Angry about algebra

I have noticed that some people are angry about algebra; it is very serious. Such feelings about algebra are not commensurate with feelings about a computer crashing and being out of order for a day. Such feelings about algebra are not similar to feelings about getting soaked by a heavy rain shower because the weather forecast was wrong. And such feelings about algebra are not congruent with the feelings of inadequacy of the first evictee of the Big Brother House. It is a state of being angry, furious and wrathfully incensed.

Consider the character Thomas Penman created by author Bruce Robinson in ‘The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman’ (1998). This is what Bruce Robinson placed in the experience, mind and emotion of Thomas Penman.

“He shoved his eyes back at the blackboard and had another look at m. What was m? What relationship did it bear to n? How could anyone ever get hold of n when they were clueless about x over b and never heard of fucking m? In certain areas nibs were scratching. How did the others know what it meant? Maybe they didn’t. Either way he couldn’t get a grip on this kind of stuff. Whose fault was that? He’d been sitting here years and nobody told him nothing. He wrote w and blew it out, fuck it, that might be right.

“Twenty minutes past three on the clock. G.P. Norris, maths and music, slumped under it, bored beyond endurance. He was a stale little twot with too many pens, lived with his mother on the western promenade and got there on a motor bike with a side-car that he occasionally took her out in. It was an unfulfilling sort of life. Out of hope. Like a used match put back in the box…”

(Robinson, 1998, page 8)

I love that line, “He’d been sitting here years and nobody told him nothing. He wrote w and blew it out, fuck it, that might be right.” I know Thomas Penman. I have been Thomas Penman a few times myself. I have never quite been angry so I have never quite sworn as I ‘blew it out‘. But faced with final examinations, a deficit of reasoning and a shortage of time I have taken a punt without rigour. But even as I write this, I can hear someone in my imagination gasping with dismay. Surely not! Well, surely so, it would be foolish to stick to rigour on the boundary between grades; one must be a gambler. Of course, such an admission cannot be made by someone of my standing lest s/he be publicly ridiculed or pilloried as a fraud. Oh well, no point worrying about that now.

But how angry Bruce Robinson is; either for himself or on behalf of someone else. Following the courageous moment of anger with algebra when his hero throws caution to the wind, he depicts his hero’s nemesis, ‘Like a used match put back in the box…‘ I love that line too. It is a devastating image of sadness and daily desperation. Does it make someone feel better to imagine mathematics (and music) teachers in this way? Does this bitterness vent the rage? I am thinking the answer is probably ‘yes‘ but surely we are at the root of a problem. This is a perennial narrative: our hero is angry about algebra and a sad fool who hates teaching cannot help. This story will not help us solve the teacher retention crisis. Of course, some might say the teacher retention crisis did not exist in 1998 but I think it did. There are few teaching now who were teaching then.


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