Saturday, May 19, 2012


There once was a teacher in my local school district, WAAAY back in the 1970’s. Mathematics education in the 1970’s, in my opinion, was, well… just sucked. I went to an awful school district. The older I get, the more I realize just how bad it was. I will not state the name of that district, but just fill in the blank. L A B R A __. If somebody reading this is associated with this anonymous school district, take no offense. Perhaps it is now superb, but the L A B R A __ of my late 1970’s years was not only impotent, but often damaging to kids. I had a math teacher named Mr. Merolla, who could be placed in the hall of fame for bad public school teachers, only to be rivaled by two other characters from the same school district, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Fulton (who was an expert at destroying the fragile self-esteem of children). Mr. McConnell once choked me in gym class and told everybody he never liked me. So, anyway, I had Mr. Merolla for my pre-algebra class in Jr. High. I hated math at that time. Why? Because I loved history and stories. They excited my imagination. Why should I do something so boring as math, which literally had nothing to do with my world, when I could read about people in history, who lived exciting, adventurous lives? At least, that is how I thought. But now, I realize why class was a mild form of torture for me. First, the textbooks were terrible. Rather than teach what math IS, and then learning the mechanics of how to achieve an answer, we ONLY learned the mechanics. What IS a square root? Heck, I didn’t even know it was appropriate to ask such a question. I was only told to memorize some rote process. What really befuddled me was the fact that some nerd in my class, with thick glasses, loved doing this stuff. Anyway, the second reason algebra class was akin to having my nasal hairs plucked, one by one, is this: Mr. Merolla LOVED to humiliate kids, and then cease to help them so he could have the savory experience of giving them an F. Then, as a final blow, he would tell them how stupid they are. Do you think I am exaggerating? No, I could not understand algebra one day, and he literally said to me, loudly so the class could hear, that I was “too dumb to learn algebra” and I would never be able to learn math (Oddly, I took college math courses and got A’s, realizing I liked it, when I finally discovered, on my own, that math can be fascinating when you concentrate on concepts and application). At the time, however, it hurt me and I decided, “I HATE math.” Done. I just wanted to get that off my chest, and perhaps any of you reading this who have been victimized by teachers, like I was by that pompous little man in Jr. High, can relate. So, this article is about vectors. Vectors are a basic mathematical concept. A vector is simply a mathematical object that have value and direction. A train has velocity. It has mass and speed, and it proceeds in a precise, narrow direction. Voila: a vector force. My son, Grant, beats people up as a hobby. He is an ultimate fighter. He is an accomplished boxer and when he punches someone, that guy's pain is the result of a vector force. Why vectors? Because my wife and I went scuba diving in Puerto Rico. Here is what I mean: When swimming underwater there is, of course, a certain buoyancy. My first lesson when scuba diving was to stop trying to do the breaststroke underwater (I must have looked like an idiot). The instructor indicated I needed to extend my arms forward like Superman, while kicking with my feet. The vector forces of the water would keep me in place. Think about thousands of little arrows, pointed at me from all sides. Pressure pushed on me from above, below, my sides, and everywhere else. These kept me comfortably in place (although our ears started popping). Our atmosphere, again, is comprised of vector forces. Here is a truly fascinating observation, if you will just stop and really contemplate it: Scientific axioms, and mathematic principles in particular, can have a profound impact on the non-scientific world around us…on human relationships. They really do, and I could literally write an entire volume on this (and maybe someone already has). I will not go on a tangent about all that, but I will make an observation about vector forces. A vector is a mathematical object that has value and direction…..LIKE PEOPLE. We all have value. We are worth something. We matter. When a given mathematical VALUE is inputted into any mathematical OPERATION, it always changes the result. Even a zero (nil, nothing, nada), profoundly impacts a mathematical result. So too with people…even those poor souls who think they are nothing, who don’t want to live a day longer, who are without hope, who think nobody cares for them, who live on a filthy sidewalk asking for change….they change the world in their own little, yet unique, way. If they were to suddenly exit the world, the world would instantly change. They matter! Tragically, they just don’t know it. Even when they think they are a “zero”, their existence changes the equation of their immediate world. So yes, like a vector in math, people have value….but they also have direction (the other half of the definition). Everybody, whether they like it or not, is heading a certain direction in their lives. Force, energy….these are finite. They are not unlimited. So, it is important to direct one’s force in a specified direction for maximum impact. For example, if my son Grant were to go into a cage fight, close his eyes, and wildly flail his arms like a girl (sorry girls, I just wrote this for affect)…well, if Grant were to do that, he would have little effect, dissipate his energy, and ultimately collapse like a star that burns out. The result for him would be painful. The lesson: Take the finite energy and skill you possess (we ALL have a skill or gift), and direct your value with PRECISION. Like a well-trained boxer who can deliver precise blows, for maximum effect with maximum conservation of energy, affect your world with precision. Find out what you really want to affect in this world, in your limited time here, and direct yourself toward it. Take it from me. I am a bit of a hypocrite on this count, as I spent many years of my life directing my energies in many directions. I still do to some extent, as that is my basic nature. But, a few years ago, I followed the wise example of my other son, Joel. He wrote a list of what he wants to accomplish in this world, and I did the same thing. I prioritized them. In fact, even more importantly, I have a 3 page inscription in the front of my Bible. I literally am having it written into my will that it will be read during a memorial service after my death, so it can benefit those listening (which it will). It is very personal, but it concerns the areas to which I am directing my life energies…my vector forces, if you will. Perhaps you, too, would benefit from doing this. Just sayin. One last word to my Jr. High math teacher…”The joke is on you. Like the old saying, I “took lemons and made lemonade”, I found out from him, how to NOT treat a young person, but rather to mentor him or her. I learned there are tremendous repercussions for the seed we sow in the spirits of other people…good AND bad. But, I learned another lesson that gives me great satisfaction: I LIKE math! Ha, so there. I like it because I discovered it is simply the study of fascinating concepts about the world God made. Yeah…I like math and I am GOOD at it. Mr. Merolla tried to convince some of us that we were dumb, but in fact he was too dumb to see how smart we were. I like math and I AM GOOD AT IT. Put that in your pipes and smoke it, arrogant teachers, and everybody reading this is good at something too.