For the third day in a row, our college algebra teacher drones on about the functions of a graphing calculator. He hesitates as he moves from step to step, as if any of us are paying careful attention to the dozens of ways to solve for the invaluable solution of ‘x’, using a machine that will become foreign the second we are leave his classroom. He ignores the student crying in the back of the room, whose boyfriend had just threatened to put her six feet under if she tells the counselor about his drug problem. He sharply reprimands the girl who is hunched over on her desk, phone in hand, trying to get light-speed information from her seven-year-old brother about why her mom had been arrested again. He silences the boy who is trying to explain to his friend that he needed to stay at his place for another week, until he felt safe enough to return home to face the wrath of his father. A man who had just found out his son was gay, and was ready to slug him in the face for the fortieth time that year.
He does not notice the ways we are breaking. Instead, he tells us that we will need math to pay our bills, discounting the kids whose parents work three jobs just to put food on the table in a house with no electricity. He tells us about how linear values will matter when we do tasks in the name of home improvement, as if the child whose window had broken due to misfired bullets from a drive-by across the street didn’t already know how destructive a straight line could be. He teaches us about decimals to calculate tax on products we would purchase in the future; money that went towards the welfare that so many kids in that classroom desperately relied on for security. He told us that, someday, the math we treated as a curse would matter to us. I didn’t bother telling him that, for many of my peers, it already did. In more ways than failing a test that the fourteen-year-old who worked too many jobs had time to study for.
Mathematical formulas, scientific equations, research-essay writing skills, and cartoonish historical documentaries were drilled into our brains through every stage of our education, as if those surface-level subjects were meant to be the sole supports of our varied futures. School did — and continues to – neglect to consider the measure of our humanity; the lives beneath the rosters, grades, and attendance sheets. They forget to factor in our own histories; they leave out the reality of the scientifically created chemicals found in the drugs that some of my fellow students’ parents have become too dependent on to focus love onto them. They don’t recognize that the most truthful essays some of us will ever write in our lives required no research, as they will be those for colleges we know we can’t afford, asking us: “what was your greatest hardship in life, and how did you overcome it?”
I can tell you this without a doubt: no child would answer that prompt with “trying to pass algebra.” Not simply because it is the least of our problems, but because of the falsehood of its “real-life application” that they preach. There is no reality found in the numbers we are meant to treat as keepsakes, carrying them from year to year, until we are far enough beyond the required years of school to drop them from our memories. We begin to lose math’s presence now, beyond our low-budget grocery lists and the unpaid parking tickets in the vans that are passing as houses for my peers. We have more important things to do than study information we will never have a need to revisit; our education system has begun to feel like the blatantly wrong answer each time that life tests us.
To be able to solve a word problem about the number of peaches Bill has in his pantry will not put food on the table of the kid who steals breakfast from the lunch line when the teachers aren’t looking.
To understand the practical applications of long division will not give substance to the child who continues to divide his empty pantry by his empty stomach, and get zero means of survival.
To know how to calculate the distance Plane A takes to get to Airport B will not demonstrate linearity to the child whose family has flown in and out of their lives since before they were old enough to speak.
To find ‘x’ will not help the boy who will go home to search for his runaway sister on the streets of his neighborhood until the sun sets.
To learn algebra will not support the students who already feel as if they are being failed by the circumstances of their present; let down by the problems in their lives which seem to be unsolvable.
For the third day in a row, our college algebra teacher drones on about the functions of a graphing calculator. For the third day in a row, no solution is in sight.