Monday, February 23, 2009


I had a dream about learning math a few weeks ago. I don't recall the details, but when I woke up, I started thinking about my real memories of learning math in school.

When I started Grade 1, 45 years ago, in the fall of 1964, I remember the teacher giving us sets of coloured sticks. I don't know what the technical name was for them, so I'll call them math sticks. They were all different lengths and they were numbered. The smallest ones were an inch long, all numbered one and were the same colour. The next longest were two inches long, all numbered two and were a different colour. Each length had it's own colour and number. The sticks were about 1/4" wide on each of the four sides. There were ten sizes in all. I don't remember what numbers were matched with what colours, but I did find a graph picture on line that I added numbers to so that it would give you a better idea of what I'm talking about.
We were encouraged to play with the sticks and see what combinations we could find that would match up to the length of other sticks. How many red sticks would it take to make a brown one? If you put a white, red and lime end to end would you have a yellow, green or black?

This was a fun way to play and learn at the same time. I had learned my colours and could do some counting before I started school, so this made sense to me. It was pure logic for me.

Math was always my favourite subject when I was in school. It just came easily to me. I always found it odd that some of the kids just didn't get it, no matter how simply it was explained.

The concepts of adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing and even fractions came easily. I remember finishing a 5 question math test very quickly in Grade 2 and taking my workbook up to the teachers desk to turn it in for marking. She wouldn't let me turn it in, as she didn't think I could have done them that quickly and gotten them right. She made me go back to my desk and reread them all. I did, but I knew they were all correct, so I just sat there until she let me turn it in about 5 minutes later. She was quite surprised to see that I had indeed gotten them all right and hadn't done any erasing.

When I was about 7 or 8, I remember going to a local store and the owner giving me the wrong change back. I don't think it was deliberate. I tried to tell him that he was wrong, but he wouldn't listen. I knew I was right and I was frustrated to the point of tears. I went out to the car and told mom. Mom went back in with me and had me show him how I could count change. He checked his money drawer and realized that he actually did owe me a few cents more. He apologized and was always very careful about counting change around me after that!

As I grew older, some of the algebra type questions were a bit harder but they could be solved with a little thought and concentration. In senior high we did a section on log rhythms and that was hard. It was the only time I really struggled with math. I only had to deal with that for a few weeks though, as I was taking a general math course and accounting. Lucky for me, I wasn't taking a university math course or I would have been in real trouble!

In high school, there were awards at the end of the year for the highest overall marks in each course. In Grade 10, I was third for Math 101. The girl who won left at the end of that year and I got second for the Math 201 in Grade 11. The guy who won it that year, had been second the year before. He would have won it in Grade 12, but was away for a couple of weeks helping his dad with harvest, so missed the section on income tax. That brought his overall grade down, allowing me to win the Math 301 trophy and a $50.00 scholarship. He never let me forget that he went on to become an accountant and I was only an assistant cook!

We never used calculators, except in accounting class - and then it was only for the more complicated questions. We were expected to be able to add long numbers and columns in our heads quickly.

A few years after high school, I did work as a junior clerk for an insurance company for a few months and had to learn to use a calculator. It wasn't easy, but I did get the hang of it. It was faster than adding in my head and as long as I entered the right info, it was accurate. Using the calculator came in very handy in several other positions over the years.

I slowly started to use the calculator for personal use - especially if my check book was out by even a penny! I want - no make that need to know where that penny went! When I shopped I used my brain to figure out which size and brand had the best value for my money. I generally knew within a dollar, how much my total would be at the checkout.

I still use my brain for calculating in the store, but I rely on a calculator for most of my other math needs. Like so many other things in life, my math skills have decreased immensely as I have aged. Whether I'm in a store or adjusting the measurements for a recipe, I have to stop and concentrate a little more to calculate the correct amount. The calculator is never far from reach.

I wonder if I should get myself a set of math sticks.....


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