Monday, August 31, 2009

When Are We Ever Going to Use This?

by CiCi Barnes

Now that “Back to School” is well underway for Southerners, I reflect on my fellow teachers having to return to the classroom so early. Back in the day, we started after Labor Day, and still, in the South, it was too hot. I cranked up the air conditioner in my classroom and told my students who complained about the arctic freeze to bring a sweater or blanket. I would gladly keep it in my storage cabinet since I was obviously the only teacher who worked better in below zero temps.

I now sit by the pool in August sipping margaritas and contemplating what my former colleagues might say to their charges while melting during the first week of classes. My “Welcome Back” speech (with sound bites from the students and please keep in mind they were teenagers) went something like this:

“Welcome back. Isn’t it wonderful to sit in the nice air conditioning instead of slaving out in the hot sun?”

(Groan, mumble, #%*&$*#) (arms crossed; scowls on faces; desks rattling against each other as the students shiver)

“You will need a notebook and pencil. No pens. You can’t erase pens and believe me, you WILL need to erase.”

(Hand goes up) “They make erasable pens now. Can I use an erasable pen?”

“No. It doesn’t erase well enough. Pencils in math class.”

(Math books distributed immediately before they ask another question.)

“Now, open your books to page 1 and let’s begin.”

(Groan, mumble, #%*&$*#)(scowls on faces; desks rattling against each other as the students shiver)

(Hand goes up) “When are we ever going to use this?”

Ah, the one question I knew I would hear.

“Why, just yesterday, I was walking down the street, and lo and behold, there was an equation lying on the sidewalk waiting for me to solve it,” I said without blinking an eye. After 21 years in the biz, you have your answers lined up, because you already know the questions.

(Groan, mumble, #%*&$*#, a few snickers)

Not sure if they truly thought that was funny or if there was a suck-up in the class.

On and on and on . . . you get the picture.

Now, 10 years wiser and embarking on a new career of writing, I would have different answers in the queue.

(Hand goes up) “When are we ever going to use this?”

“You just never know.”

Here I am, a considerably mature woman – which, by the way we will discuss at length next month pertaining to mature heroines, so stay tuned – who has spent most of her life solving equations from simple algebra to complex trig and calculus. Now, I’m in the throes of a new career. I don’t need to know what x equals any longer; I need to know what a gerund is, what a dangling participle is, how to insert conflict into a simple idea, understand how to put hidden meaning into a sentence or even a word. Even how to enliven characters by describing their teeth, etc, as we learned last week.

I must admit I’m guilty of asking the ‘when are we ever going to use this’ question to my English teachers. I saw no need to read Beowulf in Gaelic. Actually, I saw no reason to read Beowulf at all. I didn’t need to know what some long-dead poet meant by his ramblings. It was all Greek to me and the only Greek I was interested in was Pythagoras. Now there was a guy I could get into.

But I have lived and learned that learning takes place all your life. Careers change. Just ask all those people who’ve been laid off from their jobs and are scrounging to learn other skills.

With my children out of the house, I have slightly more leisure time to watch the History Channel on occasion. Wow! The things those programs teach you about dead presidents, the galaxy, Nostrodamus, and ice-road truckers. I’m a proverbial walking encyclopedia. You remember those, don’t you? Books that college students used to hawk door-to-door to make money for tuition. I have two different sets in my study . . . collecting dust.

I now sit at my computer, cursing my days of letting the English lessons travel through my brain to some void in the great beyond, because I was ‘never going to use it’. I consult my thesaurus, my dictionary, my internet explorer and my English major friends for all the ins and outs of the English language and grammar.

I can prove to you that 2 = 1 using algebraic properties, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out where all the commas go.

So when do we use all that stuff they throw at us in school?

You just never know.

So learn. Learn for the fun of it. Learn to impress your friends and strangers. Learn so you can do a crossword puzzle without using a dictionary. Learn, so when you change jobs, you won’t have to start from scratch. Learn, so your teachers won’t come back to haunt you and say I told you so.

What have you learned and used that you never thought you would?


Cinthia Hamer said...

Ahh, what memories...except I was facing the teacher instead of being the teacher! I suppose if I'd actually understood algebra, I would recognize when I have a use for it. I suppose, though, it was fate that made me gravitate towards the written word rather than longing to figure out the mystery of "y".

Now, I shall go forth and draw--blood that is--until this afternoon.

Marilyn Baron said...

Math was my least favorite subject. I had no use for it then and since I make my living writing I never really needed it.

I liked English so that served me well. I wish I had paid more attention to the grammar lessons.

My husband and two daughters, on the other hand, love math and all three use their knowledge in their current professions. In fact, my husband's favorite advice to the girls was:

The Pythagorean theorem: Don't leave home without it.

One comment bout the encyclopedias gathering dust. I know we have the Internet now, but I go back to my encyclopedia volumes frequently to look things up, and use that information to develop ad campaigns, get background information, etc.

Great post.

Marilyn Baron

Sally Kilpatrick said...

CiCi--great post. I'm a big advocate of learning for the sake of learning. In fact, my very first day as a high school teacher was my most disillusioning. I sat at the kitchen table, and I couldn't stop repeating: "They don't want to learn. They don't want to learn." Once I got over the initial schock I settled into a routine to lead my little horses to the drink.

I'll start with algebra. I would impress my Spanish students at the end of each semester by putting up an equation to show them how to figure out what they needed to make on the final--never thought I'd do that. One of my favorites is the time I got th Quiz Bowl question about the president who had "lust in his heart" (your friend and mine, Jimmy Carter). It was all because my father made some obscure reference at the dinner table.

You had me at the go because I love to learn for the sake of learning--I'm right there with you.

Sandy Elzie said...


Good job! I really enjoyed this. Math, as in 'higher math' never interested me. Give me accounting where 1 always equals 1, debits equal credits and I'm happy.

I loved creative writing, but hated grammar, so I keep my dictionary handy.

What I learned is that there are opportunities all around us whereby we can learn, but we're usually too busy with the stuff of life to pay it much attention. Sad. (that includes the kids who have too many sports, too many gadgets to play with and too much freedom to call and text their friends...but that's another blog)


Debbie Kaufman said...

I'm always amazed at the way a basic understanding of geometry still helps in life. Whether it is understanding the shortest distance or how to cut the boards for a fence on a descending slope, it still comes in handy.

Maxine Davis said...

Enjoyed this so much!

When school started back, I could not wipe the smile off my face. No, I don't have children, and none in the neighborhood. Why am I smiling, I went to work for 30 + years, teaching and being an administrator and now I DON'T. It's like my Daddy said, "Every day is a Saturday or a Sunday."

What skill do I use? Why my keyboarding skills says the ole typing/computer teacher!

Now excuse me, I have to go type on my book, get another cup of coffee and check out the morning outside my window.

Have a great day, CiCi and Ladies!

Cyrano said... arch nemesis, the bane of my existence, my fatal flaw.
My math skills go no higher than third grade level. I know this because after my kids moved into fourth grade years ago, I was no longer able to help them with homework. Geesh, I shouldn't admit to that on such a public forum, but it's true. I can't even add simple numbers in my head without using my fingers.
I was the kid who loved history and science. Einstein and Ben Franklin were my heroes. I didn't enjoy math, nor did I embrace language arts, so I'm not only a terrible mathmetician, but I'm also sorely lacking in grammar skills. Woe is me.
But I do love telling a tale, making up stories and giving life to characters. It seems we writers share those traits at the very least. And I'm glad for that, because even though we have different strengths and weaknesses (I'm a terrible, terrible speller too. Did I spell weaknesses right?) we share the same ultimate goal, to tell a tale and see it published.
I may not use algebra on a regular basis (Um, actually, not at all) but hopefully one day I'll use some multiplication as I'm calculating my royalty checks. I believe that might also be a goal we writers share.
Your post, as always, was great. I enjoyed every word. And maybe, if I'd had a math teacher like you, I would have enjoyed your favorite subject too.
Have a lovely, productive Monday,

Tammy Schubert said...

Math has always made me scream and run in the other direction.

Maybe I'm dating myself, but I was in high school before computers were a "thing". During my freshman year of high school, we were required to take typing (on a typewriter). I never thought I would have much use for it since I had no desire to be a secretary. Well, I was SO WRONG!

My keyboarding skills are used every single day for my day job and my fiction writing. I have had several professions that include: programming, paralegal and technical writing. Mastery at the keyboard is essential.

If there is any class in high school that I would recommend to kids today, it is to take a keyboarding class or learn typeing with the new computer applications that are out. It is the one skill everyone should master.

Great post, CiCi.

ECSpurlock said...

Oh Cici, so true! I'm one of those people who loves to learn new things, but math was never my strong suit. I was an art major and ended up as an accidental double major in art/cultural history just because I was so fascinated with it I kept taking courses for fun!

I ended up as a professional needlework designer,and for ten years I used math all day every day to calculate design sizes on different counts of fabric, figure out how much fabric to cut for each project, determine which designs would fit on what products, calculate how many repeats of a pattern were needed to get the right length, and figure out how many beads I needed to put on my thread before starting to crochet a pattern (because you can't add more once you've started!) Who knew??

Now I'm in customer service and crunch numbers all day. I can't wait to get back home to my WIP just so I can think in words again!

On the upside, being a person who loves to learn new things makes doing research for a story fun. You never know when you will turn up some oddball piece of trivia that makes your story that much more interesting and quirky!

J Perry Stone said...

Wait a minute, wait a minute!!!

You were a MATH teacher????

I am stunned, CiCi. This a testament to your multi-dimensions.

I wish I had such a broad range, alas ...

But I had my answers for my hs students, as well. When they asked me when they'd ever need British Lit, I always said:

"If left to our own devices, we'd only stretch our brains in the areas we prefer. Consider this class stretching your brain in, what might be for you, foreign territory. You will become well-rounded, you'll be able to speak on range of subject, you might even discover a buried love of Romantic poetry. Besides, if you study hard, you'll kill in Double Jeopardy."

There is only one reason I'd ever go back to high school: to learn all the stuff I skimmed through.

CiCi Barnes said...

Sorry to hear you guys are such math-o-phobes. I should get you together one day and enlighten you on how much fun and how easy math can be (of course, not all of it).

Just be grateful there are some out there who love math. We wouldn't be online talking to each other right now if some whiz kid wasn't out there writing the programs to run the computers.

We would all be typing on those typewriters Tammy mentioned, isolated from the rest of the world. With not even a calculator to help us figure out our royalties, like Tamara wants to use.

By the way, Tammy, talk about dating oneself. Not only did I not have computers in high school, I didn't have calculators either. Never saw one until my last year of college and it would only add, subtract, multiply and divide. Oh, how far we have come.

Isn't it nice to know we have realized we need to keep learning. Sally, Sandy, Debbie and EC have all mentioned a way they use some form of math for recreation or jobs. And now, I use way more English (Eng. teachers probably cringing at that phrase) than I ever thought I would.

Learning is wasted on the young. They don't appreciate it at their ages.

Thanks, one and all, for commenting and letting us know what you've learned lately and how you use it.

CiCi Barnes said...

Yes, J. Sometimes I wish I could sit in on those classes again and soak up what I dismissed at the time.


Carol Burnside said...

Great post, CiCi.

I hope I never quit learning. I'm with Sandy - always liked the accounting side of things, but algebra was a trial to get through. I guess I learned more about grammar than I thought, because this writing gig is working out okay. :)

Research and learning something new about a subject I know little about is always fun. Another way I try to keep learning and stir up the gray matter is to do word puzzles and logic puzzles.

Tami Brothers said...

I LOVE math!!! I killed during Quantitative Methods (made a 99%). And I couldn't wait to sign up for my Calc class (even thought it was all voluntary).

Of course, I SUCK at English. Commas? We don't need no stinking commas....

Thanks Cici! This was totally fun to read and I never even thought about the wiz kids out there writing programs so we can communicate like this... Things that make you go hmmmm....

Have a good one!


Susan May said...

Math is not my favorite. In fact anything over the sixth grade is overrated. I just need enough to do my check book. I wish I'd gotten more out of grammar. I really need that now. English lit I have a minor for college, but you should have heard the professor complaining about my grammar! I try to learn something new everyday about any subject. I broadens my mind.

Linsey Lanier said...

Great post, CiCi, and a nice segway into next month's theme!

I studied a lot of things in college. Literature, Philosophy, Calculus. The subject I'm wishing I had majored in these days is psychology (which I have a lot of trouble spelling). I think it would make a better career choice for me than what I'm doing (if those jobs are still out there these days). But it would also help my character development (in my writing, I mean), LOL. Instead, I just have to rely on observation. Not a bad trade off. :)

And I agree with Tammy. Typing 60 wpm+ is a priceless skill to have!

"We don't need no stinking commas..."!!!! Hysterical, Tami!


Dianna Love said...

Great memories. I loved math and English, but then I loved learning. That's what saved me when I decided to start writing - the insatiable desire to learn something new.

May all the children be struck with that at some point in their life. However, I have to agree about Beowolf. "g"

LOL Tami - Wish we could convince copy editors we "don't need no stinking commas."

CiCi Barnes said...

Yea, Tami and Dianna. At least two responders who don't have a total dislike for such an important subject.

And Tami, that quote is a hoot. I feel the same way.

Lindsey, I agree about the psychology. I took one course in college and hated it, but wish now I had paid better attention when I'm fleshing out my characters.

Thanks to all of you for sharing what subjects and their intracacies you like and dislike. It's fun to know what side of the fence you're on.

I think it's a concensus that we all love learning, now that we don't have to sit in classrooms and get grades. (Well, at least, most of us. Some of you still bear that burden with your day jobs and families. A great big pat on the back for that endeavor!)

Have a great evening to everyone out there from all of us here at Petit Fours and Hot Tamales. Hope to see everyone back tomorrow for the kickoff to an exciting month of mature heroines.


Nicki Salcedo said...

I love math and science and poetry. History was always too depressing for me and the phrase history repeats itself didn't really ever warm me to the subject!

I am the worst with my comma usage. Too few or too many. It is like a math equation. Thanks for the great post.

Anna Steffl said...

Oh,what a great post and a super question, too.

I learned a bunch of bizarre stuff about the Elizabethan period that I mostly use to gross people out.

Really, I learned to play accordion and never thought I'd really use it. But, I get a couple uncool gigs a year. Maybe a Vegas retirement if I start practicing again.

Michelle said...

Don't kill me, Cici, but I never use any of the algebra I learned (and hated) but what I did learn that I use in sewing is fractions, measurements and geometry. I only wish I'd been taught math with some real world examples - I may have learned more! And I'm with you, I'm glad I'm not a teacher having to head back to the classroom in August and deal with all those teenage sweat glands!