I suspect that the youth complaining about the uselessness of algebra are the same ones who, as cashiers, can’t count the correct change if their registers are down.
I also suspect that basic mathematical skills escape us if we don’t regularly use them.
A few years ago, I went to the fish market to buy $50 worth of clams* for a relative. She was unsure of the cost, but to me that was irrelevant – unless they were like $5 or something outrageous like that and then I’d leave them right in the showcase – because I already knew how much I had to spend.
“They might be $1 per clam,” she says, anyway, “I don’t know.”
I drive to the market, peruse the board for a price but don’t see one and ask the older co-owner how much for her clams.
She replies $3.75.
I’m thoroughly perplexed so I immediately whip out my iPhone to launch the calculator app. I plug in 50 divided by 3.75. I realize that’s not right because the 3.75 represents a dozen and likely answer choice “A” on a standardized test. I blink and stare at the 13 followed by repeating 3’s and wonder what the hell to do next.
I note this isn’t the first time in recent months that I’ve been confused on basic math concepts. Weeks earlier one of my trucker cousins was explaining to me one of the ways long-distance drivers can earn a living.
“So if the load pays six-fifty** on a hundred, that would be, what, about $2,600 on a 40,000 pound load, right?” he says.
“Mm hmm,” I say back. It’s all I can muster while I try to make sense of the 4 numbers he’s given me. But I’m not very convincing. My voice must’ve cracked a few octaves too high.
“You don’t get what I’m saying, do you?”
“Yeah, I do,” I reply.
But I don’t. At least not right away. The hell is a “six-fifty on a hundred” anyway? Trucker jargon? Yet I’m not admitting this to him since I was once known as the math whiz, not to mention I have a degree in finance and spent nearly 15 years managing a multi-million dollar sales revenue reconciliation process. Accurately, might I add, and without the 10-key or my phone’s calculator function. Forecasting was my forte. So part of me is slightly embarrassed because this question sounds fundamental as much as it’s rhetorical.
My cousin eventually launches into another topic, but my brain isn’t there yet. I hear him speaking but I’m not processing those words. Finally it clicks that “six-fifty” is $6.50. I try to back into the $2,600. Obviously it involves that 40,000.
Or a factor of it.
5 times 4, carry the 2.
He moves on to yet another topic.
6 times 4 plus the 2.
I offer a few “Mm hmms” here and there, where appropriate, just to make it sound like I’m listening.
But why am I only working with 400?
I scrunch up my face. Switch an “Mm hmm” to a “Yeah” because a real interactive conversation involves a variety of speech.
Ohhhhh! 40,000 divided by the 100! Duh.
I turn his monologue back into a dialogue.
I tell myself I’m really not dumb, although his dad asked me if I were slow after I failed the Praxis II exam for a second time. Admittedly my finance job ended nearly five years ago and I no longer have a reason to crunch numbers. I’ve grown mentally lazy. I barely calculate sale prices in my head or tips for a waitress – mainly because I’m no longer shopping or dining out. I’m just not exercising that part of my brain anymore, so it kinda explains why Praxis II is hard as shit. I’m rendered functionally innumerate.
Now I’m struggling with the clam situation.
I finally look up from my iPhone at the older woman at the fish market who’s closely watching me and patiently waiting for me to place my order.
“Can I get $50 worth of clams, please?” Then I pause. “Scratch that. Can I get almost $50 worth with enough left over for tax, please, because I only brought $50 with me?”
I essentially create a two-part real-life word problem with extra credit.
I watch her punch a few buttons on the cash register. She displays a little puzzlement.
“That’s going to be a lot of clams,” she responds.
“Oh,” I say, suppressing a smile. So she doesn’t quite know, either, or she thinks she miscalculated something because who in their right mind orders that many clams. “It’s for a family reunion," I explain.
She returns to the register. I discreetly pull the calculator app back up on my screen because this is ridiculous. It’s some common sense shit. So 10 dozen, or 120 clams, is $37.50. Bet. So I still got $12.50 to play with. It finally dawns on me to multiply that 13.333333 by 12.
“So do you want 150 clams?” the woman behind the showcase simultaneously asks.
When I return to the house, I help my relative carry the 12.5 dozens of clams to her back step.
Then I go inside and retrieve the Praxis II study guide that I was so eager to pack away. I’m on chapter 5: algebra review.
*After all of this, it turns out she only wanted 50 damn clams. Ultimately she would’ve bought $50 worth but she purchases them in 50-unit increments so she doesn’t have to open them all at once. I strained my poor brain for nothing.
**This is not the figure he used, but I know there are some folks whipping out calculators to figure out his paychecks as they read this. And no matter how badly some of us suck at math, we can always count somebody else’s coins like we’re bona fide mathematicians.