Thursday, April 22, 2010

Polly wants a mathematical solution

My primary and middle school years were spent in dread and avoidance of multiplication tables. I was always a good student and adored school, but I learn differently, and by that I mostly mean that I cannot blindly memorise. And unfortunately, that, together with fear tactics, seemed to be the educational technique of the day (and the way most workplaces function too). Me, I have to understand the basics of the subject and then my mind flowers open and the subject becomes interesting and effortless. Jargon and expectations of memorisation, on the other hand, just shut my mind down.

I understand this now, but back when I was a small spindly shy kid in braids and ponytails, every day began with a sense of terrifying apprehension - what if today the teacher asked me a surprise question and I wasn't able to answer? This is when I first became acquainted with tunnel vision. Thank goodness the only question I was ever asked was mercifully a simple one I knew the answer to, "what's 4 times 6?" or something. I still get confused between 24 and 32, but that day, I answered 24 and my self-esteem was spared.

This was my dirty little secret that often caused me short shallow quick breaths, a racing heart, and hot-cold flashes. I kept my shortcomings a secret - I never told my friends, teachers, or parents. How could I? My classmates would laugh at me, my teachers would mock me with shrill sarcasm in public, and my parents would I don't know what. Kids can be cruel; I had seen my classmates gang up on unlucky students and point fingers and laugh at them following the example of the teachers. As for my parents, I was growing up in Oman as an only child with my two elder siblings in college in India, and my parents always overwhelmed me. On the whole, I felt isolated and ashamed and terrified of my inabilities being discovered. What made it worse was how all the other kids around me were able to memorise and repeat things back like smug parrots, no problem.

Multiplication tables were terrifying because they were made into such a big threatening deal, as if your entire self-worth depended on it. And you couldn't escape - the teachers would publically test random students with surprise sums. "Shabana, stand up, what's 8 into 6?", "Sneha, what's 4 into 7?" If you couldn't answer, the teacher would zone in on you with all the svelte of a criminal interrogator, terrifying when you're small and the teacher is so much bigger and louder.

The looming threat of a surprise sum wasn't confined to school either. I was afraid of my parents, particularly my mom, who had designated herself the tables inspector. For years I avoided my mother when I could sense that she was about to spring a surprise sum on me. "Come here and tell me your 8 times table." I'd make some excuse and lock myself in the bathroom or fake a headache or stomachache until I felt my mother might've got busy and forgotten all about me. Summer vacations were no respite. I was constantly reminded sternly that I had the summer to master my tables. I was always able to avoid any confrontations, and now that I look back, I had got really good at it.

The numbers got higher every year. By the time I hit middle school, we were expected to be fluent in tables until at least 20. I had only been able to easily manage until 5, and after that, I knew parts of tables until 11 after which I had given up trying. 6 wasn't bad, 7 was okay until 5, 8 I hated, 9 was easy because it had a hidden pattern, 10 was a joke as was 11. I was a good student though, even at math, and I had developed my own tricks to breaking down large tables into its smaller components. And it worked - I realised I didn't have to memorise anything if I knew my basics really well.

I remained a good student, almost always in the top 5 of my class because I had made my own rules to learning. In the years since then in the real world, I've realised that superficial memorisation isn't confined to academia, and that jargon doesn't mean anything except that you really don't know much. The really smart people are the ones who have questions, not the ones who have memorised other people's second-hand answers.

Somewhere in time and space, a little girl called Khadija sits in a classroom in a grey uniform, but she doesn't feel nervous or guilty anymore.

No comments: