Thursday, March 27, 2008

When Did I Start To Care About Math?...

One of the lead characters in the Fame-homage independent musical Camp reveals mid-way through the film that he is not the so-called Golden Boy everyone assumes him to be; he has a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which he counts the letters whenever someone else speaks. Instead of focusing on what the person is saying, he adds the numbers in each word and then each sentence continuously until he gets to a prime number. Then he starts all over again. There is no logic to a disease like that; it’s just a switch in the brain that is flicked on when it really shouldn’t be in order to allow the person to function normally. But the more I thought about his predicament, the more I realized that his obsession with numbers is not nearly as uncommon as it at first seemed. In fact, our society is set up in that way: we are defined by the numbers in our lives.

When I was in sixth grade, my Social Studies teacher gave me an 88% on my first quarter report card. When my mother went up to Parent-Teacher conferences to talk with him about why, he could only offer that he knew I was smart but wanted to motivate me to work a little harder. All of my friends received something in the mid-ninety range. When my mother returned home and repeated what he said, I just shrugged it off because I thought an 88% was a perfectly acceptable grade, and I wasn’t willing to give into the pressure to constantly be compared to the rest of them. The truth was, if I was getting an 88% without having to study at all, I was more than happy to continue down that path. It wasn’t that I didn’t have motivation; I just didn’t have it about Social Studies (or science, or math, or foreign language… but that’s not really the point).

It would have been really easy-- as a young girl who was still growing and maturing and learning from example-- to start obsessing over that number and let it determine my worth. I was certainly being compared to enough of my peers just based on it alone. And sure, that day the number merely reflected a grade in a class that ultimately would have no bearing on my future, but it just as easily could have been something more serious. In a society that boasts its addictions, it is especially tough as a young girl to know where and when (and how) to draw the line. After all (as an entirely wretched article in this month's Allure explores), girls are pit against each other as competition and told to pay strict attention to everything from the number on the scale (and then the number of calories we put in our mouths on a daily basis to affect the number on that scale) to the numbers in our bank account to the number of kids we want to have (which often times is dependent on the number in our bank account). It's a freakin' vicious cycle.

Math is a universal language, and though that can be beautiful (as my pal Damian would say), it can clearly serve to divide as much as it tries to unite. Maybe this is specific to the cattiness of teenage girls (but seeing as how that’s what I had to deal with growing up, it’s the only frame of reference I have), but our self-esteem always seems to be in battle with others.' So forget sticks, stones, or words; perhaps in the wrong hands, numbers can be a person’s greatest weapon.

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