reasons for doing things because it doesn’t actually need to solve any of it’s own problems it just asks all of the poor students around the world to solve it’s problems for it.

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