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           Volume 10 |Issue 09| March 04, 2011 |

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The Joy of Hating Math

Parvez Khan

It wasn't that I didn't focus hard. Hour after hour, I would slog through numerical figures, concepts of variance, circumference, and triangles. But the outcome of my high school math exams would always match the previous ones. A few times, I had the singular distinction of scoring infinite zeros.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Sometimes I would wonder if I had a learning disability. Mercifully, my performance in other subjects didn't confirm such likelihood. As my secondary school exams neared, the anxiety I put my entire family through was palpable. The prospect of a repeat performance of my flunking in math, and the mortification associated with it, suddenly seemed so real.

Three months before the exams, my tutors changed their strategy. They concluded that it wasn't even worth trying the usual methods they applied on other students. Their prescription for me was that I should memorise a few sums, algebras, and even geometry in question-and-answer format. Were luck not to betray me, I could hope that by some magic the question setters would include a few of these, or something similar, that I would be able to solve. It was a gamble, perhaps a stupid one too. But hey, I just needed to score the bare minimum. Besides, did I have any other options?

The memorisation exercise was dull, gruelling, and odious. But when I was handed down the questionnaire on the frightful day, I discovered to my sheer amazement that I would be able to solve a few problems which I had committed to my memory. In silence, I profusely thanked those who had set the questions. They were so considerate that they repeated a few ditto from previous years! As I came out of the exam hall, I told my anxious brother that I would get about forty eight out of hundred. He didn't seem to be reassured. Later on the day, after a repeat of the entire exam, my tutor was convinced that my self-assessment was about right. The next thing I did was silly but to my heart's content–a bonfire of math exercise books! Call it vengeance.

I scored exactly what I had predicted, and averted a great disaster. I was just lucky. But why was math such a hurdle for me? I think now I know why. My heart was somewhere else. I was smitten. I was in love with the huge collection of books that my brothers had. Shelley, Byron, and Whitman dazzled me. I was amazed how William Carlos Williams' style influenced Amiya Chakravarty. Tarasankar Bandyopadhya's Panchagram, Gajendra Kumar Mitra's Poush Faguner Pala, Samaresh Basu's Amrita Kumbher Sandhane under his nom de plume Kalkut, and Thomas Hardy were simply fascinating. As I read Arnold Toynbee, I realised that history often repeats itself, and we don't always learn from history. Somehow it also dawned on me that life is not mathematical calculations, and logic often falters in reality. The upshot was diminished focus in math and greater interest in liberal arts. That was precisely why I was so miserable in math.

Sometimes I do wonder, however, what would happen if I had gotten better grades in math. As the trend was, and perhaps continues to be, my most likely destination would have been either a medical or an engineering school. By now, I would have been probably an engineer heading the water and sanitation department in a district town in Bangladesh, or a doctor with crazy hours making good money. There is nothing wrong with that. But it didn't happen to me, and it was, to use a cliché, a blessing in disguise. I had a family that understood my limitations and recognised my strengths. With its full support, I studied literature and history and ended up becoming an international civil servant. Instead of inspecting sanitation projects or writing prescriptions, I see efforts to bring about peace in a volatile world. It is complex, highly demanding, and yet so exciting. And all for my immense ability to flunk in math!

I now encourage others to let their children have the 'freedom of choice' to study what they want to at school, or what they want to be when they grow up. It's their life; let them have it their own way. We can't demand them to be like so and so, which we ourselves most likely have failed to be, but as long as they put up their best, it's just fine. Meanwhile, let me confess, I continue to be mathematically challenged. I have gladly conceded long ago that simple calculations, even in my pay slips, are beyond my comprehension.

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